Occupy: What Ed’s article was about

Ed Miliband’s article about the St Paul’s Occupy protest deserves very careful reading.

It isn’t, as a sneering Dan Hodges has put it on Twitter, about Ed supporting a specific protest, the form of which opinion pollsters have found is only supported by 20% of the public.

It’s about him trying to connect with what UK Polling Report describes as the “39% of people saying they supported the aims of the protesters, suggesting there are significant numbers of people with sympathy towards the protesters aims but don’t support them protesting outside the Cathedral.”

This nuance of position has also been shown in Ed’s stance on strikes on public sector pensions: supporting the strikers’ cause of pension fairness but stopping short of endorsing the actual disruption of a strike (though I would caveat this by saying that Ed’s final position on the 30th November strikes hasn’t necessarily been expressed).

I very much doubt that the tent protesters would like me or the type of politics I represent. In fact they would probably hate me.

I desperately want Labour to be part of the cultural mainstream, representing the values of the majority in Britain, so deliberately counter-cultural protests leave me pretty cold.  My fear would be that a bunch of people in dressing-up costumes, some in sinister Guy Fawkes masks (a motif only familiar to the type of people who have watched “V for Vendetta”) messing up a national monument and causing disruption to a place of worship would be alienating and deeply off-putting to both the swing voters who decide elections, and Labour’s deeply culturally conservative core working class vote. I fear a similar effect to the way in which student and hippy anti-war protests in 1968 drove traditional blue-collar Democrats into the arms of Richard Nixon and created a Republican hegemony that lasted for 40 years.

But whilst opinion polls have shown a plurality of voters don’t like the protest itself, they do share the protesters’ concerns about the way our economic system is going. As Ed put it “unemployment at record levels, inflation going up, living standards squeezed; a European crisis, lurching from Athens to Brussels to Cannes, adding to the sense that the economy is on the brink; a government sitting on the sidelines, unwilling or unable to help.”

Tackling this agenda is too important to leave to the incoherent anti-system rage of the Occupy movement.

The only political force that is actually strong enough to radically reform the UK’s political economy is the Labour movement – the combination of a political party that even after a heavy defeat in 2010 remains the only possible alternative government, and is on 40% plus in the polls, and a trade union movement millions strong that demonstrated on 26th March that it can pull of mass, peaceful protest.

We also have a coherent alternative to the status quo based not on a utopian call to overthrow capitalism, which begs the questions, how (by sitting in tents?), what would it be replaced with (the alternatives tried in the last century weren’t ones I’d like to see repeated), and at what cost in terms of chaos and probably violence?

Ed set out our alternative in his call at the Labour Annual Conference for a “responsible capitalism”, effectively the German model where our economy is more focused on manufacturing sector producers like Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems than on finance – one of the concepts he has borrowed from Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour ideas, but also building on the work on industrial activism that Peter Mandelson was focused on at BIS in the final years of Labour in power. I’d use language a little to the left of Ed’s. I prefer to call his vision “modern social democracy”, but I understand that by incorporating the word “capitalism” into the title he makes it clear he is not fantasising about changing the economic system – in fact he’s talking about bolstering and supporting responsible businesses.

For most of the small number of tent protesters Labour and the organised Labour movement are going to be too cautious in our proposed solution to the current crisis, and too boring in our tactics to be attractive for them to get involved in.

As Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio, has written (hat tip to Harry’s Place):

“[H]ere’s the rub: Occupations and rallies are fun. Electoral politics is hard. The rules are complex, and so are the voters. A gathering in the street has a lot in common with a party. Running for office and working for a candidate is like a 9 to 5 job.

And getting involved in the political process forces you out of your comfort zone. Instead of hanging out with a few hundred — or a few thousand — people who basically agree with you, you have to confront and perhaps persuade those who don’t agree with you. In the process, however, you will learn more about democracy then you will at any teach-in.

So my suggestion to Occupy Wall Street and their affiliates throughout the country is to pay as much attention to their 15th Amendment right to vote as they do to their 1st Amendment right to peaceably assemble. In other words, get out of your sleeping bags and onto the ballot!”

As Ed’s says, the economic crisis facing us is too important to be left to the street theatre of the Occupy movement:

“the deeper issues raised by the current crisis are too important to be left shivering on the steps of St Paul’s. We cannot leave it to the protesters to lead this debate.”

“The role of politicians is not to protest, but to find answers. I am determined that mainstream politics, and the Labour party in particular, speaks to that crisis and rises to the challenge.”

It needs those of us who are serious about the boring business of democratic, electoral politics to get behind the economic strategy that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have been setting out, convince the public there is a better way to run Britain, and do what Ed calls for in his article “construct and … lead a coalition which includes business and civil society to make the case for a responsible economy, fairer society and a more just world.”

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