Tuesday, 15 March 2011

On protests and protesters

There were significant protests outside the recent party conferences at Perth and Sheffield.

I actually welcome protest. It’s what our democracy is built on, which is why I was so opposed to Labour’s shameful actions in making protest illegal within a specified radius of Westminster through the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. I also have a rather interesting history of protest myself, having been a director of a national pressure group and organised several sizeable demonstrations.

The freedom to protest is the sign of a healthy democracy, which is why I was actually very pleased to see protesters at Perth, although I was slightly embarrassed so few actually turned up given the police were expecting a four-figure number of attendees at the demo. Perhaps hurling abuse at Liberal Democrats is not as attractive a pre-occupation to as many Scots as the Communist Party would have us believe.

I wasn’t at Sheffield, but I’ve heard reports. I was quite shocked to find out that my 14 year old friend Alexandra White was sworn at and abused by protesters. I’ve carried out some radical activities in my past in the cause of political protest, but never have I felt the need to verbally abuse minors. It’s pathetic. More seriously, I also discovered that some of the protesters at Sheffield took it upon themselves to physically assault an “elderly delegate in her motorised scooter” who was, according to Cllr Jackie Pearcey, “punched several times and had to go to casualty”.

Now, I’ve absolutely no problem with the public making their displeasure known to politicians. I would fully expect ministers, MPs and (to a lesser extent) delegates to be on the receiving end of criticism. I mean, that’s what lobbying’s about. Tell us what you don’t like, and how you want us to do things differently. I’m happy to listen, as I did in Perth.

Like Tim Farron, I actually have sympathy with a lot of what people are protesting about. In Perth there were some whose primary motivation was clearly to protest at cuts to disability benefits. I understood where they were coming from, although I was less happy about how their cause was being hijacked by others with more obviously political motivations. But I fully appreciate why people aren’t happy with everything the coalition government is doing because I’m not necessarily happy with it either.

In his speech at Sheffield, Tim said:
“outside this conference centre there are people protesting. It’s not good enough to just label them as Trots. And even so, is it a crime to be angry at cut backs, to be fearful about austerity to resist the pain that is to come? The kind of people who shrug and say they rather like the cut backs are the kind of people whose families are not personally affected.

And you know what? I’m angry about the cuts. I am angry about the reason we are making these cuts.

Labour’s enduring legacy, far worse even than Iraq, is their decision in 1997 to deregulate the banks, to out-Thatcher Mrs Thatcher. To idolise the markets, to make greed a virtue, to stoke up a fake boom. Then they left office and changed their tune. Labour spent 13 years in power behaving like Tories and now 10 months in opposition behaving like trots. And they deserve to be derided and ridiculed for both.”

I’m always happy to listen to people, but it seems that some people aren’t interested in constructive dialogue. Some of the protesters at Perth (and, I imagine also at Sheffield) were there out of a near-pathological loathing of the Liberal Democrats. They appear to be anti-everything and view constructive dialogue as shouting through a loudhailer and refering to all those they disagree with as Tories. How unimagniative.

So while I will always support the right of people to protest, I struggle with the attitudes of those who feel it’s perfectly acceptable to verbally abuse children or attack pensioners. I also have a problem with attitudes which are closed to any kind of constructive dialogue, or those whose professed moral standpoints mask a distinctly anti-government agenda.

We can all be angry at everything, and yell abuse at people. But it takes more courage and imagination to sit down with those you disagree with, put forward your case and argue for change. Besides, protesters might find that many Lib Dems, like me and Tim, would be more than empathetic towards their understandable grievances. But that’s clearly not what some people want.

I’m a trade unionist, and actually very proud of it. I was for several years a UNISON representative and, during the Blair/Brown era, I attempted to persuade the health unions to call a national demonstration on the issue of NHS reform. Of course, they never obliged, even when local A&E units were being threatened across Scotland and Patricia Hewitt’s permanent revolution was undermining the basis of the NHS in England. They simply didn’t want to damage the Labour government and so refused to stand up for the interests of their members.

It’s different now, of course. The unions have all of a sudden geared up for a fight. On 26th March there will be a union-led march through central London, ostensibly in support of public services. I’ve been asked to go down, but I won’t because it’s clearly been organised with a view to attacking the coalition government. I have asked UNISON why there are no plans for local demonstrations, which would probably have a greater potential for pressuring councils - but the unions have no interest in the local dimension, only their own obsession with Clegg and Cameron. In all my political activity, I have never been one to adopt a distinctly anti-government position – I was always far more interested in resolving issues and campaigning for positive change than I was in the type of negative, unrealistic and overtly tribal posturing we are now seeing from the unions.

Dialogue is a two-way process. However, due to a shortage of robots, most Lib Dem members and activists are human and may not respond favourably when faced with open hostility or aggressive behaviour. So if you want to make a difference, indulging in routine verbal abuse or physical assault are not the best ways to get your voice heard.

As those who are sufficiently informed will know, delegates at the Sheffield and Perth conferences voted against government decisions – notably in reference to the NHS and the proposed closure of RAF bases in East Scotland. Maybe it’s because we’re still so used to being a party of protest but we’re usually pleased to exchange ideas in a rational way – and we’ve also got something of an independent streak about us, so we’re not the type to uncritically support the leadership. I think most of us are happy to talk – and be talked to. I know many of us at Perth went out to speak to protesters, which speaks volumes about the kind of party we are.

I’m with Tim – none of us are happy about making cuts. None of us like being protested against but, being liberals, we believe in the right to protest. I will always defend the rights of people who care enough to get out there and stand up for what they believe. It’s not the protests I’m uncomfortable with, or even the criticism of my party, but the unnecessary aggression and narrow-minded attitudes so evident in Sheffield, which should have no place in 21st century democracy.

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