Tag Archives: Society

Missing the Point of the Occupy Protests

Fuck the 99%, this dude speaks for EVERYONE

With the threat of eviction looming over the Occupy St. Paul’s protesters and the forces of America PD already coming down hard on its trans-atlantic primogenitors, we may be witnessing the final days of a movement said (by particularly deluded or insensitive supporters) to rival the Arab Spring.

It’s been a confusing and potentially alienating journey for spectators. I mean, I’ve always assumed I supported things like social justice, fairness, a more equal society, and so on. But I quickly grew frustrated and annoyed by the London occupation.

Recently, I voiced my concerns and criticisms, only to be told I’m “missing the point”. That troubled me. Was my feeble brain incapable of comprehending how brilliant, worthwhile and successful Occupy has been? Were my peers headshotting the point between the eyes at abandon, while I stood apart, aimlessly spraying my sympathy-bullets into the surrounding scenery like some n00b meat-puppet playing Goldeneye?

Fortunately, it seems I wasn’t such a freak. A quick Google search revealed the point to be as elusive as the Pokemon Mew . Actually, that analogy doesn’t quite fit. While there were a lot of people, like me, being told they were missing the point, there wasn’t much agreement on what exactly we were missing.

For example, the REAL point of the Occupy movement is, depending on who you ask (or don’t ask, as the case may be)…

Asking rhetorical questions…

“you are missing the point about that sign. I don’t think it is an attack on those people, I think it is an attack on what this society considers as freedoms. The purpose of it is to get people to question what freedom really is. Freedom is a word that gets used a lot by politicians and we all like to think we live in a free society. But do we?”

History is Made at Night

Solving a crime…

“The lack of an “agenda” or a lack of a coherence to the aims of the protestors is missing the point… A crime has been committed but the only clue they have is that it is something in the City and this thing in the “City” has made them a victim of a crime they don’t understand and it has cost them their job/home/car whatever… They are coming back at a perpetrator that government has failed to bring to book but in the hall of financial mirrors they don’t know where exactly to aim or exactly who to aim at for but they know roughly where the perpetrators hang out.”

CityWire

Rejecting democracy…

“I agree with your first part of the argument, the vinyl vanguards looking for a single unifying anthem of youth are missing the point. Occupy London are not representative of a single sub-culture, or even a shared ideology. Like you say, this is about a rejection of conventional politics.”

New Statesman

Rejecting debates…

“[One member of the camp] said Chartres’s [Bishop of London] earlier suggestion of a debate was “missing the point of this global occupation”.

The Guardian

Totally, like, opening up space in people’s imaginations, man…

“Screeds of criticism have now been written about the protest and on almost every point, they misunderstand the purpose of this form of street protest. Is this a revolution in the making? Of course not. Will it topple the government? No… The protesters’ aim is to open up space, physically and socially, for people to connect and thereby open up space in people’s imaginations.”

The Guardian

Setting up a camp site (while not making demands)…

“These questions miss the point… they’re not interested in making petty demands on a system they see as irreconcilably flawed. If anything, the camp itself is their demand, and their solution: the stab at an alternative society that at least aims to operate without hierarchy, and with full, participatory democracy.”

Patrick Henry Press

Not having an impact on its target…

“The purpose is not to directly affect your target. It is to rally support for your cause.”

Boardgame Geek Forums

Protesting for the right to protest…

“Anyone active on the left might be tempted to judge it and find it wanting in any effort to challenge capitalism, but that would be to miss the point. Understanding what it represents not judging it is the essential task. Here an historical framework can help and several models come to mind, the first of which is the symbolic occupation of space… All these instances are about winning the right to protest in certain spaces and that is certainly what has happened at St Paul’s in recent weeks.”

Morning Star Online

Attracting people who are temporarily pissed off…

“…enthusiasts for the action say this misses the point of the encampment – to provide a permanent focal point for dissent, not a home for an unchanging cast of campaigners.”

BBC

Having a wider, deeper conversation OR Acting as some sort of weather vane for human sentiment…

Even people accusing other people of missing the point are, apparently, missing the point:

Article: “The political [Labour] left have – in several places – criticised the Occupy movement for the lack of clarity in their aims. For me, this misses the main point the movement is trying to make… Since the crash showed us all the man behind the curtain, protestors are no longer simply trying to stop or promote particular actions or policies. They’re now trying to have a wider, deeper conversation about what happens now the house of cards has fallen.”

Comment: “I think this article misses the point entirely. The occupy movement is a spontaenous ensemble. The idea it has to forge itself into a lean mean fighting machine is not what it is about. Its about, for me at least, a weather vane about current sentiment and about what that current sentiment might become.”

Liberal Conspiracy

And the actual point is… our secret (so there!)

