The new politics of protest

Matthew Sowemimo argues that Labour needs movements like Occupy and UKUncut to help galvanise disenfranchised populations.

 

Matthew Sowemimo worked at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which trains emerging campaigners

The unprecedented scale of the government’s deficit reduction programme was always going to generated social protest. In this article I will also identify the features of some of 2011’s most effective political campaigns against the austerity programme and what they say about the wider state of our politics. The new wave of social activism will generate both challenges and opportunities for the labour movement.


Traditionally people with the lowest incomes have lacked a political voice equivalent to the stake they have in policies designed to redistribute wealth and to provide them with services like housing that they could not secure from their own resources.

Many would argue that people on low incomes are bearing the brunt of the government’s austerity programme. So have those with most at stake been at the forefront of popular protest against the government’s policies?

The student protestors dominated protest at the early stage of the spending cuts and conform to the established pattern of those with the greatest levels of social capital and educational levels being the most assertive in representing their views.

Conversely, the initial overspill of protest from the student movement to the arguably more important issue of the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) was not sustained. The demographic of EMA beneficiaries was notably poorer and more drawn from ethnic minorities that the student protestors.

The one social group adversely affected by the welfare cuts who took part in popular protests in some numbers were disabled people. However as in many past occasions significant numbers of disabled people are part of national networks of large charities, like Scope and Radar.

Many of these charities have invested considerable resources in mobilising disabled people and supporting their political advocacy. However individuals affected by the housing benefit reforms and the household cap on benefits have lacked any national visibility.

By contrast, the National Trust-led campaign against the government’s forestry proposals was powered by thousands of affluent voters writing protest letters.

The fact that policies like the housing benefit reforms have not led to direct mobilisation of the communities directly affected by them is aggravated by the fact that these groups are far less likely to turnout in general elections.

Barack Obama’s community activism in Chicago was based on the belief that policymakers would become more responsive to poor peoples issues if those voters were brought into the political process. Obama’s own election as a United States senator was an ‘aftershock’ of long term political and electoral re-engagement of poor communities.

The protests that have been most effective are those that have focused on wider systemic political and economic issues rather than defensive campaigns reacting to specific cuts.

UKUncut and the Occupy campaigns effectiveness can be seen in the way they featured high up news schedules; how they sustained their media impact and that they shifted the terms of debate. UKUncut’s campaign challenged the central tenet of the government’s argument that there is no alternative to its spending cuts.

Both campaigns demonstrate the ability of online campaigning to reach out to large numbers of unaffiliated people around a clear focus and to do so in short time frames. Prior to the cuts, grassroots campaigns like Plane Stupid, have used the agility that comes with not having large formalised decision making structures to sometimes steal a march on large campaigning charities.

In the 1990s Adam Lent and I argued that national protest movements formed in areas like gay rights and foreign policy in part as a result of political disaffection with the conservatism and caution of the Labour Party leadership.

The Occupy campaign’s challenge to the City of London about its past and ongoing role in the financial crisis has taken place at a time when Labour is undergoing an agonising reassessment of its record in office, including its policies towards the banking sector. Occupy’s stance on the City of London was clear and urgent and quickly generated quite significant levels public approval.

As a result, Ed Miliband and Vince Cable found themselves acknowledging the force of Occupy’s core political case. Occupy’s experience shows that social movements can expand the political space for progressive politics.

However, the vibrant new social movements pose a challenge for Labour.

The youthful face and energy of groups like UKUncut serve as a sharp contrast to the ageing profile and falling membership of the trade unions and Labour Party. The more social movements are seen to set the agenda on fundamental questions about the economic and political system, the less relevant Labour may seem.

However social movements, by going where mainstream political leaders initially fear to tread, can prepare the ground for stronger progressive commitments.

Occupy Wall Street’s messaging, ‘we are the 99 per cent’, provided a countervailing force to the reactionary Tea Party by channelling popular discontent over the banking bailouts through progressive politics. Within weeks President Obama realigned his political message to argue for a greater contribution from wealthy Americans to pay down the deficit.

Labour needs bold and vibrant social movements not only to help prepare its path to power but also to govern effectively.

This year will see new potential policy conflicts that could rally protest and there will be a further test of whether those who are most socially marginalised absorb more pain without protest.

2012 is likely to see renewed pressure from within the Conservatives part of the coalition to abandon or water down climate change commitments, particularly as growth continues to stagnate. This year will see a new wave of benefit cuts come into force just at a time when unemployment is rising.

