Man walks into a column, no.10: Protest

One of the distinctions between the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and the protests at town halls throughout England is that the former had(/and still have) a chance of changing something. The protests in Lambeth, Camden and elsewhere are an expression of anger with little hope of achieving anything.

Part of the problem with the recent London protests is their scale: 150 people out of a total population of more than a quarter of a million in Lambeth’s case, 500 out of roughly 230,000 in Camden’s. Much less than one per cent of the population in either: this is a hard core, an odd mix; of activists and those worst affected (pensioners are mentioned frequently in several of the news stories), rather than an uprising.

The extent of the coverage is, at least when seen against the true scale of the events, disproportionate to say the least. But then editors love a scuffle, and however amateurish the protests may’ve been, the whiff of anarchy is, perhaps, distinctively British. And obviously it helps that they fit into a bigger narrative about the country going to the dogs, the government losing control, and so on. Hardly the start of a rebellion, though.

I’m interested in why the earliest of the protests (assuming this is the start of a more nationwide trend) have happened in London. Highest concentration of political activists? Biggest chance of getting media coverage? It’s hard to believe it’s a direct correlation with the severity or speed of the cuts: northern and midland authorities are feeling the pinch too.

Is it just that, comparatively, London boroughs have the highest person-to-acre ratio, meaning that in most cases the town hall is closer than elsewhere? I was talking to someone who works in local government who said he felt the chances of county councils receiving this kind of ‘attention’ were extremely slim.

This isn’t just about geography: the problem with two-tier areas is that residents’ knowledge of who’s responsible for what is, understandably, lower. But I wouldn’t underestimate the distance factor: on a cold winter’s night it surely makes a big difference if the protest’s in walking distance.

I wonder also whether this isn’t a case of chickens coming home to roost: in the shape of the impoverished status of British local democracy. Yes, this is a particularly challenging time for the local politician, but you would think they could construct a more convincing argument than ‘it’s all Whitehall’s fault’.

The main reason these protests will change little is, of course, the fact that unlike in other parts of the world we do have democratic structures and mechanisms, and freedom of speech, and these will cause much of the sound and the fury of current anger to dissipate, over time. It just feels a shame that it takes such difficult circumstances to bring local politics to the fore, and even then: that so few people dominate.

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