Maybe the point is they don’t want to tell us the point? The following (genuine, non-satirical) quote from an Occupy Wall St. activist writing on CiF certainly suggests so…

First, they come to us demanding, “What are your demands?” Then, they come to us insisting, “Where are your solutions?” We have waited our entire lives for this moment. And we could not be more ready to answer these questions. We smile, unphased, and tell them what they already know: “Our demands are too numerous to choose between, and we refuse to do so. The solutions are out there and we have long known what they are.”

Comment is Free

All this makes me suspect that I was right all along and it’s the protesters who are missing the point, NOT ME. But if you think I’m going to persecute myself by telling you what that point is… well, I might have to let my foot occupy the space between your left butt cheek and your right butt cheek. Purely to engage with you on a deeper level, of course…

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Ed Miliband’s ‘progressive majority’ must learn the language of nostalgia

Ed Miliband’s belief that the Alternative Vote will unleash Britain’s “progressive majority” is looking more than a little bit presumptuous. A YouGov poll for Channel 4 News shows that while the big winners of voting reform will undoubtedly be the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives come off none the worse and Labour actually end up losing more seats than they gain. What’s worst, more Lib Dem voters have said they will choose Cameron’s Tories as their second preference than Ed’s Labour.

So, belief in this ‘progressive majority’ would seem fairly optimistic. Especially considering it’s far from obvious if there is a progressive majority within the Labour party itself.

A battle for the very soul of the Labour party currently rages* behind the scenes, with the notion of ‘Blue Labour’ being championed as a way to regain the support of lower-class voters. Blue Labour describes that ‘socially conservative, economically interventionist’ strand of the electorate who, it is argued, felt abandoned by the hyper-modern, change-frantic progressiveness of New Labour.

This idea is elaborated upon by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian, who disregards some of the historical grandeur behind Blue Labour and focuses instead on the “value of nostalgia”. Still, the two lines of thought share the same core reasoning: Labour’s core voters have been abandoned. Bunting writes:

“…there was – and is – another account of betrayal in which a liberal elite, smugly superior in their metropolitan progressivism, championed globalisation and sold ordinary working people down the river.”

And so Bunting doesn’t just begin to define some of the frustrations felt by these “ordinary working people”, but puts them directly at odds with the smug, uncaring progressive majority Ed Miliband’s been fantasising about.

Intrigued by this dichotomy, I brainstormed** some terms I feel represent those ‘nostalgic’ values of Blue Labour voters and pitted them against the corresponding principles of the progressives.

The differences between the nostalgics and the progressives are, in many cases, vast. But the purposes of this little exercise was not just to highlight the foolishness of Ed Miliband campaigning for AV using language which will actively repel those it doesn’t simply bore. I also hope this list could help progressives step beyond their own values and connect with nostalgics by speaking in terms the latter can relate to.

Owen Jones offers some sage advice for anyone wanting to communicate with people beyond the echo chamber. His first rule is to start where people are. I don’t think you could go too far wrong using this list as a reference.

New Labour’s skill was in speaking to the impulses of the nostalgics, while shrewdly smuggling a form of pragmatic progressivism through the back door. Ed, unfortunately, does not have this skill. He’s in an echo chamber of one and quacking like a duck.

I’m not unsympathetic. I imagine attempting to unify the disparate groups of latent lefties must be like wrangling a schizophrenic hydra. But Ed’s ‘progressives’ are currently struggling to talk to the majority, let alone with them or even, heaven forbid, for them.

* Poetic licence – it’s really not all that raging.

** Powered using only my brain, I’m afraid. If you want to contribute your brain to either deride, improve or celebrate what I’ve attempted to do, please leave a comment.

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Extremes of stupidity: StartUp Britain vs. The March26 Anarchists

It’s my hope that by comparing two recent high-profile fuck-ups from both sides of the political divide, we might learn from their mistakes. Or, at least, sneer at their stupidity.

From the left, we have the anti-corporate, socialistic practitioners of the dreaded ‘black bloc’, who, in Central London on Saturday afternoon, unleashed their emo fury in violent protest of the government’s cuts. On the right, we have the champions of the free market, willing cannon fodder in the government’s war for growth, who launched StartUp Britain on Monday to widespread, often hilarious, occasionally furious derision.

The members of both sides are (despite what some may claim) essentially apolitical. The former are arrogant teens, latching on to the recent wave of popular protests to boost their egos, play the romantic revolutionary and bash shit with sticks. The latter are self-assured entrepreneurs, riding the waves of Cameron’s pro-business rhetoric to gain publicity and try to make some easy cash. Grappling with political realities they barely understand, the two forces have ignorantly suicide-bombed the causes they purport to advocate.

So what went wrong? A lot of things. But I’m going to focus on the misplaced confidence, political misjudgement and the perils of cyber-utopianism which characterised both efforts.

