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Here's What the Next Five Years of British Rioting Could Look Like

The new Conservative government could mean enraged students battling with cops and animal lovers beating up fox hunters.

by Aaron Bastani
May 11 2015, 3:00pm

Photo by Oscar Webb.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The defining feature of the first 18 months of the last coalition government was protest. It began almost immediately after the results of that election became clear, with the efforts of Take Back Parliament, who wanted voting reform. Then there was UKUncut, the 2010 student movement, the massive "March for the Alternative" on the March 26 and, later, the August riots. Either side of those riots were two large days of national industrial action on June 30 and November 30, the latter of which saw as many as two million workers on strike and demonstrations across the country, including one of more than 50,000 in London.

All of that unfolded in a climate where the Liberal Democrats, as is now painfully clear, restrained the Tories from further destroying what the protesters were trying to save. What's more, the swelling energy of dissent was constantly told that its only real outlet for change was through the Labour Party which had, at least in some aspects, shifted to the left.

Both factors have now gone, as the Tories prepare to govern alone and Labour shift back to the right. If you thought Ed Miliband was useless in backing strike action or joining protests—with his "these strikes are wrong" video one of the most bizarre political interviews ever—wait for Chukka Umanna or Yvette Cooper, two of his most likely successors, to take the reins. Just as contentious politics on the streets, in workplaces, and neighborhoods is set to increase, the context has shifted.

But what would such protests be about? Many will be triggered by an often incoherent, underlying discontent with austerity and would encompass numerous grievances. As the name suggests, that was the case with Saturday's "Fuck the Tories" protest—a middle finger to the braying Etonians of the government, a howl against cuts to various services, a moan about the voting system... whatever people felt like being angry about.

This has been a hallmark of anti-austerity protests since 2010 like the Million Mask March, which now takes place every November 5. The most outstanding example of that kind of general response on the immediate horizon is a demonstration called by the People's Assembly for June 20, which has as many as 45,000 "attending" on Facebook at the time of writing.

Alongside these broader protests—increasingly liable to be organized through digital media and difficult to foresee—there will also be specific moments and policies which are likely to bring people out onto the streets. What's the "Tuition fees broken promise" of 2015-2020 going to be? Where's the next Millbank going to happen?

Well, it might be tuition fees again. With it being rumored that the Tories want to increase the annual fee cap to at least £11,500 [$18,000], expect to see angry students out in force again. Unlike in 2010, the NUS and student activists seem politically prepared. Shelly Asquith, President of the student union for UAL, sounded confident when she told me that student activists were "expecting the unexpected."

"I was in my first year of uni in 2010 and even then the 'student movement' nationally was being led by people who didn't even believe in free education," she said. "What we have now is an NUS with a largely unquestioned free education stance, we have anti-cuts groups on campuses more active than ever, and a movement that is unafraid of taking direct action like occupations and demos. If there is anything that gives me hope going into five more years of Tories, it is the strength and potential of the student movement in leading the fightback."

Photo by Chris Bethell

If recent history is anything to go by, higher education will be the biggest battle in the next five years. If the Conservatives have any sense, they will try and see it off sooner rather than later. Expect something that is bigger than 2010. The student movement could win and more importantly, win through direct action rather than through a parliamentary vote. That would be a testament to how radical students have set the agenda for free education like nowhere else in the anti-austerity debate. Here, it seems, is an alternative which has consensus among those facing down the Tories. The same cannot be said in housing, healthcare, or the general running of the economy.

Another point of contention—and something that shows how Britain's culture wars will hot up before 2020—is the Tories promising a free vote on repealing the ban on fox hunting. With a majority in the Commons, it is quite possible that such legislation could succeed and that Britain will see a return of legal fox hunts before the end of the decade.

Related: Watch our film about people who love hunting foxes:

That would almost certainly lead to protest far beyond anything seen in relation to the badger cull of the last several years. Demonstrations in central London would be very large, but more importantly hunt sabotage—already a common phenomenon and something dating back to 1963—would dramatically increase, becoming increasingly violent as passions boiled on both sides. Expect to see animal lovers dressed as ninjas and red coated hunters running around the countryside beating the shit out of each other.

As well as hunting and tuition fees, there is a myriad of other reforms, from legal aid to repealing the Human Rights Act, which will meet with substantial protests, but perhaps the most important moment in the next five years will be the referendum on membership of the European Union in 2017. It was the referendum on Scottish independence last September, and paradoxically its defeat, which laid the groundwork for the breathtaking scale of the SNP's victory north of the border on Thursday. It is possible that a referendum vote to stay in the EU could in fact be the best outcome for UKIP. They could gain members, mobilize supporters and thicken local networks. What's more, if they lose, Farage and his "People's Army" could point to the sheer power of the forces which oppose them in the form of the major parties, big business, and the BBC. Could we be about to see UKIP members take to the streets and orchestrating a march on London against the EU? It's kind of unlikely, but not impossible.

Perhaps the key difference between the next five years and the last five is that the historic organizations of the left—such as the TUC which coordinated the half-a-million strong March for the Alternative in March 2011—can no longer simply say that protest is powerless without ultimately voting Labour. After last week's results, such a position seems absurd, with the big take-away of this election being that without Scotland, Labour will likely never get a majority in the House of Commons again. That means that the line of "vote Labour to keep the Tories out" no longer washes—if it ever did. Given all that, you might think more intelligent Labour politicians and activists will be participating in the coming years of protest, although the prospect remains unlikely.

The next five years will see much more protest than the last five and it will be interesting to see how party politics interacts with the politics of the street. A febrile atmosphere of protest offers potentially rich pickings for Labour, the Greens, and UKIP. That said, the former seems to have nothing but revulsion for street protests, and that could contribute to their ongoing demise. The most important resistance to the Tories for the rest of this parliament will likely be on the streets, and parties on the opposition benches that fail to keep up will become increasingly irrelevant.

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