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How Britain Dealt with the Shit Hitting the Fan in 2014

Some protests are better than others – here's what the nation's angry, poor and disenfranchised learned in the last 12 months.

by Simon Childs
23 December 2014, 1:00pm

(Photo by Adam Barnett)

2014 was the year that the shit hit the fan for the people at the bottom of British society. People are getting impatient and taking action at the same time as the trade unions and the Labour Party are hoping everyone just remains calm and sits tight, with May 2015 the light at the end of their electoral tunnel. In doing so, this year's protesters have shown, for the first time in ages, that popular protest can actually work. Here's what that the year taught us.

Protesters on the Britain Needs a Pay Rise march (Photo by Adam Barnett)

BIG ISN'T NECESSARILY BEAUTIFUL

The only big set-piece protest of note of was October's Britain Needs a Pay Rise march – organised by the trade unions, it attracted 90,000 or so people. That's compared to the half a million who attended an anti-austerity march back in 2011. People are getting even poorer, but there's no momentum because the unions end up trying to rouse the rabble without any ideas that anyone would bother to get out of bed for. Tied to the Labour Party, they end up backing ideas like raising the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020 – by which point, inflation would have wiped out the raise anyway. It's no good having a huge number of people marching if they're just marching into political oblivion.

On the other hand, small-scale protests were a huge success this year. Look at the victories scored by the workers at Curzon and Picturehouse Cinemas. While nearly everyone at the bottom of the pile has been getting poorer, these few workers won substantial pay rises to the London Living Wage (the former) or very nearly the London Living Wage (the latter).

A protest outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton (Photo by John Lubbock)

DON'T SELL OUT YOUR MESSAGE FOR MAINSTREAM ACCEPTABILITY

The Curzon and Picturehouse workers won their victories because, rather than marching and hoping someone would listen, they got organised and on several occasions walked out of work altogether. With their workers on strike, bosses were unable to shift any popcorn or show any films, and so had to pay attention. This means that the workers didn't have to water down their demands to make them more acceptable to the people that, ultimately, they were setting themselves against. Had they hung around waiting to vote Labour next May, they could still have been waiting for the rises they won five years after any prospective Miliband victory.

Likewise, 2014 was the year that – love them or hate them – everyone gave more of a shit about Nigel Farage and Russell Brand than any mainstream political figure, precisely because what they are proposing appears to be a departure from the status quo.

An arrest being made at this year's London Occupy protests (Photo by Oscar Webb)

BUT KNOW YOUR LIMITS

Of course, there have to be limits to the aims of a protest. For instance, demanding something both really vague and wildly ambitious is probably going to fall on deaf ears. Enter Occupy, who made a brief comeback for 2014 in the guise of #OccupyDemocracy, demanding something or other about more democracy and fewer bankers. The lesson to take here is to actually learn lessons. Camping in the cold didn't stop the machinations of the Illuminati in 2011 and doing exactly the same this year in Parliament Square with fewer numbers had an uncannily similar effect. They tried to get everyone to emotionally invest in a piece of tarpaulin, attempting to make #TarpaulinRevolution A Thing after the cops took a tarp off them during the eviction from the square. Unsurprisingly, nobody really cared.

New Era for All campaigners (Photo by Philip Kleinfeld)

IT PAYS TO KNOW YOUR ENEMY

Occupy's failure to spin a proper Good Guy vs. Bad Guy narrative stands in stark contrast to people protesting against the housing crisis – something that has taken off this year. For instance, the New Era for All campaign by residents of the New Era estate in Hoxton was able to hype the fact that the consortium trying to triple their rent included the family of the richest MP in the House of Commons. In the face of campaigning and public criticism, the consortium has now sold the estate to an affordable housing provider and there's a moratorium on rent increases until 2016.

Attempts to smear Russell Brand, a big supporter of the campaign, as a hypocrite because he pays a lot to rent his place didn't work because it's hard to make someone look bad just for being rich when he's posing himself against another rich person who's throwing families out of their homes.

Similarly, the anarchists who picketed against the "poor doors" on a block of London flats had found something emblematic of staggering snobbery – and got the building's developer to sell its stake to new owners who agreed to negotiate with the protesters. And as the E15 mothers occupied the Carpenters Estate for the right to be rehoused locally , Newham mayor Robin Wales branded them "despicable" – showing just how out of touch local politicians can be with the needs of the residents they're supposed to represent. He eventually apologised for his handling of the situation and the mothers won a partial victory – the right to remain in the borough in private accommodation.

2014 has seen some solid victories for those demanding a home against people who want to get rich out of housing. The E15 mothers' claim that "this is the beginning of the end of the housing crisis" doesn't seem nearly as fantastical as it would have at the start of this year.

London's Black Revs concrete over Tesco's "anti-homeless spikes" (Photo by Tom Johnson)

DON'T TRY TOO HARD FOR THE SAKE OF TRYING

Occupy aren't the only 2014 protesters who have failed to learn from history. This year saw the return of the Jarrow Crusade – the Jarrow March, mark four. It's generally agreed that the 1936 Jarrow Crusade – where hundreds marched from the North East to London against hunger and unemployment – achieved very little or nothing. The marchers were given £1 for a train fare back to Newcastle and the government subsequently did nothing to create jobs or reduce poverty in the North. The march was repeated in 1986 as a protest against Thatcher's government; again in 2011 demanding jobs; and, yet again, this year. This time around, about 40 people marched 300 miles from Jarrow to Westminster to demand the NHS not be privatised. I'm pretty sure that corporate health lobbyists turned NHS bosses aren't losing too much sleep over some peeved, knackered socialists' blisters. Of course, the marchers knew that. The real point was to gain publicity, but to do so they were looking to the past. 40 people marching 300 miles? 40 x 300 = 12,000 miles marched for a few column inches.

At the other end of the getting-off-your-arse-and-doing-something spectrum is #CameronMustGo – a Twitter hashtag that persisted in trending for so long that people got annoyed that it wasn't on the news, as if the news should be a list of what bored people sitting on their sofas in dressing gowns are reckoning at any given time.

Compare both those things to the London Black Revs' concreting of some homeless spikes – the most zeitgeist-tapping protest of 2014. That took a few guys, some concrete and a bucket. It had limited demands but it generated so much negative PR (and a small amount of property damage) that Tesco got rid of the spikes. They had truly nailed the effort:outcome ratio – something the protesters of 2015 should take into account.

A photo from Clacton just before it became the first constituency to elect a UKIP MP (Photo by Oscar Webb)

THERE HASN'T BEEN A WHOLE LOT OF PROTEST, REALLY

Given the state of things, though, there hasn't been all that much protest. That may be partly because when many people have been taking to the streets for change, they've chosen not to demonstrate but to instead drop leaflets through people's doors – in England for UKIP and in Scotland for the SNP and the failed bid for independence. I visited Clacton just before they voted in UKIP's first MP. People there were convinced that a protest vote for UKIP's Douglas Carswell would shake up the Establishment and help their ailing, impoverished town. This despite the fact that he had been their Conservative MP for ten years beforehand. UKIP voters in 2015 might end up surprised at how similar their new party is to the Conservatives.

The exact same thing can be said of the Labour Party, who will disappoint the left if they get in by continuing with massive austerity, despite hoping to clean up the anti-cuts vote. Before long there are going to be a lot of people whose dreams of change have been frustrated. Which will presumably lead to a lot more anger in the second half of 2015, once the election is out the way. I guess the water cannons Boris Johnson spent over £200,000 on in the summer might come in handy next year.

@simonchilds13