Join the Bevoiviions! (awesome photo via alethiaphotos.com - link at bottom of post)

“Well, I’ll smash this window with a brick and then, one day, they’ll build a fucking statue of me”

Both sides vastly overestimated how much other people think like them. The rioters may believe they’re at the forefront of a popular revolt to overthrow an unjust regime; but to most observers they’re seen as a thuggish minority of idiots. In a letter sent to UKUncut, they even identify themselves as representing a “highly visible radical presence” of the mainstream movement. I’ve seen supporters claim in online comments that left-wing critics of their actions are not displaying sufficient solidarity.

While it is no surprise to me that they are being turned upon by those they saw as their ‘comrades’, overconfidence in their own righteous indignation blinded them to the inevitable divisiveness of their plan.

It’s a similar story with the brains behind Start Up Britain: a concept so vacuous and devoid of creativity, only other entrepreneurs could appreciate it.

Heroes within their own echo chamber, I’m sure they never imagined the ferocity of negative opinion their little website would incite. Unfortunately (for them), not everyone ‘gets’ the entrepreneur mentality. The inherent flaws and slapdash sloppiness of the product on launch may not bother the type of people who are focusing on the ‘bigger picture’ (whatever that is) and already working on their next ‘revolutionary’ idea, but the general public simply hasn’t bought in to that bullshit.

On Twitter, they seem genuinely surprised that people don’t understand where they’re coming from (and trying to get to). If they’d have tried thinking like ordinary people, they might have anticipated such a reaction.

Text expertly aligned by the broken ruler society

“I tried to get Nick Clegg involved, but he was worried about it damaging his credibility.”

The political misjudgement of the rioters hardly requires explanation. It was only a matter of time before measures were proposed to clamp down on such activity, and it’ll take a brave politician to oppose them. Protests will be a little less free in the future, wholly because of the rioters.

Did they really think such indiscriminate violence would be likely to attract popular support? For the majority of the country, watching Saturday’s events on TV or reading about them in the Sunday papers, the overwhelming impression is not going to be one of honest families, unified in support for a real alternative to the coalition cuts, but of masked yobs starting fights with coppers and terrorising shoppers. To what political end does this serve?

Of course, the rioters would angrily contest this portrayal. The entrepreneurs, on the other hand, wandered blindly into a political shitstorm. Following hot on the heels of the budget and Cameron’s pro-growth speeches, it’s unimaginable that they would not expect to be intimately associated with the government. Maybe they thought the presence of the Prime Minister and Chancellor at their launch party would have a positive impact? Big fucking mistake. They opened the floodgates and within hours spoof Twitter accounts, spoof news articles and even a spoof website had turned their vision into a joke. They failed to put their scheme in context.

One of the charges of incompetence thrown at the entrepreneurs was their recommendation of a US crowdsourcing site for logo design. ‘What’s wrong with that?’, they ask, naively. After all, new businesses don’t have money to throw around and the crowdsourcing solution is a practical, cheap alternative to a professional designer. In the context of growth for Britain, however, such a recommendation is understandably seen as undermining British graphic design companies – exactly the opposite kind of message the government wishes to promote. This wouldn’t be a problem for the average non-political startup, but has proven a disaster for the politically-loaded Start Up Britain.

God gave up on humanity the year "Speed-Networker" passed for a job description

“Just think, a little over a decade ago we’d have had to travel door-to-door to sell this shit”

I think both examples are products of cyber-utopianism, the belief that the internet, or, more specifically, social media, is the ultimate harbinger of enlightenment, liberalism and progress. Evgeny Morozov warns about the dangers of cyber-utopianism in his book, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, in which he chastises those who preach the internet as a panacea, while conveniently ignoring the poisonous elements.

What we’ve seen over these past few days are some of those poisonous elements.

If we are to accept the conventional wisdom that says social media better enables the mass mobilisation of politically active individuals, we can reasonably say that Saturday’s protests (both nasty and nice) were greatly helped by this technological wonder. However, we should also consider that the TUC rally (with its vast, largely offline network) could still have taken place, while the ‘anarchists’ campaign would’ve been far less likely to make up the numbers.

And let’s not underestimate the power of the echo chamber. Through social media like Facebook and Twitter, it’s now easier than ever to immerse yourself in opinions that support your world view while simultaneously dismissing anything you don’t want to hear. This will naturally distort people’s perception of reality and convince them their views are more widely accepted than they probably are.

The case of Start Up Britain portrays a different side of cyber-utopianism. Rather than being by-products of the internet revolution, these entrepreneurs are fully paid-up acolytes. In many cases, the ‘brains’ behind the ‘initiative’ owe their very success to the web 2.0 explosion. Their faith in the transformative power of the internet clearly lies at the very foundation of their idea. Crowdsourcing, blogs, social networks… seemingly, an expensive, expansive bureaucracy providing individual, personal advice to businesses to help them grow is no match for a single page website linking to a handful of online resources.

