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Protest by consensus: Laurie Penny on Madrid's Occupy

Like most of the occupations around the world today, Madrid's Puerta del Sol is peaceful.

In Spain, the revolution doesn't start till after teatime. It's 4pm on a Saturday and I'm wandering through Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the main city square that was occupied last May by thousands of anti-austerity activists, to find just two folding tables piled with leaflets. Behind one of them, some earnest young people in their late twenties are collecting votes for a people's referendum they have organised, involving some three million people across Spain, to decide what the 15O movement behind the evening's planned protest is actually demanding.

"In May, we asked everyone for proposals and suggestions for the change they wanted to see," says Rai, an eager 29-year old software developer helping to co-ordinate this referendum. "In the end we had about 11,000 suggestions. That was too much, and we couldn't get everyone to agree, so a group of four hundred made them into just five suggestions."

The referendum is so broad that the edges are hard to see -- participants are required to vote yes, no or abstain to "less political corruption" and "a more sustainable economy", alongside more specific demands for greater representation for smaller parties within Spain's current two-party system. Most people I speak to believe this is an improvement on the terms of the upcoming General Election, whose results are seen as a foregone and depressing conclusion -- more austerity, with a little less mitigation and no real choice for voters.

Rai wears a t-shirt saying "citizen of the new world". As protests begin to be coordinated across the planet, the shape of that new world is still uncertain although behind us in Sol, four or five young activists are doggedly constructing a giant globe out of bamboo and papier mache. I ask Rai if he expects many people to be here tonight. "I don't know," he says, admitting to a loss of radical energy in Spain's movement over the summer. "A few, maybe."

Four hours later the square is crammed with over 60,000 people, a vast, stamping, shouting human mass. "I'm here because I am indignados!" One girl shouts at me in broken English. "We are angry!"

As more demonstrators press their way into the square, chanting about the failure of representative democracy and calling for, among other things, the dismissal of the local governor, there is literally no room to turn around. Some activists break into an empty building on one side of the square and begin to drop banners: "somos los 99 percent", reads one, echoing the slogan of the "occupy" protests around the globe, as news pours in about sister demonstrations in New York, Boston, Lisbon, London and almost a thousand other towns and cities around the world.

This is a global protest, and it seeks to address a global problem: the monopolisation of wealth by the elite and the failure of free-market capitalism to create a liveable future for humanity.

The alternatives for that future are unformed, but they are at last being debated in open people's forums around the world. The giant papier-mache globe has now been completed and actually looks quite impressive, glittering with red and green LEDs at points of global occupation as it hangs in the middle of the noisy twilit square.

Like most of the occupations around the world today, Puerta del Sol is a peaceful protest. As each banner drops, the crowd cheers it cacophonously; those packed into the sidestreets can't see the banners, so they don't even know why they're cheering, but they cheer anyway, a thunderous roar reverberating back through the crowd and through the heart of the Spanish capital.

"Maybe people don't listen to us now, but in the future they will have to," says Eva, 18, as the night draws in and the crowd settles down for an enormous general assembly. "They can't ignore us. We are the 99 per cent."

In every wing of this protest movement I have reported from, one common theme is the fetishisation of form and process over ideology. In Madrid, as in London and New York, all decisions, from the smallest breakout circle to general assemblies of thousands, are made using the "consensus" model of direct democracy, waving hands in various simple signals and operating with discussion facilitators rather than leaders, a system that some say originated in the Quaker movement several centuries ago.

There are different dialects of hand-signal consensus in different countries-in Spain they wave their hands higher, in New York a system called "progressive stack" is designed to ensure that minority voices are heard -- but the principle is the same.

It's a principle of democracy done at ground level, and people involved in this "consensus" process find it incredibly empowering -- a refreshing contrast to the alienating remoteness and weary predictability of parliamentary representative democracy, which most people here see as totally irrelevant to their real lives.

The sense of collective engagement overwhelms the multiplicity of different strategies and suggestions within the movement: everyone turns up with their own problems and grievances, but the process of engagement becomes just as important . "I do not come here to affirm who I am already," one visiting Spanish activist in New York said last week, "I come here to discover who I can be with other people. This is a new kind of politics."

I believe that what we are seeing here is the beginnings of a substantive change not just to the nature of modern politics, but to the way in which it is done, demanded and delivered, a change shaped by network technology just as the printing press changed politics six centuries ago.

It baffles the hell out of the press, and not even those who have been involved deeply from the start pretend to be able to see the end game, but one thing's for sure -- it would be a grave mistake to write off this unique movement before it has really begun.

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.