The perils of ignoring popular protest

Protests like Occupy London need to be heard and acted upon or riots may ensue.

The protest of the Occupy London activists camped outside St Paul's Cathedral for the past view weeks has focused attention on a central demand for economic justice in the world. Much of the media attention was drawn initially by the ongoing discourse between church and protesters. The cathedral authorities seemed to do a complete 360 degree turn when it came to the occupation.

To date, the failure to protest has seen governments everywhere simply shovelling tax payers' money into the coffers of the banks with very little in return. Indeed, for the most part the bankers have said "thanks very much" and continued paying themselves huge bonuses. The wider question, though, is: do these type of protests work? Visiting the St Paul's site there are the usual suspects; seen at road, anti war and environmental protests over the years.

There is a bohemian atmosphere around, with signs reflecting a national and global outlook. So there are "Greetings for the landless of India and Ektu Parishad", alongside "Sex Workers denied decriminalisation and safety rights" and "Giving to the poor is not enough - restructure so there is no poverty."

The site is well organised with a clear programme of events, listed at what is called the "tent university." On a day I visited there were campaigners Global Witness on "the dictator and offshore paper trails, monetary justice and the need for effective protest" and a session on the history of St Paul's with cathedral guide Ernest Woolmer. In the evening the film Battlefield, on the Bolivian revolt at La Paz, was shown. The group run a paper with a 2,000 print run called the Occupied Times.

Those who question whether protest works often quote the march of more than one million people against the Iraq war in 2003. This huge turnout, they argue, was ignored. At face value this was true, but that march and a succession of others around the time did have a lasting impact together with other factors on the political system. There have been other protests since, such as in favour of combating climate change, for the living wage and regulation of undocumented workers, against the government's public spending cuts and the policy of privatising the forests.

What the elected politicians need to remember is that over the years, all of these protests have been bringing in people from different races, classes and backgrounds. Overall, there must be a growing mass of people dissatisfied with how society is being run today.

Failure to respond to legitmate protest will in the long run result in violence. While the political class did its best to blame the riots in August on individual criminality, they were in reality another form of protest. What started as a peaceful protest about the death in police custody of another black man grew into something far bigger and more dangerous. Mob rule took over. What politicians should have looked at is why the riots took hold so easily. Whilst much of the rioting was straight mob violence, it was also a response to a polarised society that preaches consumerism and greed as virtues. The rioters had seen bankers, politicians, the police and the media with their noses in the trough, so thought: why not the rest of us?

There have been other instances over the years where failure to respond to popular protest has resulted in it taking on other forms and ultimately led to violence. The war in the north of Ireland is one of the best examples, with peaceful protest in the form of the civil rights marches repelled in violent fashion. This in turn led to violence over many years becoming the only way of expressing dissent. In the end, talks began and the peace process is now underway in earnest, but there were many lives lost as a result of a totally unnecessary conflict.

It will be interesting to see how those in power in this country respond to the growing protests from groups like Occupy London and climate change activists, to students and trade unions striking over cuts to pensions. It is simply not good enough to bleat out platitudes like "we're all in it together"; there needs to be a rebalancing of society in favour of the common good. Until this happens the protests will continue to come thick and fast, with violence more commonplace if those in power continue to cock a deaf ear to their pleas.

Paul Donovan writes a column for the Catholic weekly newspaper, the Universe.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.