Occupation is easy. Rebuilding is the hard part

The Occupy movement is attacking the right in vague terms, rather than focusing on specific policies

"Occupy London. Go on. Do it... I dare you... People might watch. People in coats, with ties. Bankers. David Cameron might watch, and we hate him. Bloody Cameron." This might as well have been our Gettysburg address.

Because as far as rallying cries go, the social left of the world needs writers. In the last month, as protests have rippled across the world, it's been the haphazard rag-bag flavour of the left -- not the political brutalism of the right -- that has been burned into the shop fronts of Rome and the consciousness of a generation.

The whole thing -- the hastily stenciled placards, the faint aroma of organics and the rush on tarpaulin -- just smacks of teenage angst, as though the socialist worker has thrown up on an ethics class. Not least because the public have yet to be presented with anything approaching a cogent political aim.

I attended a debate earlier this year that could be couched in similar terms. It was anti-imperialist circle-jerk for the recently philosophical and generationally left. Nato in Libya, they argued, was the continuation of British Empire, the expansion of the American "world police" (a term that should send shivers down the spine of any thinking mammal) and tantamount to colonial invasion. And it's the Tories, they continued with risible stridence, the Tories -- with their cuts and their austerity and their Margaret Thatchers and their racism -- that are to blame.

Now I don't like the Tories. Their social and economic policies are reprehensible, and their political strategy has the mood of a 1950s smoking lounge. But they aren't colonists and if they were, their domestic economic plans would probably have little to do it with it. The argument is, prima facie, a non sequitur.

But that's the problem with a left in the limelight. Without decent, non-centrist organisation -- without the '68ers or the '89ers -- the influence of die-hard socialists in flat-caps and second-hand barbers is unfettered. The message, as a result, tends to lack coherence and consistency.

Now, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Habermasians amongst us may even suggest it's actively good; it keeps political dialogues fresh. The left has always been a bastion of academic rigour, and competing visions inform the cause. All true, or it would be, if the left of today wasn't regularly sodomised by a generation of "socialist workers" who swallowed their political philosophy in Engels' 56-pages.

Today, rather than engage with political discourse by meeting each point head on, there is an overwhelming tendency to hurl as much shit at any wall that will stay up long enough to take it. (In this analogy, the media is a wall). That's why Wall Street wailing won't work.

Hawkish foreign policy is conflated with religious conservatism. Capitalist free markets are dismissed in the same breath as constrained immigration. Cuts to social services are unfairly labelled as Etonian ignorance. Law and order is ignored because heaven forbid we concede a point. The centre-right and far-right are unfairly homogenised, and the racist tendencies of one diluted by the social backwardness of the other. Taxation is divorced from employment, welfare is deified and defence spending is the "actual antichrist".

Why? Why do we distill generations of intellectual superiority into trite sound bites? Because, without a leftist political party that refuses to accept the rights agenda and stick to its guns, we panic. We see a 24-hour news machine obsessed with breaking the next big thing, a clap-happy police force itching for a scuffle, and a public who absorbs Paxman-politics between Strictly and Buzzcocks. And we panic.

The answer? Sophistry, apparently. The result? Insignificance.

The Occupy movement looks a lot like engagement, like it is taking the fight to Cameron's Britain, but there's a reason dogs don't just bark. A right that is scared is very different to a right that is beaten.

But if we continue to attack blue, instead of blue policies, if we go on badgering Conservatives while conservatism quaffs whiskey in the corner, if we burn Phillip Green in effigy while global capitalism spreads like a wildfire, we will be a life subsumed by sentiment, waiting to be swept from the streets.

Occupation is easy; rebuilding is the hard part.

Oliver Duggan is a political blogger and freelance journalist. He has previously reported from Washington DC, British Parliament and the Horn of Africa, and is now living and writing in Leeds. He tweets @OliDuggan

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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.