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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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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.