Raging against any old machine


big ben cuts demo

By Mark Ferguson / @markfergusonuk

Yesterday’s anti-cuts protest in London started as an impressive (if entirely unremarkable) show of force from a sizeable number of newly politicised young people. It ended in confusion, with no clear ending and no real result. Labour shouldn’t engage with the cuts movement until it knows what it is and what it wants to achieve. On yesterday’s evidence, we’re some way from that.

From the outset it was clear that those shouting the loudest were the usual suspects, anti-government protesters for whom demonstrating against the government (any government will do) is a social activity. There were paper sellers out in force, of course, and numerous communist and anarchist flags of all different shades and styles, but most of the demonstration was made up of young people who feel betrayed by what this government has done to them, and will continue to do to them.

More worryingly, the demo was interspersed with small groups of young people who seemed “tooled up”, ready for violence should the opportunity arise – not just with scarves around faces, but with crash helmets and sticks snapped from placards held aloft. This was a peaceful demo, but that was largely due to police preparation at Topshop and later outside Tory HQ.

Topshop on the Strand was where anger bubbled over for the first time, as pushing and shoving broke out between protesters and police. The crowd, most of whom had stopped to rubberneck outside the shop rather than participate, began to chant for Philip Green to pay his taxes. Yet it says something about the nature of this movement that the anger and vitriol on show seems so narrowly focussed on a small number of targets. Topshop was under siege but the bank of the super wealthy Coutts was ignored (although it had been targeted the day before).

There’s not the instinctive hatred of multinationals like McDonalds or Starbucks like there was with the anti-capitalist movement. There’s little if any anger towards high street banks. Even Downing Street raised little reaction from the section of the crowd I was in. Chants of “Tory scum” were common, but there’s little sense that the protesters are angry with the residents of Britain’s most exclusive street. Nick Clegg is still the premier hate figure for these young people. The sense of betrayal seems to hurt more than the reality of cuts.

The protest had ambled along, amiably but aimlessly, until it neared Millbank. A few over-eager faux-revolutionaries decided that now was their chance to cause mayhem. “Millbank 2” they cried, running towards Tory HQ. The police didn’t break into a run. There was no need. Millbank was boarded up and protected by dozens of officers who were in turn backed up by riot vans. The chances of violence were low. And that’s when the most baffling set of events took place, which shows the confusion at the heart of the anti-cuts movement.

“Egyptian Embassy?” an ageing, bearded wannabe agitator (the epitome of the usual suspects from demonstrations) suggested, conspiratorially. I asked him what that had to do with government cuts, and suggested that charging off to protest about something else and conflate two completely different issues (these cuts are bad, but surely we can differentiate between our elected government and a dictatorship) did the anti-cuts protest itself a great disservice. He ignored me, and wandered off to find others to drag to the embassy on Park Lane. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands followed. The anti-cuts protest had ended. The potential for violence at Millbank had ended. It was the only thing likely to have sustained the anti-cuts demo for much longer. The moment had (thankfully) passed off peacefully, and so, it seemed, had the demo.

It turned out that most of those on the streets yesterday weren’t raging against THE machine, they were raging against ANY machine and against all of the ills of the world. Cuts? Dictatorships in the Arab world? It was all the same. Once the demo had ended it was time instead to protest against something (anything) else. Egypt was as good a choice as any. The usual suspects led the angry students and the newly politicised away to fight a different injustice. The injustice we were all supposed to be protesting against was all but forgotten.

The anti-cuts movement doesn’t know what it is, or what it’s for. It lacks focus, and although it doesn’t seek violence and is largely peaceful, because it has no leaders, no speeches and no rally with which to end the hours of peaceful protest, the only possible focal point for a sustained demonstration is violence. When there is no violence, like yesterday, the crowd drifts off.

As long as it continues like this, not only can Labour not engage with it, it actively shouldn’t. The risks are too great, and the potential benefits – like much about this movement – are completely unknown, or perhaps even unknowable.

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…