While all this social media jazz may be considered exciting (in some circumstances), when it comes to policy this approach has, yet again, been resoundingly rejected and ridiculed. The public obviously don’t share the cyber-utopians confidence that Britain can crowdsource its way to growth.

I suppose you could argue that this is only evidence of a lack of vision on behalf of the public. And, naturally, we should wait and see before making any final judgements regarding how effective this will be in the long run. However, the mistake the entrepreneurs made was assuming web 2.0 principles (iterative development, beta launches, internationalisation, crowdsourcing, etc.) would easily translate into public policy (or an extension thereof) and be widely accepted. How many times will people make the same mistakes before they learn?

"If you even think about spinning that bottle I'll cut your fucking balls off" (another aletheiaphotos.com pic)

Final thoughts

I hope everyone’s cheered by the thought that both anti-corporate thugs and free market-loving yuppies can be equally incompetent. Sadly, both sides of the political divide have to deal with the respective consequences.

A rare, passionate and awe-inspiring gathering of those much talked about ‘hard-working British families’ was pushed off the front pages; the message of a real alternative was lost amidst the din of shattered glass and the more media-friendly context behind the forthcoming strikes has been irrecoverably muddied. This only helps the Tories.

For the blue team, their first thunderous shot at a growth narrative has turned into yet another embarrassment. Within just a few hours of an enthusiastic launch starring the biggest players in the coalition, Start Up Britain was desperately trying to distance itself from the government. Dave and Gideon’s strategy for growth once again appears as shallow, vague and unwelcome as their Big Society.

So that leaves us still locked in a brutal programme of cuts, unemployment and inflation, but without even the pretence of an intelligent plan for growth. Thanks, wankers.

The sad thing is how easy it would’ve been to avoid such gross errors. If the rioters and the entrepreneurs had simply broadened their world view to include, y’know, normal humans in their plans, many of these mistakes could’ve been averted.

More importantly, if any one of them had genuinely cared about the cause they claim to exemplify, maybe they would’ve been motivated to look beyond their own ego and narrow self-interest.

*****************

Alethiaphotos have some awesome shots of the anarchists. Well worth a look.

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Who’s really in charge: the people, the politicians or the media? (British Social Attitudes Survey Part IV)

What I find interesting is whether politics and the media follow or form public opinion. Certainly some results from the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) seem to conflict with the predominant political view of the time – secondary schools are doing a decent job, for example. Other long-held views seem to be completely detached from the mainstream political and media narrative – most notably that income inequality is too great, which has been the opinion of roughly 80% of us since 1987 despite rarely being discussed and no great attempts being made to fix it.

The decreasing support for increasing welfare could be seen as a response to Tory rhetoric and media horror stories. However, the proportion of people who agree government should spend more on benefits has been in steep decline since 1991. My view is that most people’s opinions are shaped more by personal experience and word of mouth than media stories and political spin. Of course, people will then choose to believe or deny what they read in the papers or see on TV depending on how well it fits their expectations. But, ultimately a kernel of a belief needs to be in place first (I suspect, for millions across Britain a friend of a friend knows someone who, it’s rumoured, has a new plasma TV, three kids, has never worked a day in their life AND is going on holiday TWICE this year).

It’s strangely reassuring to see that politicians and the media are merely grossly distorted reflections of public opinion rather than creators of it.

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Is it time to scrap the old political dividing lines? (British Social Attitudes Survey Part III)

I don’t meet many people who fit nicely into a right-wing or left-wing bracket. Such caricatures of political ideology tend to find their niche either in the fringes, in parliament or in newspaper columns. In my experience, most people are nuanced, indecisive and will find themselves agreeing with varying ideas from across the political spectrum.

Overwhelmingly, the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) survey paints a picture of Britons as predominantly compassionate and fair-minded, not self-interested, single-minded crusaders brainwashed by the right-wing (or left-wing) media. In other words, not the type of people you generally get writing comments on websites, phoning the Jeremy Vine show or sitting in the Question Time audience.

The left and right labels were an invention of the French Revolution. Even in 1789 I’m sure they proved to be clumsily imprecise. Most political theorists now accept a liberal-authoritarian political spectrum on top of the left-right economic spectrum. This makes everything even messier, but still not clear enough. When you consider that few political parties fit nicely into their supposed political alignment, you can see the lazy classification is pretty much broken.

I love this Confucius quote:

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

The danger with woolly categorisations in politics is that it limits the debate and causes friction when none is necessary. This seems to be particularly true in America, where the left-right divide is far more polarised and politicians are dismissed as RINOs or DINOs (Republicans/Democrats in Name Only). This “with us or against us” mentality (aka Extremism) can be seen by the way the Left turned on those they once called comrades who supported the Iraq war.

