Beyond the spectacle

How can the anti-cuts movement break through the media’s short attention span?

Violence is good television; peace is not. The people who smash things know this. They aren't necessarily natural vandals who would go around breaking windows or setting fire to pallets – though let's not rule that out – but they know the best way to be looked at is to break something. The naughty child in a classroom who always plays up gets the most attention from the teacher, while everyone else working quietly can be ignored.

It's the same reason why terrorists try to blow up aeroplanes rather than organising 200 separate fatal car crashes: one will make the news worldwide, the other will not. Break something, charge a police line, chuck a brick, arrange a colourful stunt – you'll get coverage, while thousands of people can march peacefully along in the background, completely ignored.

News channels think that footage of someone smashing a window or chucking paint at Top Shop are more interesting to their viewers than staring at Ed Miliband's face. They may be right. As Charlie Beckett says, we shouldn't necessarily go blaming the media if the "wrong" messages are taken away from an event by news outlets. The rolling news channels think their viewers are like dozing, elderly, half-blind cats who need a poke in the ribs and a bit of wool dangled in their whiskers before they get interested; they've either hugely miscalculated their audience, or they know them all too well.

The short attention span of the viewer, fingers forever poised over the remote control, demands that excitement be maintained in whatever way is possible. The sight of things being smashed is sexier to look at than tens of thousands of peaceful protesters slowly processing along a prearranged marching route. After a few seconds, you get banner fatigue, and quickly start wondering what's on the other channel.

None of this is a glib dismissal of Saturday's March for the Alternative, or an assertion that it was all a waste of time; the event was a coming together of many different groups with a range of viewpoints, sharing common ground over a way forward that doesn't have to involve the savagery of cuts planned by the coalition government. It was a wonderful show of feeling and determination, and could prove to be a springboard for a wider grass-roots movement. But the difficulty in getting the message across, without having your peaceful protest hijacked by rent-a-mob or having your movement tainted by the actions of unconnected others, is evident.

So what impression are we left with, those of us who didn't attend? Do we think of the thousands of smiling faces, the high spirits, the masses of families and individuals getting together for a shared cause? Or are we left with the sinister fag-end of the day's events – the reports of light bulbs filled with ammonia or fireworks stuffed with coins, the "anarchists" and troublemakers, regardless of what relation they had to the vast majority of protesters?

Where the anti-cuts movement goes from here, and how it conveys its aims, will determine its success. Building a broad grass-roots movement takes time, effort and hard work, most of which is going to happen away from the cameras, away from big events like Saturday's, away from the troubleseekers and troublemakers, too. That's where the battle will be won or lost.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.