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Bread, circuses and tea towels can’t stifle dissent, says Laurie Penny

The case for disrupting the royal wedding.

Civil society may be dissolving, governments are in crisis across Europe and significant parts of the inhabited world are either under water or on fire, but it'll all be fine as long as nobody disrupts the royal wedding. The opposition leader, Ed Miliband, has joined the chorus of hand-wringers pleading with students and the trade unions not to start any funny business while the prince and his bride walk up the aisle.

On the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Miliband said that the notion of as yet unplanned strikes during the wedding or the Olympics would be "absolutely the wrong thing for the trade unions to do". Distancing himself from organised labour, the Labour leader's advice to the public was clear: stay home, be quiet and watch it all on television.

Over the next two and a half years, a full calendar of bread and circuses has been scheduled to keep the British public happy and obedient while the government puts its economic shock doctrine into effect. This year, it's the Wedding of Mass Distraction; next year it's the Diamond Jubilee and after that the Olympics. The timing is a gift for any government attempting to push through punitive and unpopular reforms - the chance to smother dissent with a dampened commemorative tea towel of pomp and circumstance. This is the highest function of what Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle: not just to distract popular attention from the machinations of government, but artificially to invoke the imagery of a national consensus that doesn't exist. In David Cameron's Britain, respect for the popular mandate is in no way important. All that matters
is the iconography of public ritual, just enough to make everybody shut up and shout hurrah.

Real war memorial

Precisely the same logic of baseless deference is at play when the press condemns student protesters who swing from war memorials during anti-cuts marches. While everyone gets worked up about a few kids harmlessly tampering with symbols of wartime sacrifice, the greatest war memorial of all - the welfare state - is being ripped to shreds.

Universal health care, universal education, out-of-work benefits, voter enfranchisement and respect for women's unpaid labour were all legacies of public consensus after the two world wars; all are directly threatened by the brutal programme of cuts about to be enacted by this government. As far as regards respect for the fallen, Cameron may as well have burned down the Cenotaph and replaced it with vending machines and a flashing sign reading “Big Society".

Venerating the static symbols of Britain's uncomfortably bloodstained imperial traditions requires much less compassion, and much less effort, than preserving the living institution bequeathed to us by former generations. Give the public a ceremony and a huge parade, the theory goes, and general complaisance will follow. This time, though, our leaders are beginning to worry that it might not be enough.

Ed Miliband horrified the labour movement by declaring that strikes are "a sign of failure" and that the way one challenges a dissembling government is “at the ballot box". This may have been the case once, but when democracy is subsumed within the simulacra of choice - when voting only gives power to a government that U-turns on all of its significant promises and implements an austerity programme for which it has no mandate - the time has come to challenge the iconography of obedience.

This is exactly why the possibility of disrupting the stultifying public pageantry of the royal wedding must remain on the table. Do we want to be part of a culture that sits in front of the TV, whining while the big decisions are made for us and cheering on cue? Or do we want to be part of a culture that stakes a claim, stands firm and answers back to injustice?

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 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency

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Jeremy Corbyn wins Labour leadership contest in crushing victory

The Labour leader increased his mandate from 2015. 

Jeremy Corbyn has stormed to victory with an increased mandate in his second Labour leadership contest, with 61.8 per cent of the vote.

The Labour leader won 59 per cent of the member vote, 70 per cent of registered supporters' votes and 60 per cent of affiliated supporters' votes.

His triumph confirms for any remaining doubters the party's shift to the left - in 2015, he had won 59.5 per cent of the vote.

Owen Smith, the challenger, received 38.2 per cent of the vote. He was reported to have conceded defeat moments before the official result.

The turn out was 77.6 per cent, with 506,438 valid votes cast. 

Both men ran on a similar platform of opposition to austerity and zero-hours contracts, but Corbyn commanded the support of the majority of grassroots activists and party members.

In his victory speech, he struck a conciliatory note, thanking volunteers on both teams and telling Smith: "We are part of the same Labour family."

He said: "I will do everything I can to repay the trust and support, to bring our party together."

Pledging to make Labour an engine of change, he urged party members to "wipe the slate clean" after a summer of sniping and work together.

"We are proud as a party that we're not afraid to discuss openly, to debate and disagree. That is essential for a party that wants to change people's lives for the better," he said. 

Noting the party had tripled its membership since last spring, he urged members to take Labour's message into every community, and said the party had a duty of care to its members: "Politics is demeaned and corroded by intimidation and abuse. It's not my way, and it's not the Labour way, and never will be."

Smith, by contrast, stepped forward to represent disaffected Labour MPs, who were unimpressed with Corbyn's campaign during the EU referendum and feared he was unelectable. 

Corbyn's victory will at least temporarily quash any rival leadership bids, but it nevertheless leaves the leader with a headache. 

After the vote for Brexit, a wave of resignations emptied Corbyn's shadow cabinet, and he has not succeeded in fully refilling it. He now faces the choice of building bridges with the parliamentary Labour party, or going down the more radical route of reshaping the party itself. 

Much hinges on the decision of the National Executive Committee on whether to allow elected shadow cabinet positions, which could potentially offer a way back in for anti-Corbyn MPs. But if such elections extended to grassroots members, this could also end up isolating them further.