Today, in a witty reworking of the renowned tory campaign against labour, UK Uncut hosted a demonstration to re-create the iconic image of the disenchanted jobless in a dole queue. Rather than the title ‘Labour isn’t working’, we gathered with the message that ‘Austerity isn’t working’, and this time we would create the dole queue outside Downing Street.
Committed members of many organisations clubbed together and chanted, shouted and waved placards. We also did what the British do so well: queued. But this committed, vocal group were unable to unleash the scale of dissent on their own that the chancellor needed to see, the kind of dissent passengers with lost baggage at Terminal 5 unleash during snowy weather. However, the encampment of journalists opposite parliament certainly felt the essence of that outrage and was taken by surprise when the few hundred protesters crossed the road and interrupted their interviews with chants of ‘Tax the banks! Not the Poor!’
It was a successful day: the sun was shining, we made a strong protest and shared our collective distaste for austerity in its current form. However, when austerity obviously isn’t working, then why no change? Also, in such a complex climate of political spin and media bias, it is obviously difficult to articulate a campaign message that gains traction. On a regular basis though, we need to also ask ‘Is our current form of protest working?’. My reason for posing this question is because of two things that I witnessed today. Firstly, as I paused outside parliament while waiting for crowds to move forward, an MP pushed me out of the way. I’m almost certain it was my own MP but I can’t be certain. Secondly, about thirty seconds later, a passing jogger yelled abuse in response to the chant “You say cut back! We say fight back!” These behaviours aren’t representative of all MPs, or for that matter, joggers. In fact, one MP came and spoke with crowd members and promised me he would make sure Trident is cut (which I intend to hold him to!) But on a day when the top rate of tax was cut from 50p to 45p and the chancellor has promised approximately £3 billion to North Sea fossil fuel extraction, you have to wonder how much longer people can ignore the salt being rubbed into the collective wound.
I don’t want to be dismissive of either the MP who was in a hurry or the jogger because they both represent groups within society that need to be part of an active rather than passive democratic process. The MP should be compelled to listen to the voice of active democracy and the jogger should feel that that voice is on their behalf, or that they are a part of it. These issues aren’t easily solved and the fact they are issues does not detract from the passion of those currently making strong, powerful protests either. In order to build movements from protests though, we do perhaps have to reflect on these questions. For example, there is a real sense that the Occupy Movement has emerged from a common dissatisfaction but also continually sustains a bond of empathy with the wider public, through initiatives such as the Bank of Ideas and the Tent University.
My own affiliation today was as a campaigner for the Robin Hood Tax, which consists of a very small tax on bank transfers. It is so small as to not adversely impact the banking sector but would raise sizeable funds that could support the poor and marginalised in the UK and overseas. (France and Germany have already got cracking on this one!) This is an original, pragmatic yet radical measure. Also, today’s action may not have formed the long snaking queue that we had all hoped for but it was imaginative and formed a symbolic bond between those present and the unemployed masses. And this is the kind of thinking we need more of. Imaginative civil action that emphasises an empathy with the wider population and pragmatic yet radical policy thinking that is so shrewd that it leaves no wriggle room for MPs to dismiss it. The exciting thing is that much of this shrewd thinking on these issues is in the pipeline, but good ideas need legs. Literally.