Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

0800 7318496