by Dan Hodges
By the time you read this I will just have completed my morning’s shopping. First, I’m popping into Fortnum and Mason. Unlike the majority of public school anarchists who were trashing the place on Saturday, I can’t afford a full hamper, so I’ll probably settle for a nice jar of strawberry jam. Then I’m planning to wander down to Topman. Not too sure what I’ll pick up there, seeing as I haven’t been in a Topman since Mark Harrison’s fifteenth birthday party back in 1984. I think I bought something grey. To me grey was, and still is, the new black. I was part of the south east London greyblock.
These are, I concede, small gestures. But there are times one has to take stand. Fight the power. Face up to the man.
At the moment I’m a lone voice. But I have high hopes of blossoming into a fledgling movement. UK Half Cut. Or Half Baked. Something like that.
Meanwhile, as I await the flood of applications to my new, organic, grassroots protest group, (I hope I can get a few grandmothers who have never protested before; the BBC love those), I must proffer an apology.
On Friday, in advance of Saturday’s demo, Rob Marchant wrote the following:
“If, like the earlier student demo, there are police clashes, heaven help us. Unbearably superficial though it might sound, in the age of image and 24-hour rolling news, it’s not an option to forget what things look like. Protesting and being prime-minister-in-waiting are not necessarily incompatible but they are, at best, tricky bedfellows”.
Although I had my own doubts of the benefits of the march, I didn’t foresee trouble. I tweeted that those predicting violence were delusional, that this wasn’t a student demo but a properly organized march by the trade unions and mainstream labour movement. No one would dare try to hijack it, and if they did, they be smartly told where to go by a couple of burly shop stewards.
Rob was right and I was wrong. Not that any blame is attached to the trade unions, or the organizers. What I and others misjudged is how it’s clearly impossible to police, never mind self-police, demonstrations of this nature when there are significant groups of idiots intent on subverting them.
Nonetheless, we must have our scapegoats. What was all set to go down as one of the great marches of all time was ruined. Defeat snatched from the jaws of, well, if not victory then solidarity, and a good spot behind the protestors of Libya and Syria on the evening news.
Scapegoat in chief appears to be fellow New Statesman blogger, Laurie Penny. My good Uncut comrade, Anthony Painter, wrote a critique of her critique of the march that got the pulses racing, and the twitterati in full cry.
I empathise. Much of what Laurie writes infuriates me, once I manage to get beyond the sheer beauty of it.
And yet, a significant part of the charge laid against Laurie was her appropriation of the memory of Martin Luther King and the civil rights marchers. Unwise to be sure. But if it was a crime, Ms Penny was not the only guilty party on Saturday.
She also found herself castigated for focussing on the “breakaway” march, rather than the official TUC rally. But, again, Laurie Penny has always centred her journalism on the unofficial youth wing of the protest movement. Yes, she writes from their perspective. But she’s never pretended to do otherwise. And they have a right to a hearing.
The final adverse criticism is her tendency to overly romanticise UK Uncut, seen by many as the focal point, if not the perpetrators, of much of Saturday’s trouble. Once more, there may be some weight to the charge. But is Laurie Penny really the only person to have eulogised over these swashbucklers of direct action?
“These brilliant protests on tax-dodging can unite us all” – Polly Toynbee (just prior to her being dragged out of one of the shops they were targeting).
“Protest works. Just look at the proof” – Johann Hari.
Of course they’re just hacks. No politician, certainly no Labour politician would be so daft as to sign up with these juvenile agitators. Well, except for Tom Blenkinsop, Ronnie Campbell, Martin Caton, Katy Clark, Michael Connarty, Jeremy Corbyn, David Crausby, Jim Dobbin, Jim Hood, Kelvin Hopkins, Gerald Kaufman, John McDonnell, Alan Meale, Linda Riordan, Virendra Sharma and Marsha Singh, who all signed the EDM praising,
“UK Uncut for the role it has played in drawing attention by peaceful demonstrations to tax evasion and avoidance and to the need for firm action to secure tax justice”.
But that’s not the fault of Brendan Barber, or the TUC. They organised a brilliantly disciplined, massively attended, well stewarded event that would have been a model of labour movement mobilization if it hadn’t been for that pesky Laurie Penny and those kids at UK Uncut. Except that some guy called Bredan Barber signed a letter to the Guardian back in December arguing,
“instrumentalism is such a narrow view of what it means to be human and to be educated. That is why campaigns like UK Uncut, which links corporate tax avoidance to the rebalancing of our depleted public finances, are critical both morally and practically”.
For good measure Len McCluskey, Tony Woodley and Dave Prentis signed it as well.
Let’s drop the cant. Sooner or later, organisations like UK Uncut were always going to piss on Labour’s bonfire. But let’s also not forget it was us who first invited them to the jamboree and handed them a beer.
Ever since the student protests, the labour movement has been running around like headless chickens trying to work out how to deal with this particular offshoot of the “new politics” of direct action and street protest. We haven’t come up with an answer, and the result was splashed across middle England’s TV screens and Sunday papers.
You, me, the unions, the PLP, the party leadership: all of us. We’re the ones to blame. We didn’t use our brains or our heads or our voices enough to say, “No thanks, we’re a political movement that aspires to govern. Go and play with your toys somewhere else”.
Now the question is, what are we going to do next? Are we going to learn our lesson? Politely, but firmly, going to show the kids the door? Or are we going to go for a repeat? Have a few more rounds until we, or the kids, or the police get ourselves a real honest to goodness martyr.
Last year, I wrote that the left could have protest or power, but not both. On Saturday we had neither. We handed the former to the child soldiers of the protest movement and saw the latter slide even further away as the day progressed.
The fact is that UK Uncut and the anarchists and the blackbloc achieved their objectives over the weekend. “Whose streets? Our streets” they chanted. Too right.
They out-organised the cream of the labour movement. The failure wasn’t theirs. It was ours.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.