02 August 2019

Politics of protest

‘Sup up your beer and collect your fags…’

The resistance to Boris Johnson’s premiership is angry, organised – and already in full swing

By Matthew d’Ancona and Xavier Greenwood

“Boris is a genuine figure of hate among the young people we’ve spoken to – much more so than [Theresa] May or any other mainstream Brexit-supporting politician.”

So says Lara Spirit, co-founder of Our Future Our Choice (OFOC), the youth wing of the People’s Vote campaign that is calling for a fresh referendum on Brexit.

There was a time, let us not forget, when Johnson was hailed as the Tory that younger voters loved; the jolly cyclist, authentic in his accident-prone informality and his readiness to be the butt of the jokes on Have I Got News For You?

But now, as prime minister, his role has flipped: he unifies the young in their hostility. The self-styled Robin Hood of Toryism has become its undisputed Sheriff of Nottingham. They sing The Jam’s anthemic ‘The Eton Rifles’ – its first line, “Sup up your beer and collect your fags” – in scornful reference to the ancient public school where he began his remorseless ascent.

Demonstrators march against the appointment of Boris Johnson

Yet this is about more than aimless fury. In the first two days after Johnson’s victory in the Conservative leadership contest, a crowdfunding campaign launched by OFOC raised £20,800, with an average donation of more than £25. The two associated videos quickly clocked up a million views.

Suddenly, the new Prime Minister has put flesh and blood on the conceptual skeleton of Brexit. Until it actually happens, the UK’s legal departure from the EU will be a constitutional and commercial abstraction; hard to envisage and harder still to explain. Johnson, by contrast, is a larger-than-life personality: a piñata for the angry to bash, an easy focus for their grievances.

According to Spirit, OFOC’s surveys show unambiguously that the PM is seen as the personification of a distinct change – and not for the better. “He differs from [May] in having uttered a long list of disgusting and offensive comments in the public sphere in the past, as well as being a proven liar and cheat. When combined with his Brexit policy – which the overwhelming majority of young people reject – it’s not surprising that a lot of my generation have been standing up against both his Brexit policy and the long line of misogynistic, racist and homophobic comments that precede it.”

It is not only youthful opponents of Brexit that have been galvanised by Johnson’s arrival. The Women’s Equality Party, the feminist party set up in the UK in 2015, enjoyed its biggest membership spike this year in the week of his arrival in Downing Street.

Indeed, the party’s leader, Mandu Reid, predicted just such a surge at a Tortoise ThinkIn shortly before Johnson’s victory. “I don’t think it’s that bad that Boris Johnson is likely to be the next post-holder of prime minister,” she said then, “and part of the reason for that is that actually having somebody like him in position removes plausible deniability. I think it takes away the arguments people have about how we are getting closer and closer to rock bottom. And so, hopefully, it accelerates political Armageddon, and a situation where we can actually not just tinker around the edges and actually start rebuilding.”

Needless to say, not every opponent of Johnson would sign up to this uncompromising Leninist argument that absolute disaster is a necessary prelude to real change (“the worse it is, the better it is”).

But Reid is right that Johnson’s triumph has provided previously disaggregated campaign groups with clarity and purpose. As she foresaw, progressive activists have been “remotivated and mobilised” by the Conservative Party’s embrace of an unabashed right-wing populist as its leader.

Labour Party members and supporters stage a rally in Parliament Square calling for a general election

Up has sprung an umbrella movement on social media under the Twitter handle @fckboris – inspired by Stormzy’s battle cry at Glastonbury – that was able to muster a rally of about 1,000 in central London’s Russell Square on the very day that Johnson became Prime Minister. As ever, the highlight of the demo was the wit evident in many of the placards – my own favourites being “I HOPE LARRY EATS YOU” (a reference to the Downing Street cat) and “LETTERBOXES RISE UP” (held aloft by a Muslim protester who evidently had not forgotten Johnson’s scornful description of women in religious dress in a Telegraph column last August).

Outside London, there have already been anti-Johnson demonstrations in Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool (see box, below), with many more to come.

This is only, of course, the germ of a movement. But something has undoubtedly changed, and quite suddenly. May, for all her flaws, never presented activists with a hard surface to push against. She was pathetic, rather than frightening, symbolic of an apparently unstoppable drift towards Brexit and national irrelevance. What the great chronicler of political consciousness E.P. Thompson called “the crust of fatalism” has now been pierced as minds are focused by the spectacle of Johnson and his gang in Number 10.

