New Internationalist

Protest changes politics more than politicians do

In the week that follows elections, political types of all colours like to pore over the results and search for meaning within them. Indeed there is much that can be deduced – especially on the micro-level of council wards. Could that block have been canvassed better? Did the incumbent councillor’s casework pay off? Could the vote have been mobilized more efficiently?

That such factors played a role in last week’s council elections is not in doubt. Yet the maxim ‘all politics is local’ is only partially true. Some patterns played out across the country: the ruling Conservatives saw losses, support for their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats haemorrhaged, while Labour and the Greens made gains at the governing parties’ expense.

Ed Miliband responded by declaring that ‘Labour are back’ and the Green London mayoral candidate* Jenny Jones used her election night speech to express her joy at the Greens becoming London’s third party, declaring that they deserved it after such hard work.

Of course, it is true that nearly every candidate and canvasser works superhuman hours at election time. But that alone doesn’t explain the result. A look at opinion polls since 2010 shows that the national swing against the government has been catalyzed, if not driven, by popular protest.

The Conservatives first fell behind in November 2010, only a few days after the mass student march against tuition fees, and the occupation of Conservative Party Headquarters at Millbank Tower. During the winter of 2010, UK UNCUT put corporate tax-dodging in the media spotlight by occupying High Street shops, while students kept tuition fees on the agenda by escalating their street protests and occupying lecture theatres. Following this, polls showed a rise in the number of people seeing the cuts as unfair, too deep, too fast, and bad for the economy, as well as opinion hardening against tuition fees. The Conservatives fell 10 points behind in the polls, and 29 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters said they were less likely to vote the same again.

By the time of the 500,000 strong ‘March for the Alternative’ on 26 March 2011, polls showed a majority of people supportive of the campaign against the cuts. Come winter 2011, with the ‘Occupy’ protests dominating the headlines, more people claimed to support the aims (if not the tactics) of the movement than to be opposed to them. As Occupy Part 1 faded, it would seem that at least some of that anti-government sentiment translated into votes for the opposition Labour Party and, where they are a viable force, the Greens.

On the face of it, there is a certain irony here. With the exception of some trade unions, influencing voting behaviour is not a stated aim of any of the movements that appear to have played a role in doing so. Indeed, although some social movement campaigners took time out to canvass for more radical candidates last week, and some even stood for election themselves, others refused – perceiving the act of voting as legitimizing a system that offers only a façade of democracy. But the political eco-system is more complex than narrow ideological boundaries allow. The actions of one group can affect the actions of others, whether they intend it to or not.

With their highly paid pollsters, politicians probably know this, but in their role as media commentators they tend to underplay the role of social movements on the results. Instead, they imply that elections are the primary drivers of progressive social change, and politicians the agents. But the statistics don’t bear this out. At best, elections are barometers of who has power in society. It is the struggles in between that count.

* Analyses of Boris Johnson’s electoral success in London focus on his being seen as a separate electoral ‘brand’ from the Conservative Party, as well as the support provided by the powerful London Newspaper The Evening Standard.
Photo: jon smith under a CC Licence

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, 2011.

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