Hippies or Harlow?
George Orwell would see right through the mishmash of unfocused causes that make up the St Paul’s protest and would warn Labour to stay well away
The St Paul’s protestors represent an unpalatable smorgasbord of religious, political and cultural ideas. The tent city is home to hippies, anarchists, peaceniks, and Green party activists. Their numbers swell with political tourists who join the camp for a couple of hours before heading back to the office. They demand disparate things. Some want the end of capitalism. Some want it to end as long as they can still pop into Starbucks. Some are happy to spend their time in the meditation tent, or engaging in composting. Some are delighted by the chaos being caused to the cathedral authorities, the sole part of the military-industrial complex to have been noticeably affected by the protest. Others see the true enemy as the British Legion volunteers as they sold Remembrance Day poppies.
Like the permanent camp outside parliament, which started as a protest against sanctions on Iraq, then became antiwar, and now includes those objecting to everyone from freemasons to the state of Israel, the longer the St Paul’s protest goes on, the more causes will be added to the menu. George Orwell’s famous litany of leftwing cranks – ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England’ – will seem like the Chambers of Commerce compared to what is about to hit St Paul’s.
The only political viewpoint – the only one – which is shared by every one of the protestors is their loathing of the Labour party. Be they anarchists, Marxists, Greens, pacifists or merely the well-meaning hippies who view the protest as a concrete Glasto, they all hate Labour. As the Trotskyites always argue, the priority is not the capitalists. First against the wall will be the moderate leaders of the Labour movement, who for decades have suppressed the workers’ revolution. And yes, Ed, Douglas, Ed, Andy, Caroline, Yvette and Liam, that includes you.
The St Paul’s protestors have no leadership, no tangible list of demands, no agreed strategy. The Greenham Common camps, the Jarrow March, the defence of Cable Street against the fascists, the civil rights movement in the US, the popular uprisings against Marcos, Ceaușescu, or the Burmese junta, the peasants’ revolt, the revolt of the slaves in ancient Rome, the suffragettes, the chartists, the campaign to bring back Cadbury’s Wispa. Each and every one of these campaigns had a clear goal. Within every progressive campaign down the centuries there have raged disagreements over tactics. Martin Luther King disagreed with Malcolm X, Gandhi fell out with Nehru. I am told even Tony and Gordon had the odd spat. But on the big strategic questions – ending apartheid, independence for India, votes for women, or the reintroduction of 1980s chocolate bars – there was unity and focus.
What can the St Paul’s protests teach the mainstream parties? For Labour, the answer has to be: nothing at all. That is not to say Labour should reject all extra-parliamentary campaigns. So often a campaign from outside the mainstream can shape the debate: the green agenda is perhaps the best example. Today’s mainstream view started life as the unpopular, the unorthodox or the unpalatable. That is as true of the smoking ban as it is of civil partnerships. But whatever social progress may come in future decades, whatever reforms to the global banking system are agreed, they will not come from the fetid squalor now spreading outside St Paul’s.
The idea that the St Paul’s protests represent a broader social movement which in some way may aid the Labour party is like saying Labour should get the ranters at Speakers’ Corner to write our manifesto. We know that is not what Ed Miliband meant with his piece in The Observer. But it is how it looked, and in politics that is all that counts.
Tony Benn made the same mistake in 1970 when he wrote a Fabian pamphlet called A Socialist Reconnaissance. He looked at the political and cultural movements of the late 1960s, such as the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, the squatters and the hippies, and concluded we were on the brink of a new era of radicalism. Instead we got Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Labour’s electoral challenge is endearingly simple: to get people living in 50-odd key seats such as Harlow to stop voting Tory, Liberal Democrat, BNP or staying at home, and vote Labour. You do not need an expensive pollster to tell you what they are like. They get up in the morning and go to work, they fill in their tax returns, they look forward to their summer holidays, they go to supermarkets, and buy a poppy in November. They want decent wages, safe streets, good schools, free healthcare and a thriving town centre. The biggest question the swing voters of Harlow would have for the hippies outside St Paul’s, should they ever meet, would be ‘how can you afford to spend weeks in a tent?’ Hippies or Harlow? One route leads to a Labour government, the other not so much.
Are we quite sure which is which?
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Fabian Society, George Orwell, Gordon Brown, Labour, St Paul's, Tony Benn, Tony Blair