I have to make a confession. I haven’t really engaged with Occupy London – evicted yesterday from St Paul’s – in the few months since it started out. Perhaps I missed something vitally important about it all. I think I’ve written about them only once, in passing, mainly because I wasn’t sure that they were relevant to anything the Labour Party was fighting for.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have not come to stick the boot in while they’re down. They may live to fight another day. And in many ways I admire them, as I admire anyone who will get up and do something, anything, rather than sit on their backsides and moan about how dreadful everything is. I’m for the door-knockers, the poll number takers and the leaflet-stuffers (of which roles I have done plenty over the last twenty years). I’m with them for not accepting things the way they are. After all, as I once heard a General Secretary of the party drily observe, “why would you join the Labour Party if you were happy with life as it is?”
We strive for better. The politically itchy of any stripe are to be encouraged, as long as they themselves value democratic principles (I’m afraid that excludes people like Respect and the BNP, sorry). Because without them, not to put too fine a point on it, democratic politics is dead. And before the doomsayers start saying that that is the case, it is clearly not. In fact, it is in rude health, although there are certainly things that it could do better.
But there’s something about Occupy which, like most of the varied protest movements which have flowered in recent years, seems blissfully unaligned with reality. And it has to do with the way it channels that vital discontent with the way things are.
Michael Tomasky noted astutely, in his excellent piece from last September, that Occupy Wall Street had a lot to learn from the Tea Party activists’ appeal to ordinary folk, and thus had more to do with the unsuccessful US protest movement of 1968 than the successful one of 1963:
In 1963, we had the March on Washington. No one threw anything. There were no drum circles. The protesters of 1963 said to America, “We are like you; in fact, we are you.” There’s very little arguing that it worked. The protesters of 1968 said to America, “We are not like you; in fact, we hate you.”
Essentially Occupy has done just that: gone to the Great British Public saying “we are not like you. In fact, we hate you”. It has, intentionally or not, distanced itself from the public and irritated it: rather than looking to represent it, as the 1963 civil rights activists did.
And, oddly enough, the Great British Public has duly given its considered response: “Sod you, then”. In the end, and pardon the bluntness, but its effect on the City bankers was zero; and the high point of the Occupiers’ achievements seems to have been, through its occupation around St Paul’s, convulsing the hierarchy of the Church of England, that arch exponent of, er, naked greed and capitalism. The world of politics is a brutal one, and “we have raised an important issue” is a cop-out; the perennial straw-clutch of the political loser.
It is a shame, because there is a lot of energy and passion which might have been used to make real change within a democratic framework, like, well, in the Labour Party. Perhaps we are to blame for not making ourselves attractive enough to such people, and that is fair comment. Up to a point.
But there are two lessons for us: firstly, be careful of associating yourself, as the party leadership and the labour movement well-meaningly did, with those whose aims and methods do not easily chime with your own, because you can end up with egg on your face when they diverge, and more when they collapse. As is somewhat inevitable when their movement has poorly-defined aims and is focused on a single, transitory issue. Transitory, because it is surely a truism that such a movement would not have arisen in times of economic plenty.
And there is also a second lesson: be careful of valuing the appeal of the potentially powerful, but often futile, world of protest politics – where which it is depends on how you choose to play it – above that of the gentler, sometimes dull, but ultimately rather useful world of nitty-gritty, democratic activism.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.