Groupthink replaces people deciding for themselves and dissent is ignored. Issues are ‘owned’ by one side or the other and loyalists dutifully spout the appropriate talking points. If you self-identify yourself with one political side or another, you’re basically damned to argue things you don’t really believe or agree with for the rest of your life (unless you’re especially good at self-deceit).

What an affront to free-thinking. I’ve always wondered why seemingly unconnected beliefs are all shared by completely different individuals, who just happen to sit on the same wing of the political spectrum. To be a right-wing commentator you must hate big government, believe Israel does no wrong, deny climate change, support the Iraq war, oppose abortion and decry multiculturalism while being pro-American and anti-European. To be a left-wing commentator you have to be anti-American, pro-European, pro-Immigration, pro-choice while hating Israel, crusading against the Iraq war, believing in global warming, supporting the students, criticising the police and thinking Assange is the new Obama.

You could argue there’s a degree of logical consistency. I suppose Christian dogma may underpin the Right and liberalism the Left. But when those commentators are neither Christians or liberals, you have to wonder what’s driving their beliefs. And there are enough exceptions to show this phenomenon is far more illogical. For example, right-wing champions of a free market being against open immigration and the European Union (arguably the greatest free market exercise in history). Another example: right-wing liberals complaining about an authoritarian socialist ‘nanny state’, while demanding stricter rules on abortion, drugs and alcohol. An example from the left: arguing the ‘climategate’ emails were illegally obtained and a ‘damp squib’, but not applying the same thinking to the wikileak cables.

The few people who escape the mould are seen as mysterious and untrustworthy; nobody really knows where their allegiances lie and they are reviled by fanatics on both sides.

I suppose there’s some sort of instinctive, monkey-brained social behaviour underlying this, but I’m certain our unsophisticated political classification exacerbates the problem. It may even be the case that people who would otherwise be keen to get involved in politics are frightened away by the insularity.

Ironically, this is not much of a problem within political parties, but is positively endemic on the internet and in the media. It’s about time we scrap the old nomenclature and adopted something with a broader scope to reflect the scattergram of political opinion real people represent.

Sure, this won’t stop twats being twats, but at least we’ll know where they stand.

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Does Britain bust a left or hang a right? (British Social Attitudes Survey Part II)

I think we can safely assume the majority of Brits don’t define themselves in crude political terms. So, let’s look at some of the detail of the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) to understand how closely the sympathies of Britons align with the aims of the coalition and the right-wing press.

Inequality and Fair Pay

A majority believe the gap between those with high incomes and low incomes is too large, that this contributes to social problems and that it is the responsibility of the government to reduce income inequality.

The government are not ignorant of this, having commissioned Will Hutton to produce a report looking at fair pay. However, the report’s remit was restricted to the public sector with the brief to investigate a pay ratio of 20 to 1 – according to the BSAS, people think the ratio should be 6 to 1.

You have to question whether the government’s aim with this report is really about fair pay. Both the Tories and the right-wing media appear more concerned about government spending and mythical “public sector fat cats” than income inequality across the whole of society. The right-wing media, in particular, are strongly against government involvement in reducing income inequality across the private sector.

This puts the British public further to the left than the Tories and completely at odds with the right-wing media.

Just over half of people believe the government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed, but only 27% believe more should be spent on welfare benefits for the poor.

The 27% figure is the statistic most favoured by the right-wing press. And it is significant, especially considering support for higher welfare spending has decreased from 58% in 1991. However, considering this survey comes off the back of a Labour government which has increased welfare over the previous decade, the massive drop doesn’t necessarily reflect a desire to greatly reduce benefits.

This finding is therefore inconclusive. Other findings of the survey show that people aren’t unsympathetic to the poor and, in fact, favour distinctly un-Thatcherite policies: 62% want better education or training opportunities to enable people to get better jobs, 54% want the minimum wage increased, and 40% want higher income taxes to be increased.

Investment in public services

Secondary schools have been seen to improve in every way under Labour and there is widespread support for an increasing emphasis on non-academic areas including practical and life skills.

While Tory (and Lib Dem) rhetoric before the election uncontroversially focused on limiting top-down interference over schools, the policies of Michael Gove since then seem at odds to what the public clearly perceive as a successful decade for education under Labour.

In particular, Gove’s peculiar fixation on ‘traditional’ lessons (including Classical Greek, Biblical Hebrew and Latin) is not shared by the people, 72% of whom believe the teaching of life skills is more important than academic subjects.

While happy to trumpet the parts of the survey that support with its own agenda, the Daily Mail sneers at the ‘alarming complacency’ suggested by the nearly three-quarters of people who think our schools teach basic schools well.

Regardless, it’s not obvious how Gove’s plans will improve schools in the way people want. His anachronistic baccalaureate idea and intent to abolish coursework conflicts with the view, agreed with by six in ten people, that “schools focus too much on tests and exams and not enough on learning for its own sake”.