Will the newly established internet-driven loose and informal campaign groups become more structured mass movements with memberships that systematically take part in ongoing actions, or are the days of the mass mobilisation of groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament now a thing of the past?

See also:

Welfare reform bill in tatters after Lords defeatsShamik Das, January 12th 2012

UK Uncut: Stop the traffic to stop the NHS being run overTim Holmes, October 7th 2011

Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision makingAaron Peters, January 4th 2011

Daily Mail echoes UK Uncut campaign against tax avoidanceWill Straw, December 6th 2010

A consensus on community organisationWill Straw, March 31st 2010

29 Responses to “The new politics of protest”

  1. NextGenerationLabour

    The new politics of protest: //t.co/ddCSF9si Matthew Sowemimo argues that Labour needs movements like @occupylsx and @ukuncut

  2. Skipton & Ripon CLP

    "Labour needs bold, vibrant social movements not only to help prepare its path to power but also to govern effectively" //t.co/WQcdXzdD

  3. Martell Thornton

    The new politics of protest: In this article I will also identify the features of some of 2011's most effective … //t.co/3JkbCFVJ

  4. #occupyLondon Bot

    The new politics of protest: //t.co/ddCSF9si Matthew Sowemimo argues that Labour needs movements like @occupylsx and @ukuncut

  5. Susan Thorne

    "Labour needs bold, vibrant social movements not only to help prepare its path to power but also to govern effectively" //t.co/WQcdXzdD

  6. Pulp Ark

    The new politics of protest //t.co/BgYCcZmf #Left_Foot_Forward #Movement_Politics #benefits #muslim #tcot #sioa

  7. Patron Press - #P2

    #UK : The new politics of protest //t.co/lSjqok70

  8. Pranksta

    Priceless "We won't pay for their crisis" .. w00t w00t RT @leftfootfwd: The new politics of protest //t.co/oBhXCHJT

  9. Pranksta

    #UK : The new politics of protest //t.co/lSjqok70

  10. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – The new politics of protest //t.co/IJXgo47k

  11. World Crisis

    The new politics of protest //t.co/IB87cNDn

  12. Winston Smith

    #UK : The new politics of protest //t.co/lSjqok70

  13. Jamie

    Presumably Labour would like to win in 2015. All things being political jelly try P.O.P – Politics Of Protest //t.co/EdJB5nWZ

  14. Nick Leaton

    You fail to realise that ‘Their’ in the sign means you as politicians.

    7,000 bn of debt, means people can’t pay, let alone won’t pay.

    Many would argue that people on low incomes are bearing the brunt of the government’s austerity programme

    They are. They are being taxed, penally to pay for politicians frauds. eg. Ponzi scams as well as expenses frauds.

    The one social group adversely affected by the welfare cuts who took part in popular protests in some numbers were disabled people

    Including all the hidden unemployed. 1.5 million of them.

    The student protestors dominated protest

    Yep, but they haven’t realized the scam yet.

    Heads the government wins, tails the student loses. Plus huge cross subsidies that students have to borrow to fund, such as lecturers research interests.

    By contrast, the National Trust-led campaign against the government’s forestry proposals was powered by thousands of affluent voters writing protest letters.

    Cooperating people versus the state. The state is the villain. The state is the problem. The state is not the solution

    UKUncut’s campaign challenged the central tenet of the government’s argument that there is no alternative to its spending cuts.

    UKUncut are economically literate. They can’t or won’t state the size of the debts. Without saying how big government debts are, you cannot determine whether cuts are affordable or not.

    In the 1990s Adam Lent and I argued that national protest movements formed in areas like gay rights and foreign policy in part as a result of political disaffection with the conservatism and caution of the Labour Party leadership.

    Yep. Politicians not defending the individual. The state screwing people over.

    Don’t forget, that what the government is doing is democratic. You have to put up with it. At least that is what the left was saying whilst it was in power. Leave the country if you don’t like it. Isn’t that the mantra?

    The more social movements are seen to set the agenda on fundamental questions about the economic and political system, the less relevant Labour may seem.

    Exactly. They are cutting the state out. Ask why? It’s because you’ve lied, repeatedly. Not done what you said you would do, done things you kept secret. Stuck two fingers up to people.

