Protests are not the ideal vehicle for change, but with a little discipline popular movements can swing elections.
By Dr Matthew Ashton
This weekend has seen the anti-capitalism protests of Wall Street spread across the globe; sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. In London protestors attempted to set up camp outside the London Stock Exchange, but after that was blocked by the police decided to create a make-shift village outside St Paul's Cathedral. Many of them were carrying banners proclaiming them to be the 99%, a clear reference to the massively disproportionate division of wealth in modern society.
I was in two minds about all of this. While I disprove of public disorder and the potential for violence it creates I think it's good that young people are taking an active interest in politics and peaceful civil disobedience. As Churchill once said, 'If you're not a liberal when you're young you haven't got a heart' (it should be noted that he also added that if you're not Conservative when old you haven't got a brain).
However even taking this into account I don't think the protestors are actually going to make any real difference. I'm old enough to remember the Greenham RAF base protests of the 1980s. For two decades women camped outside the RAF base to demonstrate against the nuclear weapons that were stored inside. The nuclear weapons were finally removed in 1991, although many observers argue that it was due to the ending of Cold War rather than because of the protests. While the camps certainly brought a huge amount of media attention to the issue it's highly debatable how much tangible effect they actually had.
Also I'm always highly suspicious of anyone claiming to be a revolutionary movement. Most revolutions have ended extremely badly for a number of reasons. I'm also sceptical about any small group claiming to speak on behalf of the people. They've usually got a worrying history of embracing social change they like the sound of and rejecting the people's will when they don't like what they're saying. Often this is dressed up as the fact that the people suffer from 'false-consciousness' and only the revolutionaries can clearly see what's best for them. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht in his satirical poem The Solution: 'The people have forfeited the confidence of the people…we need to elect a new people'.
Also the argument that government should respond to will of the people can very quickly lead to a tyranny of the majority. While many of the protestors currently occupying London will strongly argue that the government should have listened to the anti-war demonstrations of 2003 would they agree that the government should listen to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched in support of the Countryside Alliance? Over the weekend numerous protestors have appeared on TV and in the press explaining their positions. While there is a general consensus that they want a fairer society and that the bankers should pay how this would manifest itself as concrete policies seemed a bit vague.
I think these protests do underline an important point though about people's lack of trust in the system and in particular young people's disengagement from it. There are severe problems with modern society and they do need to be addressed through greater public participation in politics. However numerous studies have shown that while young people have a very high level of interest in politics and political issues they're largely disinterested in traditional forms of political activity like voting, party membership or lobbying government through regular channels. To a certain extent I can sympathise with this. If you were a first time voter who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 on the basis that they'd pledged to abolish student fees it's perfectly logical that you'd now be pretty cynical about MPs in general and Liberal Democrats in particular.
I think that if you look at groups of the American right like the Tea Party and the National Rifle Association (NRA) who have had a big influence on policy it's largely been through grassroots campaigning and voting as much as direct action. Most estimates put the number of NRA members at around the three million level, roughly one per cent of the US population. However if you look at books on the subject the general consensus is that the NRA's influence is disproportionately high. Partly this is because of their financial muscle but also because they have clear aims and a highly committed membership who they can guarantee will come out to vote the way the NRA directs. As a result they have the power to swing elections and terrify the life out of politicians.
If the protestors could create a coalition of the left along with disaffected young people they'd have over a million people (maybe even two). They could then effectively sell their vote in return for firm promises at the next election. A million votes would be enough to make a sizeable dent in most elections in the UK and would make the parties sit up and take notice. Of course this would take organisation and discipline along with the conviction that young people would vote in a given direction. This weekends' protests demonstrate that young people have more discipline and convictions then the media sometimes gives them credit for.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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