Sunday, 23 October 2011

It is time for the 99% to occupy the political mainstream.

The protestors from the Occupy London movement who set up camp outside St Paul’s this week have done something truly historic, and I don’t mean forcing the cathedral to close its doors to the public for the first time since the war. They have given our complacent political elite a much needed shock.

The closure of the cathedral, which initially welcomed the protestors, rightly asserting their right to protest peacefully over the possible loss of tourist income, was instituted on, it is claimed due to health and safety concerns. The Right Reverend Graham Knowles, the Dean of St Paul’s, said the potential dangers arising from cooking stoves and small fires lit by the protestors were a hazard to cathedral staff, visitors and the protestors themselves.

The protestors, who are part of a worldwide movement calling for a ‘structural change towards authentic global equality’ and for the world’s resources to ‘go towards caring for caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich’ claim to speak for the 99% of people for whom globalisation has brought only debt and despair over the past quarter century. They have promised to ‘accommodate the cathedral’s concerns in any way we can’; even so an organisation founded by a man who threw the money changers out of the temple has still got cold feet about supporting their cause, I’m not a believer but I still think that is rather sad.

The real impact of the protest lies not in what is participants have said and done, but in what they haven’t done. Unlike the protests over tuition fees late last year there has been no public disorder, no windows have been smashed at Tory Party HQ and no national monuments have been defiled by the offspring of rock royalty. To a man and a woman the protestors have been, for all their eccentricity, impeccably well behaved.

As one protestor calling herself ‘Lucy’ told the BBC yesterday the protest is ‘not just about a few people who have got tents in St Paul’s, it’s not a stunt, it’s not a spectacle.’ That would explain why it has given the media and the political establishment such an almighty shock.

The media had settled within twenty four hours of the first tent going up outside St Paul’s on the line that this was another outing for the ‘rent-a-mob’ protest movement, several commentators even raised the ghost of Swampy the poster boy of the Newbury by-pass protests of the nineties, even though he hung up his dreadlocks years ago. Yet is wasn’t the protestors or the public who were out of touch at all, it was the press with its default setting of moral panic who failed to grasp what was going on.

As for the politicians, all three parties have spent the week in a panic about Europe and whether or not Britain should stay in the European Union, a significant number of people would like to see a referendum held on the subject but the politicians don’t and so all three party leaders are trying to strong arm their MPs into voting against one. Not everyone who wants to see a referendum is an angry little Englander, some of us would like to see the UK leading a drive to modernise the EU so that it is strong enough to meet the challenges of a world where the US could be out of the economic game for a decade or so, but we’re being denied the chance to have a reasoned debate because a remote political class is treating the issue like something that mustn’t be spoken of in front of the children.

The presence of that sort of attitude at the heart of Westminster is why the Occupy London protests have so wrong footed the political establishment. They can cope with protests that provide a couple of hours of chaos on the streets and then melt away, not least because it allows them to adopt absurd moral postures of the sort struck by David Cameron following the riots in August.

What they can’t cope with is the existence of an ordered and articulate protest movement that refuses to conform to their favoured stereotypes. Occupy London is just such a movement and at a time when inflation is soaring, unemployment is going up and more and more people are feeling left behind in the rush for growth it resonates strongly with the public mood too.

It isn’t a panacea for all our political ills, sooner or later the tents will have to be packed away and the protest movement will have to adopt more conventional tactics, like building a strong grassroots membership, organising community activism and maybe even making an impact at the ballot box. That is has, so far, maintained its integrity and good humour whilst avoiding a damaging confrontation with the police suggests that this earnest band of eccentrics could be the start of a movement to bring politics back home to the people.

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