Democracy Village was an embodiment of people power

The camp was more than a collection of tents -- it was an idea. Protest is a vital part of the democ

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Democracy Village in Parliament Square -- the "shanty town", as David Cameron called it when he vowed to remove it before being elected -- was evicted.

Democracy Village had been derided by certain politicians and in the mainstream media as an eyesore afflicting an important public space, but make no mistake, the government and the Greater London Authority knew only too well the real threat posed by it -- and it had nothing to do with messy public spaces. They knew that the Village was far more than a ramshackle encampment. It was something that could not be tolerated -- an embodiment of genuine people power.

Here were citizens challenging the cover stories on illegal wars; here were people refusing to swallow the greenwash of the governments that failed us in Copenhagen; here were people free from the influence of the mainstream corporate media from which most people construct their world-view; here were those free from any form of propaganda government evangelists spew out.

Here, the discourse had no invisible boundaries. And when people can no longer be manipulated, when they have become immune to all artful attempts to quieten them, when they are not motivated by the attainment of money or power, when they are unafraid of arrest or imprisonment, then they have become truly free, and it is this state of profound "awakeness" that made the villagers so "dangerous".

Democracy Village was not an isolated group of political "extremists" as some would have you believe. If we were, then the majority of the British people are also extremists for wanting our troops brought home, as the latest polls show.

If we who want real action on climate change rather than compromises that allow continued devastation are extremist, then so are the millions of ordinary people who want a sustainable future for their children. If the ideas of fairness and justice we espouse are extremist, then we have finally entered an Orwellian nightmare.

What is "extreme" in this hall of mirrors we call civilised society is our willingess to "be the change [we] want to see in the world", as Mahatma Gandhi said, to proclaim the truth and have it called blasphemy by those who fear the end of their influence.

Boris Johnson was "worried" about the effect of Democracy Village on tourists. Was he worried by the effect on tourists of watching peaceful protesters being hauled into police vans for reading out the names of our soldiers killed in Iraq?

What tends to be forgotten is that protest is a vital part of the democratic process. As the acclaimed historian Howard Zinn astutely observed, we are apt to forget that advances in social justice have been brought about, not by politicians, but by ordinary people putting pressure on them until change could no longer be denied. This is when laws are changed and civilisation takes another step forward.

Laws cannot stand for all time; if they did, then we could have no moral progress, because laws only reflect the dominant values of the times in which they are created. Therefore, it was once legal to own slaves, to deny women the vote, to discriminate against a person because they were black . . . everything done in Nazi Germany was perfectly legal.

We have become strangers to our own history; we have become divorced from our own power and our true identity as sovereign citizens. Civil disobedience has a long and honourable tradition in this country, and Parliament Square has been at the very heart of it, from the suffragettes to the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. We followed that proud tradition; it is those who removed us who betrayed it, as Tony Benn made clear to the high court during the legal case. Parliament Square was created to allow the British people to petition the House of Commons, and that is what we gathered to do.

We heeded the calls at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009 to set up people's assemblies worldwide in June 2010: we started early and set one up on 1 May. Since then we have received support from individuals across the political spectrum -- Conservative and Labour MPs, current and ex-servicemen, trade union members and students, as well as overwhelming backing from the people of London and tourists from many countries.

Our diverse groups share many common goals, including peace, justice and a sustainable future for the planet, and we are respectful of the differences between us. In spite of our differences, we had unity through the diversity of our opinions, and worked constantly for tolerance of all ideas expressed. We sought to embody the words of Voltaire: "I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Democracy Village as a camp is now gone. But, as we have tried to show, it was far more than a collection of tents -- it is an idea. And ideas cannot be moved on, nor can they be locked up or in any other way confined.

As Henry Thoreau noted from the prison cell where he had been sent for non-payment of poll tax:

I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous.

So it matters not that Boris and Cameron have had their way for now -- the idea is alive and well and, as Victor Hugo understood, "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come."

We will be meeting this Saturday, 24 July, for a People's Assembly (between 1pm and 6pm) at Victoria Tower Gardens, just next to parliament. Join us!

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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.