Is Copenhagen about to get violent?

Scare stories about violent "Black Bloc" activists are emerging in Copenhagen. Are they true?

"German activists to take Bella Centre", blares the headline in the Danish papers. An old man in a bar tells me nervously -- when he hears that I'm with the conference -- that "the hooligans are coming, we're very worried". The fate of the world's environment may hang in the balance down the road at the Bella Centre, but broken windows and burnt-out cars are what prey on the mind of many Copenhagen residents.

It's driving most activists mad. Here they are, working their bums off to create striking, powerful, but non-violent uprisings that will stimulate debate or even political change, and all the journalists want to ask about or write about is: "When does the ruck start?" The piece in the Danish paper Politiken is typical: the "taking" of the Bella Centre turns out to refer to the well-publicised plan to try to hold a People's Summit in or near the conference next week, not a master plan for holding delegates hostage.

Why is this? Why this obsession with a small number of people throwing bricks? There are, I think, two reasons. First, thanks to the media and the police, the threat is often blown up far larger than the reality. Headlines such as the one above are unhelpful, but the police are also well aware that a few good scare stories do a great job of keeping people away from legitimate demonstrations, and make their job easier as a result.

We saw a classic example of this in the UK last year when the Observer published a story about the "growing threat from eco-terrorists", which the paper was later forced to withdraw: the piece was based almost entirely on information from the police force and little or no evidence from among activists had been gathered to back it up. Scare 'em off, think the police. Frighten them away and we'll have a nice, quiet afternoon.

But there is another reason for these stories. And that is that the threat from small groups of militant protesters is not just a police and media fiction. We may be guilty of hyping it up, but it is more than just a fairy tale; the Black Bloc does exist.

British activists tend to insist that it's all rubbish (to be fair, in the UK the Black Bloc really is a bit of a myth). But over here in Denmark, most Danish activists nod and say, "Oh yes, they're here already", or "They're coming from Germany". Every single local and police source I've spoken to since getting here has confirmed this. It's not just a little media fantasy. The next week and a half could get very nasty indeed.

So. If Vandal hoards really are pouring in for a ruck outside the conference centre, don't we deserve to know in advance? Don't I have a journalistic duty to report on them? Violence, rioting, these are profound disturbances of our social contract. Non-violent activists may want to tell us all about climate change, but the old man in the bar is just worried about a brick through his window. He deserves to know what's going on, too.


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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.