Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Flames Of Discontent Appeased By Defeat

Keir, like many others, has watched as a movement of people have been stirred into action since the appointment of the slashers in Her Majesty's most recent Government. To say this has been a movement of peaks and troughs is to state the glaringly obvious.

It's hard to ascertain when this whole movement started. And it has at times been a broader movement, encompassing other organisations. The nadir of its turnout and exposure was undoubtedly on 10th November 2010 when an estimated 50,000 people lined the streets of London, mobilised by the NUS, the anti-cuts movement, single-issue groups and political parties. Keir watched on as an event full of potential descended into chaos.

This was followed by another protest 2 weeks later with varying reports of turnout size; "several thousand" appears to be the consensus. After this demo, "kettling" entered mainstream language as something unconnected to a cup of tea and, rightly, the police became the target for a lot of anger from the public.

Meanwhile, occupations were taking place at University campuses across the country. Some of these were pretty impressive, especially when NUS President Aaron Porter was held to account for his foot-dragging at an occupation at UCL.

40,000 people were then expected in the capital on December 9th as people took to the streets to fight the proposed rise in tuition fees that had become the central issue of the broader anti-cuts movement. This was the day of the vote in parliament; a vote that was won by the Government and the fee increase went into law.

Since then, the anti-cuts movement has, arguably, focused on tax-avoidance by large companies such as Vodafone and Topshop. Occupations in branches of these companies have at times shut down stores and have highlighted the cause. But, as with the tuition fees issue, nothing has been won by the movement.

A look at the (very good) mapping of actions on the UK Uncut website gives an idea of the way things have gone since. Turnout at actions around the country have varied. A Saturday protest in London drew 50. Also, 25 people took to the streets in Cardiff on a Saturday afternoon in December, 30-40 got their gloves on in Bristol and a dozen turned up for an event in Birmingham just a few days ago.

And just today, whilst attending another event, Laurie Penny, online mouthpiece for the UK Uncut demos, tweeted:

"In trafalgar square. There are actually more visiting school groups that [sic] protesters. This SUCKS. Get it together guys!"

First of all, Keir must commend Penny for her excellent, positive language in her attempt to mobilise people. Frankly, if someone told Keir to "get it together", he'd be straight onto his white horse, sword in sheath, ready to bring down the Establishment. Inspirational stuff.

But there's a serious point. Keir wants the same end that these demonstrations seek. He didn't want fees to go up and he wants Philip Green to pay his taxes. Most people probably feel the same. But the decline in turnout during the course of the last few months speaks of the deep problem of this movement.

What has been won? Nothing. In fact, some things have been painfully lost as we all saw when the cowardly Liberal Democrats became complicit in the rise in tuition fees.

Penny and her cohorts need to understand that not everyone is driven by cloudy idealism. People like winning. And consistently picking, and inevitably losing, unwinnable fights just disheartens them. Not only does losing turn people off, but winning will draw people in.

That's not to say losing never helps a movement to grow. It of course can. But it only can if your movement is strong, close and powerful; built on an interwoven strand of tight relationships that will last through victories and defeats. This movement though, as is attested to by many involved in it, is built mainly on social network "relationships". Penny herself says,

"Solidarity has gone hypertextual. The student movement that made its voice so powerfully audible was largely organised on Twitter."

From 50,000 in November, to a dozen in January. It's maybe a slight misrepresentation to compare those two figures, but the point is clear. Turnout, and therefore power, has nose-dived.

That lack of power has meant nothing has been won. The Government continues to savagely cuts funding to our most valuable services, meaning we pay more. Meanwhile, the blind eye remains turned to the tax-avoiding billionaires who refuse to pay their bit back to the society that set the conditions for them to flourish, in order that the most vulnerable can put food onto their table.

And if the power of the anti-cuts movement keeps sinking at its current trajectory nothing will be won. Before long all that will remain will be Laurie Penny sitting alone at Trafalgar Square, tweeting "This SUCKS" every weekend.


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