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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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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