Politicians are confused by demonless protest

Alice Moore is a third-year Historian at King's 30 November 2011

The Occupy London Stock Exchange movement’s presence outside St Paul’s Cathedral for the past month seems to have presented politicians with a conundrum.

Where, they ask, are the hooded youths decorating the blank canvas of Wren’s masterpiece with their urine?  There are no immediately identifiable villains: no Charlie Gilmours, no Milbank Tower, no shaken royals.

The Occupy movement has become the acceptable face of public protest.  Politicians have been deprived of their tools with which they’d become so adept at sidestepping the growing issue of popular discontent.

This didn’t stop David Cameron having a stab at dodging the subject.  His complaint was that the protest conflicted with his “rather quaint view” that people “shouldn’t be able to erect tents all over the place”. The PM, obviously a seasoned demonstrator, had some advice for the campers: “Protesting you should do on two feet, rather than lying down”.  Quite right Mr Cameron, much better when they’re up and about, especially if you’re thinking of kettling them – which is exactly what happened on Monday evening when 20-30 protesters from the camp attempted direct action outside the Lord Mayor’s annual banquet at the Guildhall.

Ed Miliband was next.  Writing in The Observer on 6th November, the Labour Leader gave many party supporters what they’d been waiting a year to hear: acknowledgement of the aims of UK protesters.  His concession that Occupy might have some kind of point has been met with showers of praise from within the party and from the many in the left-leaning media.

Everyone is just grateful that Ed has finally plucked up the courage to utter some kind of statement on the issue, and they encourage him like one might an under-confident child with cheers that he’s ‘found his voice’ and is ‘right to be radical’.

Radical, however, Miliband is not. The article is peppered with mandatory caveats separating him from the protesters’ ‘methods’ and ‘demands’; they are seen as prompting a debate rather than being worthy to lead something that is ‘too important’.  In an interview with the BBC he had to admit that, while trying to wrest control of the debate from the hands of Occupy, “I haven’t been to St Pauls.”

Despite allying himself with the movement’s 99% he still seems to adhere to the traditional view – one shared by Cameron and used in his opposition to last year’s student protests – that politics should be conducted in its proper place, wherever that is.

Mentions of other protests that have taken place throughout the year are notable for their absence, and indeed Ed has maintained a predictably measured silence on the student protests of 9th November.

In the end all he manages to say is that Occupy represents a “challenge” to politics, but what he means by this is foggy at best.  At worst it is completely meaningless; yep, thanks Ed, those guys with placards sure are protesting, nearly missed that one.  We can’t even tell whether he agrees with this “challenge” or not.

Vince Cable added the final word for the Lib Dems in an interview with the BBC’s Politics Show on Sunday morning.  But Cable’s ‘sympathy’ with protesters, something that has become synonymous with condoning criminality, is tempered with protective clauses, and is restricted to ‘the emotions that lie behind’ the protest.

The real restraint of the Lib Dems though is not in their words, but who says them.  Nick Clegg has slipped easily, if not comfortably, into his coalition skin, leaving Cable keeping up the charade that the party still has an independent voice.

It was the ex-Labour parliamentary candidate and councillor, not his more Cameronesque boss, that persuaded disenchanted Labour-voters to vote Lib Dem in 2010.

Occupy seems to have shed light not only on the inequalities of the UK’s financial system but also on the confusion of its political parties. The protest’s lack of potential villains has meant that Cameron’s usual tactic of meeting protests with scorn for their methods has led him into some ridiculous statements.

Labour and the Lib Dems have found the protest, which so clearly chimes with their own political values and hasn’t committed any obvious offence with which to distract the media, forces them to address the campers’ arguments directly.

That they’ve only managed a half-hearted acknowledgment of Occupy’s aims and significance illustrates their current inability to freely confront the issues with which they are being presented.

Alice Moore is a third-year Historian at King’s