Lessons from Europe: Should Ed cosy up to the St Paul’s protestors?


In yesterday’s Observer Ed Miliband wrote a piece entitled “business, finance and politics are out of touch with people”, talking of how the protests at St Paul’s have highlighted the growing gulf between the values of ordinary people and those of The City.

The problem for Ed, and indeed any politician who steps onto this territory in the UK, is to find a way to side with concerns of the protestors while bearing in mind the inherently reactionary nature of the British press and establishment. Ed tries this by inserting so many caveats into his article (that people really suffering are unlikely to camp out, that the protestors’ proposals are impractical) that the reader is left wondering whose side he is actually on.

As is the want of this column, I think it’s interesting to set Miliband’s conundrum in a European context, and to hence explain why the Labour leader’s conundrum is so complex on this issue.

I often bemoan the tendency in British politics of always looking to the USA for inspiration, but when it comes to the Occupy protests there is good reason – for it is in predominantly bipartisan political systems (USA, UK, Spain) that these movements have gained a hold. While there is Occupy London, Oakland and New York, and the Indignados of Madrid, there is no Occupy Berlin or Copenhagen.

While I simplify to a great extent, the Occupy movements are about the values of the left, not a traditional class-based affiliation of the left. It’s not as if the protestors at St Paul’s have downed their tools on a production line; in fact, it is very much to the contrary. They have Mac laptops and use the free wifi at Starbucks, to the consternation of the right wing blogosphere.

These are the very sorts of people who, from the late 1960s onwards, formed themselves into punk and green movements, creating the Green Party in Germany, with similar parties also gaining ground elsewhere in Europe, a sort of protest against the system but – importantly – with a channel back into the political mainstream that has recently spawned the Pirate Party in Sweden and, most spectacularly, in the Berlin state elections in Germany.

The problem for Labour or the Democrats in the USA is that these parties never really had their 1968 moments, the moment when the left became an issue of ideological identity as well as the political aspect of a workers’ movement, and for this to manifest itself through the political success of more than one party to the left of the centre. Held in place by the majoritarian election system, the broader left in the UK and USA has been poor at collecting up the alternative and non-unionised vote.

While the German SPD or Danish Socialdemokraterne might face the same challenge, the votes they lose will – to a great extent – be caught elsewhere on the left. The very sort of discontent we see today in London was given an electoral voice by the left-radical Enhedslisten at the recent Danish elections, an election at which turnout topped 87%, a figure British politicians could only dream of.

And so then back to Ed Miliband. His challenge is to be radical enough to appeal to the sentiment of the St Paul’s protestors, and to articulate lifestyle and values based politics within a still essentially traditional social democrat party. All the while he has to try to keep the traditional power bases of the Labour Party together. Rather than going elsewhere, as in other European election systems, these alternatives on the left are likely to not vote at all.

Get them into the system and Labour could have the essence of a winning coalition in London in 2012 and nationally in 2015.

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