Fight the power: Coral Stoakes's placard used in the London protests of 2011
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The things they carried: the ingenious props of modern protest

A new exhibition at the V&A celebrates the hardware of protest movements, ranging from Solidarity to the Guerrilla Girls by way of Greenham Common and the anti-apartheid campaign.

Disobedient Objects
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

 

Stepping into “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum is like entering a counterculture craft fair. Instead of handmade knick-knacks – all bent-wire jewellery, turned-wood bowls and wobbly pottery – here are gas masks made from plastic drinks bottles, a slingshot fashioned from bits of an old shoe and placards painted in back bedrooms. It is a display of the props of agitprop, the hardware of protest movements ranging from Solidarity to the Guerrilla Girls by way of Greenham Common and the anti-apartheid campaign.

The show bills itself as an exhibition of “art and design from below” but there is little here that is recognisable as either art or design in a gallery sense. Aesthetic considerations are barely evident: the objects show ingenuity rather than artistry. The raw materials used are all cheap, almost none of the items was made to have a life beyond a particular protest and many of them are repurposed – if not swords turned into ploughshares, then anti-riot police shields decorated as book jackets. Collectively the objects represent an ad hoc creativity, in which the materials of protest are made on the hoof and often under conditions of duress. The result is a charity-shop response to the couture weapons of the state.

Apart from a delicate cup and saucer espousing votes for women, the exhibits date from the 1970s onwards and stand in for the long history of societal and trade union protest that preceded them. The objects do not, however, need the provenance of the French Revolution, the événements of 1968, the Chartists or the Jarrow marchers, because each has an evocative backstory of its own. The first item on display, for example, is a cooking pot lid battered out of shape during the street protests that took place in Buenos Aires in 2001, when the Argentinian government froze the bank accounts of 18 million of its citizens. The protesters’ slogan – “All of them must go!” – proved both prescient and potent. Four presidents were forced out of office in the space of three weeks. Though an object with no intrinsic merit whatsoever, this simple cooking utensil helped to change history.

If noise is one of the established weapons of protest, another method is stone-throwing. While the Palestinian shoe slingshot was made to inflict physical damage, the marchers of the 2012 May Day events in Berlin and Barcelona hurled cobblestones – historically the demonstrators’ projectile of choice – to humorous effect. Rather than prise real cobbles out of the streets, they lobbed giant, inflatable versions at the police. It was both a surreal subversion of the staples of violent protest – kettling, a hail of missiles, the percussion of truncheons on riot shields – and an inventively effective way of getting across the protesters’ message that “We come in peace”, if not in jest.

The power of humour was utilised, too, by Coral Stoakes (almost all of the other items here are anonymous), who painted a placard wielded during the 2011 demonstrations in London against spending cuts. She dreamed up its slogan – “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies” – in part for self-preservation in case things turned violent: “I thought it would be difficult to hit me with a baton if they were laughing.” Her placard is on its way to becoming the Che Guevara poster of our time.

A darker humour is evident in the Phone Story app, a game that guides players through the production process behind the device they are playing it on. To win, you must force children to mine coltan in Congo, dispose of the toxic waste in Pakistan, and so on. It is almost a surprise that this subtle response to indifferent capitalism managed to last four days on Apple’s App Store before it was removed. Meanwhile, the designers of the “Regime Change Begins at Home” playing cards turned the gag against the set issued to US soldiers in Iraq in 2003, replacing Saddam and his cronies with Messrs Bush and Blair and assorted industrialists: from Ba’athists to the military-industrial complex in one fell swoop.

Many of the other objects – defaced banknotes, “bust cards” listing your rights in case of arrest and mechanisms for safely bolting yourself to a perimeter fence – are more earnest but no less inventive. But the main feeling provoked by this show of disaffected folk art is one of nostalgia for protests past. The Occupy movement may be fresh in the memory and the Gaza march in London was only weeks ago, but they aren’t congealed in the emotional aspic that swaddles the old battles of Wapping, Orgreave colliery or Rock Against Racism. Even protests, it seems, have a golden age. l

Runs until 1 February 2015

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition