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Revolts don’t have to be tweeted: Laurie Penny on a force bigger than technology

There is a lot more to the recent uprisings than just the knock-on effects of social media.

An extraordinary thing has happened. In Egypt, a million-strong movement forced the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's government, even though the state had pulled the plug on the internet. After over a week without reliable access to their Facebook profiles, the people of Egypt did not abandon their revolution. They have forced concessions from the government and sent shock waves through the region - without firm help from Twitter. What on earth is going on?

Despite what you might hear on the news, there's a lot more to the recent uprisings than just the knock-on effects of social media. As the world's press has struggled to retain control of the narrative, it has seized on how many of the dissidents are - gasp - organising online.

In what appears to be dogged unwillingness to recognise the economic brutality of governments as the root cause of popular unrest, news people everywhere have boggled exhaustively over the way in which protesters in Cairo, Tunis, Paris and London are using the internet to communicate. What did they think we were going to use - smoke signals?

Of course, technology has been a shaping force in these uprisings. The internet is a fascinating and useful tool, the best we have for organising and sharing information.

The low cost of participation in digital networks allows protesters to circumvent the sometimes arthritic hierarchies of the old far left and to organise horizontally, while the instant dissemination of camera and video footage and reportage from citizen journalists means that the truth can travel around the world before government propaganda gets its boots on. This has allowed the protests to grow and evolve faster than anyone expected.

At times of crisis, human beings have a reassuring tendency to use the best tools at their disposal to steal a march on the enemy, especially if native fluency with those tools gives us an edge over our oppressors. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that young protesters and their allies are organising on Twitter and Facebook.

Capital punishment

The internet is a useful tool, but it is just a tool. HTML does not cause mass uprisings any more than a handgun causes mass murder - although, for people of a certain mindset, the mere proximity of the tool is enough to set dangerous thoughts in motion. The internet isn't the reason people are getting desperate and it isn't the reason things are kicking off. Things are kicking off for one reason and one reason alone: there is a global crisis of capital.

The writing is on the wall, with or without the web. Across the world, ordinary people - including a huge, seething pool of surplus graduates without employment - are finding their lives measurably less tolerable than they had anticipated. They are realising that they are not suffering alone, or by accident, but because the capitalist classes have consistently put their own interests first.

The writing is on the wall, and it would still be there if we had to paint it on with mud and sticks. Technology is defining the parameters of global protest in 2011 but it is a crisis of capital that has set the wheels of revolt in motion.

 

Laurie will be speaking on the politics and new media panel at the Progressive London conference this Saturday.

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 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

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.