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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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.