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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.