A policeman keeps an eye on a boat full of protestors against tax dodging. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on The G8: welcome to the “New Northern Ireland”, a place where no dissent will be tolerated

"Could they not have just had the meeting on Skype?"

In Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, the streets are full of fake shop-fronts, designed to give the impression that empty stores are still selling things. Some of them are so realistic that locals have attempted to walk through doors that turn out to be painted on. The small Northern Irish town has 4.8 per cent unemployment, with an 82 per cent rise in redundancies last year, and a population of 14,000, plus about 3,000 police from all over Britain, plus a protest camp. It’s here that the 2013 G8 conference is taking place.

The G8 allows the world's richest nations to come together without representatives of the global south blocking the corridors and raising inconvenient points in meetings, but that's not its only function. It is also about pomp and show. It’s a pageant of neoliberal capitalism functioning whether local residents like it or not. That sort of pageantry requires the suppression of dissent, especially in a political climate where the elite's only answer to a drop in living standards and a collapse of faith in democracy is to line up an epic number of police with water cannons and tear gas.

“They’ve spent fifty million on policing,” Gerry Carroll, an activist in Belfast, tells me. “For god’s sake, could they not have just had the meeting on Skype?”

Since the 2001 summit in Genoa was targeted by 200,000 protesters, all subsequent G8 meetings have been held in remote locations designed to be inaccessible to the general rabble; last year the gathering was due to come to Chicago, but the location was changed to Camp David after the Occupy movement promised to converge on the city. This year, the chosen pitch is tiny Enniskillen, a good two hours' drive from Belfast even without roadblocks and hold-ups.

There has been an enormous uptick in police presence and capabilities both on the streets of Belfast and in rural County Fermanagh. Central Belfast was virtually shut down on Saturday during the peaceful march called by local left groups, where 3,000 demonstrators were met by an almost equal number of police, even though the G8 leaders weren’t even in the country yet. Local prison facilities have been expanded, horrifying residents. "One of the top stories on the news here in the North was that they'd spent millions building this facility – they're so prepared for mass violence that they could lock up 300 people at will," Sean Mitchell, an activist with the Irish anti-austerity group People Before Profit, tells me.

The choice to hold the G8 in Northern Ireland is an interesting one, designed in part to showcase the state's newfound stability, but also to demonstrate the lengths to which local law enforcement is prepared to go to defend that stability. In his speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this morning, Obama praised the people of Northern Ireland for their commitment to ending sectarian violence, saying that the peace process gave "the entire world hope." He quoted Yeats and Heaney, made jokes about the craic, and spoke of sunny days free from the anticipation of violence. Outside it rained hard on 3,000 police, the sort of airless city rain that seems to come from all directions at once.

You might have been forgiven for thinking the whole of Belfast loved Obama, were it not for the massive slogan marked out in white bedsheets on a nearby hill, visible across the city, and certainly from the presidential helicopter. The slogan reads “G8/NWO: WAR CRIMINALS.”

The governments in Westminster and Stormont are keen to show off a Northern Ireland free from the merest whimper of trouble, whatever it takes. In the process, they have collapsed the notion of hard-won peace into a logic whereby all protest is put down and suppressed in the name of "stability". This confuses, effectively, the idea of a state in which citizens work together to live better lives after years of fighting – some might call this a democracy functioning well – with a state in which no dissent is tolerated, which is the sort of crisis of representative democracy that most G8 leaders, from Putin to President Obama, are facing at home right now.

This morning the streets of Enniskilllen, lined with abandoned shops disguised behind false fronts, were practically deserted. Protesters making their way to Fermanagh from across Northern Ireland expect to be arrested and thrown into one of the specially-developed dentention facilities standing ready for them. I spoke to young Fermanagh residents who had been hassled at home by the police merely for discussing the possibility of peaceful protest on the internet; all of them were too frightened of retribution to talk on the record. To mistake this bicep-flexing neoliberal muscle-show for a stable state full of happy people would be a mistake.

"The argument is that we're in a new situation, a 'New Northern Ireland', but the security response to the G8 has broken that down," says Sean Mitchell. "It's the same mass-scale, repressive response to political protest - but this time used against anti-capitalist protesters."

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide