Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Protests over coming months will test democracy

The coming year seems likely to be one where there will be protest on the streets, much of it emanating from the implementation of the Coalition Government's cuts agenda.Recent weeks have seen the students out protesting about the increase in tuition fees, up to as much as £9,000 a year in some cases from 2012. The public sector unions will soon be joining them on the streets as they face pay freezes, pension reductions and in many cases job losses. Other vulnerable groups such as the disabled and elderly will also have reason to protest as again the cuts hit them hard. The response from government to these actions will be interesting to gage. Over recent times government has increasingly seemed to ignore the demands of people protesting on the streets. The clearest example of this response came with the February 2003 march against the pending Iraq war. Around 2 million people swarmed onto the streets of London representing a massive level of opposition to the war. Yet the government carried on regardless, a real slap in the face for democracy.The impotence of the march as a way to get change has led to other means of protest being developed, like the Plane Stupid group's actions on the roof of the House of Commons. This draws media attention and public interest.Unless a march is of the magnitude of the 2003 Iraq protest, the media tend to ignore it, that is unless there is violence. There can be little doubt that but for the violence that occurred around the student protests, they would not have received anything like as much coverage in the media. The overall tactics of the police in the student protests seem almost guaranteed to inflame the situation. The line of communication between police and student organisers was clearly not effective. The students don't trust the police and there is a growing belief that tactics like kettling - keeping people confined in a small area unable to get out for a number of hours - are being used as punishment to put people off coming out to protest again in the future. There can be no place for such an approach in a democracy and it is surprising that the tactic has not been challenged in the courts under the Human Rights Act. What ofcourse the police's short sighted tactics will do is cause a hardening of attitudes on the side of the protesters. It will push even the most placid onto a new level of defiance. If people have a genuine grievance, it will not just go away because the police decide they will try to wipe out the possibility of legitmate protest. The protest will simply assume another form, which could be more violent.Unfortunately over recent years the response to protest on the streets has largely been a public order one. The police have been allowed to encroach further and further on the right to legitimately protest, to the point now where via tactics, like kettling, they are trying to remove that right altogether. Over recent years, those in government have chosen to largely ignore street protest, preferring instead to listen to the often paid lobbyists of vested interests who make their livings in and around the Palace of Westminster. Access to ministers and politicians has become an important currency in this world. This access and power to influence is sadly becoming as easily bought and restricted now in the UK as it has been in the US for many years. This approach is undemocratic, as it increasingly shuts out the legitimate concerns of the mass of the electorate. If a proper functioning democracy is to be restored in the UK then this power to buy influence needs to be ended and polticians need to wake up to the perfectly legitmate demands of the mass of people being expressed on the streets and in other perfectly legtimtate ways of protest.So over the coming months we are likely to not only see a battle as to who pays the price for the cuts but also what sort of democracy we have in the UK. The success of the protest against cuts is likely to depend on how effectively the different interests can coalesce together to form a mass protest movement, the health of democracy will depend on how the government reacts to those demands, in whatever form they materialise.

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