Satisfaction with the NHS is at its highest level ever, reflecting that people recognise and value the improvements made by Labour, particularly the successful introduction of maximum waiting times targets.

I never understood the right-wing war against NHS targets, especially considering (if my memory serves me correctly) they were introduced as a result of right-wing media pressure.

When Labour entered office in 1997, satisfaction with the NHS was at the lowest level (34%) since the survey began. In 2009, satisfaction reached the highest level since the survey began (64%). Even among Conservative supporters, satisfaction with the NHS is at its height.

Against this backdrop, you really have to wonder why the Tories are embarking on a highly controversial and extremely risky reorganisation of the NHS. Many would suggest the motivation is ideological. If this is the case, Tory ideology (and that of its right-wing supporters) is clearly not shared by the British public.

So what?

This is just a scraping of findings from the report’s executive summaries available online. Still, I think it’s pretty damn supportive of New Labour’s record and suggests the Tories should be careful.

The unexpected ambition of their education and health reforms are controversial at the moment. Considering they are completely out of line with what the public actually wants, when they are introduced the shit, as they say, could well and truly hit the fan.

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Is the person sat to your left a Thatcherite? (British Social Attitudes Survey Part I)

Both the Mail and the Telegraph leapt on NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS), released today, to declare public support for the coalition’s policies and a sharp swing to the right. Finally, they breathlessly claim, Thatcherism has emerged victorious. Suffice to say, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

To be fair, this is the conclusion of John Bartle, co-author of the BSAS report, who writes,

“We interpret the reverse after 1997 as a further shift back to the right (and pretty sharp it is too)… it suggests that the public are now less supportive of ‘big government’ than at any time since the late 1970s”.

Far be it from me to challenge the expert opinion and mind-boggling methodology of one of the people responsible for producing the report, but I do question the assumption across the right-wing press that this is good news for Tories.

John Bartle continues to say,

“…according to our estimates, the electorate were nearly as ‘right-wing’ in 2009 as 1979, the year that Mrs. Thatcher came to office…”

Despite increased disillusionment with ‘big government’ following the New Labour years, the coalition is still facing a country less right-wing than that which welcomed their spiritual leader. So, the Tories are on shakier ground than Thatcher, yet are intending to go ideologically further than even she dared.

Chapter 9 of the report explains that “between 1979 and 1997 [the political centre in Britain] moved to the left”. Basically, the result of Thatcherism was to drive the country leftwards. Considering in 2009, after more than a decade of New Labour, it had supposedly shifted back rightwards, I would guess these findings are better reflective of disappointment with the government of the day rather than long-term changes in supposed political alignment. People turn off solutions when they don’t live up to that which is promised.

The broad conclusion that Britain is ‘right-wing’ is therefore ultimately meaningless. If we are unfortunate enough to face a decade of Tory ‘small government’, I’m sure Britain will drift leftwards again.

So, don’t worry. You’re not surrounded by children of Thatcher. Just ruled by them.

Oh… maybe we should worry.

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What can we learn from the failure of the student protests?

Although I suspect I may be preaching to the damned here, if (and that’s a big IF) Labour’s opposition isn’t purely political and the student protesters aren’t simply aiming to rage against the machine, there’s a lot that we could learn what NOT to do by looking at the campaign to fight the coalition’s rise in tuition fees – if you can call it a campaign.

What went wrong?

1. Lack of a clear objective: there was no clear argument being made by protesters and those who supported them. I heard people saying the demonstrations were against high increases in tuition fees, any increase in tuition fees, the existence of tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA, the extreme cuts to university funding, any cuts on principle, the pace and/or extent of the coalition’s cuts, the haste with which the vote went into the commons, and the broken promises of the Liberal Democrats. With such fragmentation of purpose it’s difficult to achieve anything.

2. No real alternative was pitched against the coalition’s plans. Subsequently, the Tories have emerged from this ordeal virtually unscathed. Without the challenge of a fairer, more agreeable alternative, no real pressure was put on the government.

3. No command structure: nobody took responsibility for organising the opposition to the fees increase. This resulted in mixed messages and chaos in the streets. To their credit, the NUS seems to be attempting to tie everything together, but their efforts are clearly not enough. Maybe mass demonstrations would have been better concentrated in key constituencies to sway floating Liberals and, indeed, Conservatives? Maybe the Tories would have been more reluctant to drive this forward if, instead of students, their traditional middle-class supporters were the ones doing the complaining (as we saw during the child benefit fiasco)? The point is the passion of those involved could’ve and should’ve been used more strategically.