According to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, this surge was – in fact – as close to predictable as the volatile world of politics permits.

“If you take what I’d call a Newtonian view of politics, as I do,” says Bale, “then you believe that every action has an equal and opposite reaction – and, in fact, that goes for words as well as deeds. So when Johnson fires up his base by ramping up his rhetoric he’s also bound to mobilise his opponents.”

In his forthcoming book on political activism in the 21st Century, Footsoldiers, Bale examines the complex relationship between political personality and political conviction. “We know from our research that people join a political party mainly because they believe in its message as well as in its leader. But we also know that they join partly in order to stop the other side winning. It wouldn’t be at all surprising, then, to see the Lib Dems get a surge in members not just from Jo Swinson’s election [as leader] but from Boris Johnson moving into Number Ten.”

In other words: Johnson has become the sharply defined incarnation of a cluster of ideas, policies and cultural positions that are intolerable to many: misogyny, nativism, class privilege, entitlement, unaccountability. Ubiquitous in the media – mainstream and social – he is a constant provocation and spur to action to those who were merely bored and depressed by May.

Another Johnson – President Lyndon Baines – provides a suggestive precedent. As Todd Gitlin writes in The Vietnam War, the book inspired by Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series on the conflict, the peace movement was in many ways an amorphous phenomenon: “It was not a network of celebrities. It was a movement – a social force, a work in progress, an ensemble, confusing, contentious, irregular, raucous, immense.”

Peace demonstrators stage a huge anti-Vietnam war protest at the Pentagon

What gave the opposition such focus as it had was the US President most closely associated with the long war. The chant of the protestors became: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Johnson claimed to be unmoved by the personalisation of the attack, telling one adviser: “Don’t pay attention to what those little shits on the campuses do.” All the same: he was forced by what he himself called “division in the American house” to announce in March 1968 that he would not stand for re-election.

More obvious still is the extent to which Margaret Thatcher quickly became a hate figure and a driver of militancy in the 1980s. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out!” was the refrain of a thousand marches and protests. All social ills were laid at her door, all adversity blamed upon her supposed personal cruelty. The Left danced a tango of hate with Thatcher for the 11 years of her premiership – and beyond.

In the US, of course, the election of Donald Trump has helped to transform a loose-knit range of activists – Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, the Parkland school-shooting survivors, pro-choice groups, climate-emergency campaigners – into something with at least a claim to call itself a resistance. Organisations such as the Democracy Alliance, Indivisible and People’s Action have made aggressive use of social media and daily email newsletters to ensure a sufficient degree of co-ordination that does not stifle local creativity. It is a difficult balance to strike.

Police officers face off with protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina.

And it is, in candour, much too early to say how effective all this noise will be. In the far-right playbook devised by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist and now intermittent guru to Johnson, angry opposition from the progressive wing of politics shores up the conservative base – the “deplorables” as Bannon tenderly calls them, borrowing the term used by Hillary Clinton to refer to Trump’s most loyal supporters.

In the Bannonite world-view, the hostility of the media elite and protesters marching through the street is not only endurable by a determined right-wing leader but positively desirable.

There is a parallel risk that news coverage of middle-class students yelling obscenities about Johnson and Brexit may end up being helpful to both. Which is one of many reasons why some campaign groups are seeking a more nuanced, strategic future to progressive activism.

Tabitha Morton, CEO of More United, argues that contemporary campaigning needs not only to find targets but new methods. “Politicians and politics hasn’t kept pace with who we are today, and how we live our lives. So imagine signing up to Netflix and agreeing to what your programmes were going to be for the next five years. You just wouldn’t do it in a million years and [yet] our system today asks us once every five years [who we want in power]…. That is our way of taking part in politics today. That just leaves us so disconnected from it. And also technology has changed our lives so much and moved at a pace, and politicians are still coming at things from left or right or centre. And we do not think like that any more. We think more in [terms of] ‘open’ and ‘closed’. We think about issues we care about – we might be fiscally conservative, but we might also care about the environment, and we might also be against the death penalty.”

