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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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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