John Harris

Journalist & Author

The scale of the challenge is shocking us into action | John Harris

Through protest, we are finding a new left politics that can propel glaring iniquities to the centre of public debate

Last week, in the wake of David Cameron wielding his veto in Brussels, I was dispatched to tour the West Midlands and sample the views of the public. When I asked one woman whether we should stay in the EU or get out, her answer said it all. “Doesn’t make a scrap of difference anyway,” she said. “The country’s fucked.”

Such is the spirit of the age. But these times are not entirely bereft of hope.Throughout 2011, we’ve been repeatedly reminded of a new left politics, possessed of a power to zero-in on the post-crash world’s most glaring iniquities, and propel them to the centre of public debate. It first stirred at the turn of the last century in what we used to call the anti-globalisation movement. But 2011 marked its decisive arrival: though Time magazine’s recent identification of its person of the year as The Protester drew much of its justification from the Arab spring, it applies just as much to events in the US, Europe and the UK.

First, then, an awe-struck salute to UK Uncut, whose visibility this year peaked when supporters occupied Fortnum & Mason in London on the day of the TUC’s March for an Alternative and were ambushed by the police. Nine months on, we end the year with the Commons public accounts committee issuing a report about more than £25bn in “unresolved” corporate tax bills, and “sweetheart” deals apparently hatched between Revenue & Customs, and Vodafone and Goldman Sachs – and validating just about every word UK Uncut has shouted about big companies’ tax avoidance.

Why did this issue become so inescapable? I cannot put it any better than the group’s own online blurb. “Because of the actions organised from Aberystwyth to Edinburgh … Tunbridge Wells to Nottingham … because protest works.” Having launched a big fundraising drive, UK Uncut has begun judicial review proceedings focused on up to £20m of Goldman’s tax liabilities that HMRC is said to have passed over. In context, the money amounts to peanuts. But given the sinister centrality of that firm to the grim turn of events in the eurozone – witness the backstories of the new European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, and Greece’s PM, Lucas Papademos – this part of the story will have a beautiful symbolic resonance: grassroots activists shining a light on an organisation whose web of influence is regularly portrayed as a neoliberal version of freemasonry.

Next, to the clump of tents pitched around St Paul’s, and the people at the heart of the London manifestation of Occupy, shivering into Christmas while fighting eviction and being misunderstood – not least by people on the left. For sure, their self-comparisons to the rebels of Tahrir Square can easily grate. Undoubtedly there have been frequent occasions when their collective thought process will have eluded even their own supporters. But those who seem to be almost offended by their occasional naivety and apparent absence of an ideological core need to consider two things.

First, there is the small matter of Occupy LSX’s achievements: sending the Church of England into such a spin that Rowan Williams suddenly had to align it with what he termed “deep exasperation with the financial establishment”; prompting no end of coverage of the byzantine Corporation of London; and playing a huge role in the pushing of a host of issues around equality that began to snowball in the culture from mid-October onwards.

Second, it’s Occupy’s non-doctrinaire openness that has made it such a focus of public curiosity, and resulted in a brilliantly approachable demonstration of consciousness-raising. Put simply, would it have managed even a tenth of its impact – and scraped 40% of the public supporting its broad views – if its core support had been pledged to the usual pre-cooked leftie list of demands and in thrall to dead Russians? On 30 November, I got much the same sense from the trade unions’ public sector day of action, and the scores of people I met who were experiencing the strike ritual for the first time, getting a taste of politics as lived experience rather than distant spectacle. As with Occupy, they pointed up a simple truth: that often the best way to harden your understanding of what you’re doing is simply to get out there and do it.

As a signpost to the future, we should look at what’s happening in the US. Having been brutally forced out of all those city squares, a lot of Occupy’s energy is now devoted to Occupy Our Homes: what its New York offshoot calls “the liberation of vacant bank-owned homes for those in need, and the defence of families under threat of foreclosure and eviction”. In an election year that will pit a hidebound president against whoever is chosen to front an intellectually bankrupt Republican party, Occupy’s voice will surely get all the louder.

Inevitably, some of that will be felt over here, as social media bring word of new tactics, language and targets. Whether via rhetoric or direct action (or both), at least one focus for renewed protest is a no-brainer. 2012 will surely see actions aimed at the forces whose diktats define our grim immediate future – not least the ubiquitous rating agencies, who blithely gave triple-A ratings to the doomed financial instruments that brought the world to the brink, but now affect to represent the essence of due diligence, making crushing austerity a precondition of their approval of sovereign debt (It’s perhaps some token of the 21st century’s strange governing logic that in Spain, regaining their confidence has just entailed giving the job of finance minister to that country’s former head of Lehman Brothers).

One final thought, sparked by all that coverage of Meryl Streep’s role in the soon-to-be-released Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. In the 1980s, we simply shouted “Maggie out”, as if that was going to be enough; now, almost every activist I meet well knows that their priority is not to add to the thin noise of Westminster politics, but to highlight failures that are truly systemic.

What’s heartening is that, rather than sapping their momentum, the scale of that challenge usually serves to somehow fire them up all the more – which is why, as skies continue to darken, the coming year will surely see immovable arguments about equality, economic justice and our increasingly crooked version of democracy achieve even more prominence.

As that happens, we should maybe bear in mind a more useful watchword from the world of 30 years ago: the art of living in 2012, I’d suggest, will be all about the imperative to both protest, and survive.

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