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The day the teenagers turned on Topshop: Laurie Penny reports

What has been stolen from this angry generation? Hope.

Oxford Street at Christmastime is a special hell, and the last Monday in November is no exception. Grim-faced shoppers mummified in winter coats shove their way down freezing pavements to do their duty to the market, while a panopticon of corporate-sponsored festive lights glares down from slate skies. With no warning, a hundred young protesters pour across the road holding banners and whistles. The children of Britain are leading the consuming classes to mutiny.

These young activists are the same students and school pupils who were kettled in central London on 24 November after demonstrating to protect higher education. They have not gone away. They come from the buses and the Underground, pouring out of the backstreets in twos and threes, chanting: "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!" The target is the flagship store of Topshop, the global byword for successful British commerce, owned by Philip Green, billionaire and business adviser to the Prime Minister.

When we were young, this world-famous, multilevel store, with its blaring music and cool-looking young employees, was an Aladdin's cave of consumer delights and cutting-edge fashion. Now, however, the sales tags have fallen from our eyes. "Philip Green's taxation could pay for our education!" the protesters chant, accessorising their woollies with clashing orange bandanas, two fingers stuck up at the matchy-matchy aesthetic of the Kate Moss display. "Please occupy Topshop for us," whispers a young shop assistant with exciting, angular hair. "We're right behind you."

Green revolution

This youth movement isn't just about university fees - it's about challenging a political class that systematically gives the needs of the market greater priority than the people, offering tax breaks for big businessmen while ripping the heart out of education and social security.

Britain's child crusaders are beginning to win the argument, the raw edge of their righteous indignation slicing through the semiotic debris of state propaganda. Messages of solidarity come from all sections of the public - from parents, teachers, social workers and even police officers. Teenagers who came to buy novelty tights and lip gloss toss their bags down and join the protest.

When the demonstration ends, we march back to the student occupation at University College London, a welcoming space where smiling people hand out cups of tea and draw up well-being committees. These kids are savagely organised. Watching them plan their next action, I feel that someone really ought to have warned David Cameron not to underestimate the bloody-mindedness of British youth. These young people are angry. They are angrier than anyone could have anticipated.

What has been taken from them to make them so angry? Hope, that's what. Hope, and the fragile bubble of social aspiration that sustained us through decades of mounting inequality; hope and the belief that if we worked hard and did as we were told and bought the right things, some of us at least would get the good jobs and safe places to live that we'd been promised.

Hope was the emotional engine of a decade of dizzying economic growth. Now it's gone. Thatcher and Reagan knew you couldn't take away hope altogther, which is why they replaced the politics of collective bargaining with a cynical, but seductive, politics of aspiration and individualism. The coalition has forgotten that it's not enough for millionaire politicians to preach the politics of austerity when all they have to offer is more austerity.

Back on Oxford Street, as the police vans scream into view, the children's crusade stands firm. "They want to marketise our education," says Ben, 21, his breath clouding in the bitter air. "So we're going to educate their market."

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

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.