Now is the time for middle-aged activism

When you’re a teenager you’re angry about everything, without necessarily knowing why. Steven Baxter suggests that it’s time for the grown-up teenagers to get properly angry – the kind of anger that comes with intimate knowledge of everything that’s gone

It's strange how life hands you chances to do things you never thought you'd do again, but there I was on Saturday, on the lower end of an 8ft helium balloon, marching through Manchester to protest about the state of the NHS. Before then, my previous protesting experience, as a punter rather than an observer, came back in the 1990s, before my young mind had even had the chance to be disappointed by New Labour, protesting Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Bill.

Back then, as a callow, long-haired teenager in that awkward space between A-levels and a City and Guilds, protesting seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. The Government were taking away our Right to Rave, and we were Angry. Angry with a Capital A. We yelled, we chanted, we threw stuff (actually, I didn't; I left Hyde Park "before it all kicked off" to get home early for my dinner, but you know what I mean). We blew whistles. We read the Socialist Worker. We screamed and we bawled. We were young, and we thought it all meant something. Hell, maybe it did.

When you're a teenager you're pretty angry about everything. Politics is just one of the many thousands of things that seem utterly and irrevocably unfair; you gravitate towards it because you might as well find one more thing to complain about. Teenagers are built to rebel against nothing they can define because they simply must; at least, with political activism, it makes more sense, or seemed to at the time.

It might sound like I'm about to dismiss campaigning and protesting as something somehow callow or a phase you have to go through, but I'm not. In fact, I'm beginning to think quite the opposite. The teenagers are right to be angry. I don't know if they know they're right, or if they're just angry and happen to have stumbled on the right mood for our times, but I am more and more convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

The older I get, the more it's beginning to make sense again - the grumpiness, the anger, the disobedience. Maybe now is the time to get back involved, in a kind of middle-aged activism, the kind of anger that comes from knowing just what a miserable, lying professional foul the world is, and how much better it could be.

So there we were, marching through Manchester, a ragtag-and-bobtail collective of trade unionists, activists, protesters and - it irks to say this, but I'm very much afraid it is true - the Usual Suspects. Yes, SW were there. Yes, I got offered a paper. Yes, someone handed me a leaflet about The Death of Trotsky. Yes, there were calls for a General Strike, which will garner the well-meaning movement about as much public sympathy as a slap in the face. Yes yes yes, all of that, but wait: it's easy to dismiss this kind of stuff by looking at the clichés and thinking it represents a simplistic identikit of the aims and objectives of those who dare question the happy neoliberal consensus of austerity first, everything else later. But what if they're right? What if it is worth stopping the NHS from slipping into the meat-grinder? What if there is a better way than cutting everything, privatising everything and outsourcing everything?

It wasn't just us making a noise (thank you, PCS samba band) that chilly Saturday: there were others taking to the streets, for UKUncut to protest Starbucks' buffet tax options, against the Scientology shop in town, and so on. A lot of people are angry. A lot more, you might argue, ignored all the fuss, the noise, the banners and balloons; they carried on sipping their dishwater lattes and filling their heaving plastic bags with Christmas shopping gifts now, playing chicken with the overdraft limit later.

True enough, I suppose. There is apathy everywhere, and maybe only pockets of activism to try and stir the bewildered Christmas shoppers from their numb slumber of melting plastic and payday loan sharks. I don't know if the tide is turning, or if anything will change anytime soon due to getting out on the streets and making a noise about it.

But. oh, I don't know. When we come to look back on this time, when everything relatively decent that we managed to get from the postwar settlement was dismantled and chucked away, do I want to think I didn't do anything about it? Or can I, at least, say that I did something, that I stood up and I said, enough is enough?

Even if it is just a feeble attempt to save what can't be saved, I think you have to try. Probably the teenage me, who took part in that other protest all those decades ago, wouldn't understand, but I do: you have to try. Not because you think you'll win, but because you simply have to try. Because if you don't, the only person you can blame for the way your world turned out is yourself.

Get marching.

 

If you don't try, who will you blame for how the world works out? Photograph: Getty Images
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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.