    Occupy Wall Street’s messaging, ‘we are the 99 per cent’, provided a countervailing force to the reactionary Tea Party by channelling popular discontent over the banking bailouts through progressive politics

    You’ve got it wrong. Both are closer than you think.

    Both are protesting about fairness. Except you can’t see that because you’re the cause of the unfairness.

    1. Giving in to failed bankers rather than letting them go bust. If I ask you for cash, and you give it, who is the idiot? Me for asking, or you for giving it out.

    2. What’s fair about people getting 170K a year in benefits for no inputs into the system?

    3. What’s fair about having to bail out failed states?

    4. What’s fair about MPs handing back their expenses fraud money for no prosecution?

    5. What’s fair about taking 50% of people income in direct and indirect taxes?

    6. What’s fair about leaving debts, massive debts for future generations. After all debt forgiveness is good for the third world, but not for the first. Why? It’s politicians in the UK that have run up the debts.

    7. What’s fair about the poor being shafted on their fuel bills to pay for socialist’s guilt trip.

    There is no difference between Occupy wall street and the Tea party, bar the Occupy movement not having thought through who is the biggest villain. A bit like being worried about a hangnail when your leg has been blown off.

  15. Occupy London

    The new politics of protest //t.co/oz9ImOGI #WhyWeOccupy #IOccupyBecause

  16. Sparky Jones Pérez

    The new politics of protest //t.co/oz9ImOGI #WhyWeOccupy #IOccupyBecause

  17. mao zedong

    RT @OccupyLondon: "The new politics of protest //t.co/GmeAqXuh #WhyWeOccupy #IOccupyBecause" #ows

  18. Mr. Sensible

    Nick I’m afraid that a lot of that simply doesn’t stand up. Occupy similar to the Tee Party? I think not…

  19. Ben Folley

    "protest movements formed as a result of disaffection with the conservatism and caution of the Labour Party leadership" //t.co/Tnz2sTRr

  20. ACT Young Labor Left

    "Labour needs bold, vibrant social movements not only to help prepare its path to power but also to govern effectively" //t.co/Tnz2sTRr

  21. davie ewan macdonald

    Labor needs bold, vibrant social movements not only to help prepare its path to power but also to govern effectively //t.co/XV9Scww9

  22. davie ewan macdonald

    "Labour needs bold, vibrant social movements not only to help prepare its path to power but also to govern effectively" //t.co/Tnz2sTRr

  23. Chris Salter

    RT @leftfootfwd: The new politics of protest //t.co/8Ux6VZgX #ppnews #wrb #spartacusreport

  24. BevR

    RT @leftfootfwd: The new politics of protest //t.co/xFFP7BUc

  25. Rosena McKeown

    RT @leftfootfwd: The new politics of protest //t.co/8Ux6VZgX #ppnews #wrb #spartacusreport

  26. Newsbot9

    Yes, YOUR, the 1%’s ponzi scams and frauds. The banks. The capital system.

    1. It’s your 1% who refused to let them fail
    2. They’re not “getting” anything like that. Most of it is going on HB. Because the housing system is fucked. And nobody will do the obvious fix. (Rent caps)
    3. Crashing our economy is SUCH a good idea!
    4. Wah.
    5. We don’t take anything LIKE 50%. Never mind the Nordic countries which do. Never mind that your 1% can’t loot enough there, which is why you’re whining
    6. The debts thanks to your 1%. You are the problem.
    7. Socalists? You’re blaming the government of the late 70’s for energy bills? Grow up.

    There’s no difference between you and the sellers of ransomware.

  27. Selohesra

    Calm down Leon
    1) 1% is just random figure – so substance behind who is in and who is out
    2) Cap benefits and rents will fall – ever heard of market forces
    3)Assume you are being sarcastic – in which case why did Brown work so hard at it ?
    4) What is it good for – huh – absolutely nothing etc
    5)My average tax /NI deduction for 2011/12 is 49.5% – that is quite like 50%
    6) Why did Germany’s debt grow by such a smaller amount than the UK over the 13 years of Labours incompetence?
    7) Fuel would be cheaper for everyone if we cut subsidies on the eco-loon wind farms & other scams

  28. BevR

    RT @leftfootfwd: The new politics of protest //t.co/xFFP7BUc

  29. TheCreativeCrip

    RT @leftfootfwd: The new politics of protest //t.co/8Ux6VZgX #ppnews #wrb #spartacusreport

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