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
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.