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The old protest playlist won’t do for the Spotify generation

Today's movements are marked by pluralism and a rejection of conventional politics and ideological conformity.

They say that if you want to understand a revolution, you have to listen to its music. Over the past year, as people's movements and student uprisings have swept through Europe and now America in response to the global crisis of capitalism, I have lost count of the number of grumbling articles by middle-aged, male columnists, complaining about the movement's lack of a defined soundtrack. There is no troubadour for this new, networked uprising, no Dylan or Billy Bragg for everyone to hum along to.

This is the charge being put to the protests that have sprung up in cities across the world following Occupy Wall Street: there is no defining ideology, no list of demands, so the movement must be inarticulate, and can be easily dismissed. If we don't know the song, how can we sing along? In fact, if you walk down to your nearest occupation - and as occupations are ongoing across the country, that should not be hard - you will find it full of music.

At the Occupy London protest on Ludgate Hill, I saw people playing reggae and jazz as occupiers of all ages huddled in sleeping bags, fighting off the wind chill under a giant banner reading "Capitalism Is Crisis".

In Liberty Plaza, at the Occupy Wall Street camp in the shadow of Manhattan's financial district, I saw the young unemployed from the Bronx clapping along to an impromptu string-and-woodwind band's rendition of Woodie Guthrie's "This Land Is Our Land", which segued without pause, and to much applause, into violent modern punk. Elsewhere, a boy of 17 with flowers in his hair sat, entirely unironically, bashing out the chords to Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are a-Changin'" on a guitar with four strings left. Around him, a gang of union members, hippies and Wall Street workers sang along.

Not that young people aren't writing riot songs, too. Grime, rap and dubstep have been the soundtrack of the British student movements just as much as rousing traditional folk tunes. There is a sense of time speeding up, of a collision of possible futures. In his book Retromania, the music critic Simon Reynolds observes that the range and quantity of music easily accessible online or in digital format at any one moment gives a sense of all of pop history happening at once. People travel to their office jobs carrying pocket playlists stuffed with Sinatra, Shostakovitch and the Streets.

Vinyl vanguard

This new protest movement - organised online and drawing in interest groups from unions to militant student groups and angry individuals holding placards criticising health-care reform - gives a similar impression of every uprising happening at once. I was in Madrid as 60,000 people crammed into Puerta del Sol, and middle-aged women brandishing copies of communist newspapers marched with masked anarchists in black and young organisers from the ¡Democracia Real Ya! arm of the summer's 15M uprising.

There are too many different tunes being sung for one melody to be audible over the noise of marching feet. To the political old guard, it can seem that the normal progression of events has become jumbled. The troops of this new uprising have not waited for a defined ideology or specific list of demands. How could they? The problems they have come together to protest against are too great - the disintegration of representative democracy, cuts to welfare, housing, health care and education propping up the oligarchy of aggressive market finance.

What marks this form of social change is precisely its pluralism, its rejection of conventional politics, its abhorrence of ideological conformity. There is no role in this multivalent movement for one group to set the tune, and that baffles and disturbs the elite, who are behaving like a bunch of ageing rock fans being prised away from their dusty CD collections.

The problem is that a political class raised on vinyl and vanguardism is only now attempting to understand a political generation that has had its Spotify moment. Technology has enabled kinds of social change that can respond in a global way to international crises, and its playlist of demands is uncomfortably broad. But on the edge of hearing, out of this cacophony of struggle, a terrifying harmony is beginning to emerge.

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 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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