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This is no conspiracy, Glenn Beck: Laurie Penny on Uncut

The UK and US Uncut movements are a genuinely popular, if gentle, insurrection. So why are their members being branded "extremists"?

The greatest conspiracies happen in plain sight. Today, across the Northern Hemisphere, activists from the grass-roots movement UK Uncut and its newly-formed sister group US Uncut are staging more than 90 protests in local branches of Natwest, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland, in locations from Hawaii to the English town of Ashby de la Zouch.

The blackboard-happy, shoutyporn shock jock Glenn Beck has denounced this growing movement as a "conspiracy", telling Fox News that "this unrest could spread from Middle East to Europe and eventually America... this would be co-ordinated all around the world."

Welcome as Beck's condemnation is to left-wing protesters, the yammering wingnut happens to be right. This is indeed a global insurrection, albeit a gentle one, running on poster paint, caffeine and cross-continental co-ordination via horizontal networks and it does come with an overtone of threat. I have spent the past week with members of UK Uncut and affiliated movements as they made placards and managed their twitter feeds, responding to messages of solidarity from across the world, from Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.

This morning, preparing for the latest protest and slurping down a hasty mug of tea, I watched one activist adjust her leotard for a heros-and-villains-themed flashmob, accessorised with a cloak bought for a Harry Potter costume party. Her friend, dressed as a tweedy university professor, put on a sinister Death Eater mask. "Look!" he said, "I'm Milton Friedman!" Red Army faction, it ain't; but right-wing pundits like Beck are still wetting themselves.

As I write, from one end of Oxford Street in London where 150 Uncutters are marching in the rain, activists are turning bank branches into temporary homeless shelters, libraries and classrooms. These are all vital public services due to be confiscated as world governments impose austerity programmes on their populations in order to bankroll the recklessness of global financiers. The protesters' message is simple: "The government," in the words of one 42-year-old UK Uncut protester, "should be making the banks pay, not ordinary people."

They make their point with flashmobs, bail-ins, street parties for pensioners and pre-schoolers, reclaiming the private space of banks and tax-avoiding businesses, relentlessly restating the hypocrisy of the financial elites. Courageous, yes; Baader-Meinhof-style conspiracy, no. What is most amusing, having spent time with the principled young people who began it all, is how thoroughly the commentariat is failing to understand what the hell is going on here.

The Uncut movement could be kids playing -- except that they have a scrupulous economic alternative and an informed network that stretches across the globe. They could be Glenn Beck's bug-eyed domestic extremists, except that the protests involve toddlers, grannies and young parents with brightly painted placards. In the UK, the police have responded with the classic pose of state agents on the back foot: panicked, malicious bewilderment. A protester shows me photo evidence on her phone of a previous demonstration, when a young woman was dragged away by the police for putting leaflets under a door. "They used CS spray, and three people ended up in hospital," she tells me.

Despite the cries of extremism, the Uncut movement is grounded on the same principles of fairness and accountability that politicians have mouthed for decades at the ballot box. Commentators and cabinet ministers nonetheless seem to be shocked by the notion that their electorates can, in fact, count.

Take the UK, for example, where the Royal Bank of Scotland was bailed out with £45bn of public money -- over half the government's £81bn austerity package -- and yet continues to award itself astronomical bonuses. Ordinary people who dare to stand against this manifest injustice are now "extremists". Students who post leaflets about tax avoidance through shop doors are "extremists". What kind of world are we living in, where wanting local libraries and schools to stay open is now "extremism", worthy of police crackdowns? What kind of society is this, if it is "extremist" for people to want to lead decent lives?

Conspiracy-touting like Beck's often looks like plain old scaremongering. In fact, those who toss out conspiracy theories often do so to distract themselves from larger, scarier, less manipulable outrages happening in plain sight. It is easy to rant at anyone who will listen about how the Pentagon bombed the twin towers; it's harder fully to conceptualise that Nato has bombed ten types of bloody hell out of the Gulf for a decade on the slightest of pretexts. Similarly, it is convenient for Beck and other wet-lipped neocon hate-peddlers to claim that the free world is under attack from a network of rabid communist conspirators; it is far less convenient for them to consider the notion that a real people's movement might be on the rise.

The notion that ordinary workers, students, pensioners and parents might finally have found the tools and the impetus to call out the lies of the powerful and demand accountability is deeply uncomfortable for reactionaries everywhere. That notion, the notion of a networked, principled people's resistance, is far more frightening to neoliberal governments than any terrorist cell.

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

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.