4. The campaign was misdirected. I never felt the protesters really hit the government where it hurts. For starters, the attempt to gain the sympathies of the police against a common enemy was destroyed when people started throwing rocks at them. Hopes of attracting wider public support was damaged when people started defacing national monuments. In terms of trying to halt the cuts, George Osborne may still prove to be a weak link in terms of embarrassing the coalition, but he’s clearly intransigent with regards his economic plan (at least overtly). There was no way he would back down. Similarly, Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal ministers were determined not to retreat on this (although the effectiveness of getting Clegg ‘on side’ by burning an effigy of him has to be questioned). Arguably, given the right leverage, Tory backbenchers are the weakest link of the coalition. Regardless, no attempts were made to go for the jugular. Time, effort and blood was wasted.

What would I have done differently?

Firstly, my chosen objective would have been the lowest-hanging fruit: the hasty nature of taking this vote to parliament before Christmas. Labour would’ve needed to take the lead and request the vote to be held off for a few months. This request could’ve been made to appeal to all parties: it would have given Labour more time to develop a saleable alternative, it would have given the Tories more time to convince the voters their policy is the fairest one, and it would have given the Liberals a stay of execution. A reprieve would also have given protest groups greater opportunity to rally wider public support around their cause.

If students, politicians and media were united behind the same purpose, it would have seemed extremely unreasonable for the government to refuse. If they did, Labour could have justifiably blamed the riots on the government’s arrogance. Still, Labour could have argued a Nay vote would not have reflected a total rejection of the coalition’s proposal; merely a desire for a longer period of public discussion and the chance to consider other options.

This would’ve given loyal Liberals cover to vote against and found sympathy amongst Tory backbenchers (remember, the Tories also had an anti-tuition fees stance until relatively recently).

Whether the vote is postponed or not, Labour and those opposing the coalition cuts are seen to have achieved a small victory. The image is one of a hasty, reckless government ignorant of the social turmoil their policies are causing, against a considerate and cautious union of politicians and public, aiming to reach a consensus.

Of course, the onus is then on Labour to work with student organisations to develop a viable, preferred alternative and sell it to the public. If they can’t… well, that would be pretty damn embarrassing and I guess they’d have no choice but to stop their whining and support the coalition’s plans.

So that’s what I reckon, but I may be speaking shit. I would love to hear what you think could’ve been done differently.

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Student riots: so, what’s next?

In what is becoming a depressing trend, the left’s position on the student riots is another example of polemical cul-de-sac. Their approach so far has had limited (if any) positive impact; yet their rhetoric promotes further chaos without constructive solutions.

Already the media is asking whether water-cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas should be used to control future protests. The less extreme alternative I’ve heard involves the police monitoring social media accounts and arresting potential troublemakers at the first sign of trouble. Based on the discussions I’ve seen on Twitter, blogs and the news, both these options would be seen as an act of provocation by protesters.

Revelers

But what else can the police do? If the propaganda of some on the left is to be believed, the violence is an understandable reaction to the coalition’s “cultural vandalism”. The suggestion is that it is not only unsurprising, but inevitable. It may surprise these commentators to learn that such language would not invite a softer approach from the police.

If we ignore the fatalists and instead listen to those we might call the determinists, the student violence is a direct consequence of the actions of the police. This line of argument goes: you buggers started it; if you stop bashing us with bats, we’ll stop tearing up central London. Determinists know the police are the problem. The negative energy generated by all those badges and batons drive good middle-class girls and boys crazy.

You only have to remember the storming of Millbank Tower to spot the flaw in that line of thinking.

With neither side backing down, we’ll either end up with the kind of authoritarian police state radical lefties have wet dreams about, or a continuation of the misdirected aggression that will eat away at public support until talk of loony lefties and militant socialists destroy all the credibility built up by the progressive movement over the past decade.

But there could be a middle ground. Protest leaders should work with the police to confirm a mutually acceptable route and accept responsibility to ensure that route is followed. Any groups who break away from this route are NOT protesters, and can assumed to be in “breach the peace”. If they refuse to rejoin the protest proper, they should be immediately arrested. Sounds harsh (and mighty simplistic), but if this can be done quickly and efficiently there is no need for violence to overshadow the cause of the genuine protesters.

There are a few glaring problems with this.

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The first being: lefty-liberals won’t like the idea. Mass arrests. Officially-sanctioned protest routes. I may as well suggest they glue identification cards to their foreheads. Many will prefer rioting. They seem to agree with Donald Rumsfeld who once said (much to left-wing derision, I might add), “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

The second problem is that I get the feeling the police were actually attempting a more liberal approach to this already. From what I understand, the theory behind kettling is that it contains a potentially unruly crowd without the bad press of arresting a whole lot of innocent people. At the moment, the police study CCTV footage after the event to identify criminals. I assume they do this to avoid inciting more trouble by dragging teenagers into police vans in front of their mates. If the less heavy-handed version of my compromise plan already enrages the left, a concerted effort to ‘beat’ the police’s change of tactics will be a certainty.

