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Laurie Penny: The power of the broken window pane at Millbank

Why the Millbank protests are just the beginning.

One hundred years ago, a gang of mostly middle-class protesters had finally had enough of being overlooked by successive administrations and decided to go and smash up some government buildings to make their point. Their leader insisted that when the state holds itself unanswerable to the people, "the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics".

That leader was Emmeline Pankhurst, and the protesters were the suffragettes. Although they faced a great deal of public disapprobation at the time, history has vindicated the international movement for women's suffrage as intrepid citizens who forfeited their freedom, their public reputations and, in some cases, their lives, to win political enfranchisement for future generations of women and girls -- even if they had to break a few windows to do so.

This month, the young people of Britain appeared to reach a similar breaking point. Feeling that they no longer have a voice or a stake in the political process, that their votes are worthless if the parties that they supported instantly break their manifesto pledges, they took to the streets in their thousands and launched a furious attack on Tory HQ, smashing windows and dropping banners from the roof. Property damage, it seems, is still the last resort of citizens whose leaders prioritise the interests of private property above the interests of the people.

Property and propaganda

Like the suffragettes, the students and schoolchildren who tore into the bottom storey of 30 Millbank have quickly found themselves subject to a media smear campaign dismissing them as savage and feral, unworthy of consideration by an establishment in need of new reasons to denigrate the distress of the disenfranchised. The logic of this propaganda rather bizarrely equates violence against persons -- which was mercifully avoided at Millbank thanks to the poor aim of the one idiot who decided to drop a fire extinguisher -- with damage to private property, which some might argue is a perfectly legitimate response to a government that has just taken a wrecking ball to the life chances of the young.

Mrs Pankhurst would certainly agree with the Millbank protesters. "There is something that Governments care for far more than human life, and that is the security of property," she said, "and it is through property that we shall strike the enemy." The press, politicians and others who represent the interests of business in this country have condemned the 'tens of thousands of pounds' that, in the Telegraph's estimation, were caused to the lobby at 30 Millbank, and called for the arrest of the perpetrators. Only a few, however, drew any equivalence with the tens of thousands of pounds that have, as a result of the forthcoming changes to higher education, been billed to every single young person who wishes to attend college or university from 2012. The young and the dispossessed, unlike the cheery millionaires of the Coalition, have done their maths with a little honesty. And we don't like the sums.

The young people who I saw punching their way into Tory HQ last week didn't come armed with tiny hammers hidden in their handbags like the suffragettes -- they had only their fists and feet and a powerful sense of betrayal. They could not, however, have chosen a better target if they'd tried. The building is owned by the Reuben Brothers, prominent Conservative party donors whose fortune totals some £5 billion. Insurance will easily cover what, to the Reubens, must seem a relatively puny loss. Unfortunately, the young people who have just seen their security, their society and their dreams of a better future torn away from them by politicians who were elected on a promise to do the precise opposite do not have any sort of insurance to fall back on.

Breaking point

Some kinds of vandalism are easy to condemn. Certainly the antisocial furniture-and-window breakage of today's student protesters had an excellent model in the loutishly methodical property destruction of the Bullingdon club, the exclusive Oxford drinking club to which the current Prime Minister and many of his cronies belonged in their own, entirely state-funded university days. After trashing various private dining rooms and student suites, the Bullingdon boys would write cheques to compensate the owners with the lazy confidence with which they would later authorise the destruction of social security.

It's easy to condemn that kind of pugnacity as "despicable". On the other hand, there are some sorts of vandalism that are so huge and so unspeakable that they're not even considered crimes anymore. The students who shattered the windows of 30 Millbank are being pursued by the police, but nobody has yet called for a witch-hunt of those responsible for the sacking of the welfare state, of public education and of social democracy in this or any other country. This is because it is illegal to smash up someone's lobby, but perfectly legal to smash up someone's future.

From the moment we had language, most of us learned that life was a list of things that we weren't allowed to break: rules, windows, political settlements. The rich, of course, can break all of these things with impunity. The young Oxford students who walked blithely away from the infamous Bullingdon club flowerpot-through-the-window incident twenty years ago are now the most powerful men in the country, and they have few qualms about shattering welfare and education into tiny pieces and selling them off to their friends.

Sources on the ground have suggested that the Millbank protests are just the beginning. If one values social justice above private property, this can only be a good thing, so perhaps it's time that the country began a concerted effort to hold the centre-right to account for its vandalism of civil society. In the words of a million disgruntled shopkeepers. you broke it -- you pay for it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.