Launched in 2016, More United has 150,000 members and campaigns for cross-partisan work between MPs – 60 of whom are already on its books. Like the WEP’s Reid, Morton believes that the crash and burn of Change UK – the breakaway movement of Labour and Tory MPs that initially included Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry – showed definitively that infrastructure, stamina and organisation will be more important to the new activism than stardust.

Boris Johnson on stage during the Conservative leadership hustings

Lining up celebrity politicians to be rude about the Prime Minister in front of adoring crowds is a sticking-plaster solution to a problem that requires major political surgery. Reid speaks often of “resilience” as the key to success.

For now, there is an undoubted buzz of energy about the fledgling UK resistance: OFOC is planning a series of rallies in September under the title “Block Johnson’s Brexit”. Groups such as WEP and Black Lives Matter are thriving and braced for an autumn of activism. The torpid indecision of the May years has given way to a clarity of purpose. The mood is undoubtedly different (like everything else).

And Johnson himself? Whatever he says to the contrary, this new wave of anti-Boris activism will bother him: he likes to be liked, and once admitted to the documentary-maker Michael Cockerell that addressing an adoring rally on the eve of the 2012 London Olympics had helped him “understand why Roman emperors put on great games and great spectacles. I mean, suddenly you think – wow!” Whatever the opposite of that endorphin rush may be, the Prime Minister had better get used to it.

 

Liverpool’s resistance: “We can use this fury”

by Xavier Greenwood

A young local called Helen, handbag under arm and flowers in her hair, stands before a Little Miss Sunshine theatre billboard and unleashes hell.

“We’re all here because Boris Johnson, the pound-shop Donald Trump demagogue, who deemed everyone in Liverpool to be wallowing in victimhood, has become prime minister.”

Helen is addressing more than 100 fellow protesters standing in Liverpool’s Williamson Square on the afternoon that Boris Johnson has assumed the country’s highest office.

Johnson is hated in Liverpool on many counts, but in particular for a leading article published in the Spectator in 2004 under his editorship. Drunk fans, the piece baselessly claimed, contributed to the Hillsborough disaster which killed 96 Liverpool supporters.

But his election hasn’t left locals downtrodden. They are energised and angry. In their ranks is represented a panoply of campaign groups suddenly galvanised and brought together by Johnson’s rise: Liverpool for Europe, Justice for Windrush, Save our NHS, and Fans Supporting Foodbanks, to name a few.

The calls to action come thick and fast. Helen, the first speaker, sets the tone. “We can use this fury, we can use this anger to shape the fightback,” she tells the gathered crowd. “Merseyside are not having it.”

Defiance characterises the protest, which has been organised by Liverpool Sisterhood, a group of women in charge of next year’s International Women’s Day march in the city.

“Keep agitating,” a leading Sisterhood member Felicity Dowling exhorts those in the square, “you can have an effect in building the resistance.”

Dowling’s appeal to “the resistance” is no accident. Across the Atlantic it is shorthand for the broad-based anti-Trump movement of grassroots activists that has coalesced and grown in the past three years.

Here in Liverpool, Johnson and Trump are inextricable. Indeed, several locals accidentally mix their names up that afternoon. A placard depicts the pair as the twins from The Shining.

“Johnson gives us an opportunity to generalise,” Jim Hollinshead, a local University College Union activist, tells me, “because one of the things that’s characterised politics in the last few years is single-issue campaigns.

“Johnson or Trump provides you with a focus where you can make the point that it’s not just your single-issue campaign that’s a problem, it isn’t just that this individual is a bastard, it’s the system that’s behind it.”

Ian Byrne, a local councillor and founder of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, agrees. The ultimate focus, he says, is on “those who are behind him, those who have driven him to power… They’re the people who want to keep this structure in place that basically wants to look after the rich and doesn’t give two fucks about the poor.”

And here we reach the potential difficulty that this prospective anti-Johnson movement will face.

Because to many in this Corbynite heartland it is not only the Conservatives that are behind Johnson’s rise. It is the media, the Liberal Democrats, and even, distantly, the former Labour prime minister Tony Blair. But not all want to cast the net so widely.

As the air cools on the Mersey on the first day of the Johnson premiership, Anna from Justice for Windrush begs the crowd: “We have to look out for each other, we have to all come together… We all have our differences, but at the end of the day it’s them and us.” The question is where, exactly, the dividing line between the two is to be found.

All photographs Getty Images

More United is part of the Tortoise Network. To read more about this partnership visit tortoisemedia.com/network