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The third problem arises if the vast majority of protesters, even those who flee down side streets to escape the agreed route, are genuinely peaceful. I, for one, don’t buy the idea that these protests were infiltrated by a small group of thugs (European-anarchists have been blamed, but the worst example was on Newsnight. They blamed the violence on “London gangs” and attempted to back up this claim using a shot of a few black kids wandering through the crowd). The unapologetic language of virtually every student group and left-wing organisation, twitterer or blogger I’ve seen tells me that even if it was all the fault of a few bad apples in the pot, there’s no real desire to have them removed. However, if it really is a minority who are the problem and the majority would gladly see them identified and detained, the ‘middle ground’ approach is too broad a brush and innocent people will likely be wrongly arrested.

The fourth and final problem is that, so far, I’ve seen no evidence the organisers of the protests are willing to accept any responsibility for the chaos. They all fall into either the fatalist or the determinist camp and talk about the protests as if people randomly turn up and do whatever they want. In other words, it’s not really their problem and they don’t care. This is a failure on two levels.

  • One: as Malcolm Gladwell explained in his controversial article about social activism, movements succeed by utilising rigid, almost military-like command structures. If there is no central force organising the protest they’re not only inviting anarchy onto the streets, but the movement as a whole is also likely to fail.
  • Two: this makes it far more difficult to achieve a middle ground between police and protesters. Without a clear idea of who’s organising the campaign, the police can not properly plan for it and will therefore have to resort to less sophisticated, more reactionary measures to cope. Without control over the situation and a working relationship with the police, protest leaders can’t protect those who want nothing more than a peaceful demonstration, which could result in more people being hurt (by both club-happy rozzers and brick-hurling agitators).

And so we’re stuck in a game of chicken between the protesters and the police. One in which neither seem keen to back down in. You could argue the police literally can’t back down. They’ve tried hands-off and it was a disaster. At best they could move sideways and try to refine the current techniques, without resorting to more exotic tactics. I hope (but don’t really expect) they can find a way to quickly spot and remove the ringleaders, without stirring up more animosity in the process. I believe the left has far greater leeway to tone down their inflammatory language and help isolate the firebrands. But to many that would be seen as surrendering to the coalition and Police State UK.

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It’s easy to lose sight of the fact there’s tens of millions more people in the UK watching these protests on their TV screens than there are taking part in person, or in their own particular echo chamber on the infoweb. There’s millions of royalists appalled at the attack on the Prince’s car. There’s millions of nationalists disgusted by the desecration of our national heritage. There’s millions of bemused, ordinary people who aren’t too fond of the cops in a vague British fashion, but also reckon (in a level-headed, detached, not unsympathetic kind of way) that if you rush head-first into a line of riot police carrying clubs, you’re probably going to get smacked. There’s also millions of people whose families have never gone to university, never expect to go to university and are wondering why they should pay for a bunch of feral, narcissistic idiots to get a better career and earn more money than they could ever dream of.

The real battle isn’t between protesters and police. It’s not you versus them. It’s winning the hearts and minds of voters and politicians. Explain to me how the behaviour we’ve seen over the past month has helped achieve that.

Photo credits: honeylotus, guerillaphotography

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When a violent mob doesn’t change things, it’s obvious democracy doesn’t work

Hypocrisy is a fact of politics – arguably even more so amongst activists and opinionaters than the sleazy MPs. But still the intellectual inconsistency of the left following the student fees riots surprises me*. The left believe the rise in tuition fees represents a failure of democracy; ipso facto, it’s understandable (maybe even commendable) that people are rioting, smashing property and assaulting police to get their voice heard.

For a second, let’s ignore the fact that 65% of voters in the last election (known as “a majority”) democratically supported parties promising to follow the recommendations of the Browne report. Instead of looking at the inaccuracy of the leftist position, let’s look at their hypocrisy.

Lefty-liberals are not averse to demanding politicians rise above populism when it comes to drug policy, immigration, Europe, speed cameras, prisons, and restrictions on civil liberties designed to prevent terrorism (to provide but a few examples). When it suits their own agenda, they appear to expect politicians to make the unpopular decisions rather than give in to the demands of the misguided masses. They know that doing what’s right for the country (as far as they’re concerned) is not always the same as what the people want.

And yet now, when riding on the waves of (apparent) popular support, they seem to be championing mob rule.

Here’s my message: Grow up, realise democracy doesn’t mean getting your own way all the time, and don’t expect everyone to support your fucking hissy fit when the government does something you disagree with.

It’s worth pointing out that the Tories, after collecting the most votes for their manifesto during the last election, have since retreated on a host of policies. They have been praised by the left for doing so. Isn’t this also a betrayal of democracy?

* It’s evidence of my blatant bias that hypocrisy from the right does not surprise me.

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