A while ago during a planning meeting at Liberal Democrat HQ, some bright spark suggested that the party should hold its spring conference in the North East. Apparently nobody had any better ideas, so last weekend saw the Lib Dems descend on Newcastle and Gateshead – in the heart of a region which, according to pretty much any depressing statistic you’d care to mention, is in the process of getting royally screwed by the government’s public spending cuts.
While most of the media gave far more attention than was warranted to the tedium of the conference itself, we joined the “Clegg Off” protest, hopeful that angry Geordies would storm the venue and raze it to the ground – giving us some lovely carnage to report on.
On my first night in Newcastle, a bunch of Geordie anarchists let me hang out with them as they prepared to welcome the Lib Dems to the area by unfurling a massive banner – or rather a collection of smaller banners – from one of the Tyne's many bridges. They wanted to keep their meeting place secret, so wouldn't let me take photos of it, but suffice to say their lair was the usual mix of hippies, socially-aware jungle and hashish.
This guy's name was "Jack". He wasn't so keen on being photographed, but he did admit to me that he was suffering from pre-stunt nerves. "I hate doing actions. I like the feeling you get afterwards, but actually doing them is fucking awful. You get over-excited and think things are going to happen which probably won't. But I do it because I'm an anarchist, and I believe in what I'm doing."
Despite Jack's butterflies, no one got arrested and the banner hung for about ten minutes before some confused-looking police officers were sent to haul them out of sight of any Lib Dem delegates who happened to be in the area. In case you can't quite make it out in the picture, the banner spelled out: "CONDEM CAPITALISM"; which I guess ticks all the boxes that anarchists, masters of the angry pun, needed to tick.
In town the next day, this masked protester was convinced something was going to kick-off. “I know it for a fact,” he said, “the police will try things and we’ve got to be prepared for it.”
This guy was nobody’s fool, wisely covering his arse legally and disguising himself as a tiger.
The protesters’ warnings of impending police brutality seemed staggeringly paranoid. We were more worried that this was going to be the lamest protest the world had ever seen. Here is a picture of everybody that had turned up about ten minutes before the march set off.
Our hopes of a ruckus were dying fast. Rumours circulated that there were more banners than protesters.
Nonetheless, off we went. A sound-system attached to a bike started blasting Rage Against the Machine and some smoke bombs were let off. The atmosphere was actually quite lively, but there was no avoiding the fact that you could see both the front and back of the march from wherever you stood.
Rich people hate these things. The smoke is like Kryptonite for them.
The smoke bombs gave the bored police an excuse to pretend that there was a risk of something actually happening. They started filming the seven- or eight-strong black bloc. The bloc fought fire with fire, subjecting the police to a bloody good filming.
Eventually the police tired of this who-can-film-whom-the-most contest and tried to arrest some people.
Including your intrepid correspondent. This is me meekly handing over my details to an officer who declared that I was “obviously” with the black bloc as he pushed me up against a van. Note to reporters: don’t wear black from head to toe on a demo.
Luckily, my mealy mouthed contrition was enough to convince him that I was an innocent. I reflected on how naïve I hade been earlier to doubt the Stasi-like qualities of the Northumbria Police.
High drama. With one arrest made, we carried on. The numbers swelled a little as we met a student feeder march.
Having made its way through Newcastle and across the river, the march reached its destination – a trade union rally outside the conference centre. In an exemplary show of left-wing unity, the speeches had finished and trade unionists had begun shuffling off before the marchers arrived.
As seems to be de rigueur at protests these days, people hung around for a while, waiting for somebody else to start a riot until they got bored of shouting abuse at the police and left.
Meanwhile, some young Lib Dems swaggered past. Doing their best Reservoir Dogs impression, they looked well on their way towards a research internship at one of their party’s regional headquarters. You may see a trio of smug wannabe party hacks, but we saw an opportunity to interview tomorrow’s political top-brass. The girl on the left didn’t say anything and the guy in the middle wanted to remain anonymous – let’s call him Mr. Yellow. On the right is Tom, a 20-year-old student.
VICE: Hi, young Lib Dems. What do you make of the protest against you?
Tom: Well… [shrugs] They have a right to protest. It doesn’t bother me.
I see. A lot of the protesters seem to be angry at the Lib Dems for joining a coalition with the Conservative Party. The stock response has been that the Tories would be even worse without the Lib Dems there to keep them in check. But how far can you take that logic? I mean, what if the voters had chosen the Lib Dems and, say, the British National Party? Would you join a coalition with the BNP to curb their worst excesses?
Tom: There's a big difference between the BNP and the Tories.
Mr. Yellow: Having said that, if you were making a choice between British Nationalists governing alone and unchecked, and British Nationalists governing with a checking party… it's like saying do you want radical extremism to be unchecked, or do you want it checked?
Tom: Actually, yeah, to be honest, would anyone want them governing alone? Someone would need to step in. I don't think that coalition would last. I don't think they'd like us! Have a nice day!
Thanks, I will!
With attendance peaking at perhaps 200, it would be easy to write off the protest as irrelevant. But, noisily shouting their way through a busy Newcastle city centre, the mob at least made a bit of an impression. Just another tiny drip of revolutionary water eroding the stone of oppression, man.
That’s more than can be said for the real irrelevance – the conference itself, which failed even to debate scrapping the massively unpopular Health and Social Care Bill, ie the one that’s going to privatise the NHS. At least the protest showed itself to be more dynamic than the Lib Dems' triumph of thumb twiddling bureaucratic torpor, and in the battle for hearts, dynamism is a persuasive weapon.
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