Talking Politics

What difference do the Occupy protests make?

Photo: AFP/Getty ImagesBy Dr Matthew Ashton

The left has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred in Britain over the last 30 years. They need to reconsider their tactics.

Today sees the 100-day anniversary of the Occupy Movement in Nottingham. So far the mainstream media has focused almost all of its attention on the Occupy London movement, and in particular the camp set up outside St Paul's. As a result most of the arguments have been about their right to protest there and not their criticisms of capitalism.

In Nottingham there has been a small camp based in the main city centre square for over three months now. Made up of several dozen tents, they've been a continuing presence throughout the winter. For the first time I actually went to see them yesterday to ask them what they were trying to achieve. As I pointed out, 100 people in the centre of a medium-size East Midlands city wasn't likely to bring capitalism to its knees any time soon.

The protesters I spoke to took this in good humour and argued that their actions were more about raising awareness than necessarily bringing about change. As one told me: "Lots of people have doubts about what's going on and we reassure them that their doubts are valid. We try to point them in the right direction and how they can find out further information for themselves."

They also argued that it wasn't their role to actually come up with the solutions. As one protester rather succinctly put it: "We're pointing out that the emperor in naked. We might suggest that he puts 2some clothes on but it's not our job to make him a new wardrobe." Another added: What would be good though is to have a more active citizenry. Democracy should be about people being politically active, you can't have a passive democracy."

All the people I spoke to at the camp were articulate and clearly passionate about what they were doing. According to them over 50% of the comments they get from the public are positive, and they don't seem to have had the problems with the local government that have occurred in London. Despite this, I came away feeling rather depressed. The protesters will today celebrate 100 days camped in Nottingham and plan to stay there for as long as they can, but is it actually making any difference? The Greenham Common peace camp protesters remained outside the RAF airforce base for over a decade but the nuclear missiles only left with the ending of the Cold War.

I think the wider problem that needs to be faced is the unpleasant truth that the left has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred in Britain, and perhaps globally, over the past 30 years. Labour supporters might point to Tony Blair's three election victories in a row, but that ignores the fact that they were won partly due to moving to the centre ground, and partly due to the disintegration of the Conservative Party. Since then the two parties have moved even closer together on a range of issues.  Most of the left's victories have been in terms of the rhetoric rather than the reality. David Cameron could never stand up today and say something like "there's no such as thing as society", as Thatcher once did, without being booed off stage. However, his plans on cuts to the public sector and bringing private firms into the health service go further than she could ever have dreamed.

This week has seen all three party leaders attempting to take the moral high ground when it comes to 'responsible capitalism' (possibly an oxymoron). The trouble with this is that while their public pronouncements were full of high ideals and fine sentiments, they were depressingly short of actual detail.

Cameron in particular fell down in this regard, mainly offering up the hope that if he asks the big beasts of capitalism to play more nicely with each other, than they will. He might as well have tried asking lions in the wild to give up being carnivores. Meanwhile Nick Clegg was on TV attempting to justify cuts in benefits on the basis of fairness while wriggling around difficult questions about the cuts in disability spending and bank bonuses.  This is clearly some new meaning of the word fairness I was hitherto unaware of.

While I think the protesters are right to be raising awareness about the injustices in our society, I think one of the most important questions they need to address is the failure of their tactics, strategies and message over the past few years. Until they do, the right will continue to define the status-quo and we'll soon be back to making the same old mistakes that got us into this mess in the first place.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University

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