23 November 2014

If you had taken a walk through central London on the night of November fifth last year, as I did, you would have seen signs that the hollowing out of Western democracy is reaching an advanced stage. Two very different protests were taking place either side of the Houses of Parliament on the night of the year in which Britain celebrates Guy Fawkes's famous attempt in 1605 to blow the Houses up (famously inspiring the Fawkes mask in V for Vendetta).

The anti-austerity movement the People's Assembly blocked Westminster Bridge and made a bonfire of thousands of gas and electricity bills in protest at the private utility cartel's recent energy price hike. The average annual cost of heating and powering your home is due to be hiked by 8-11% this year by the cartel, while charities at the time warned thousands risk cold-related deaths in their homes this winter.

On the opposite side, in Parliament Square, supporters of the hacktivist collective Anonymous formed a boisterous crowd all in Guy Fawkes masks. Their protest was not anti-austerity, it was anti-establishment; their demands are more vague, more revolutionary, tapping into the growing feeling voiced by Occupy that the whole rotten system is running out of time.

The People's Assembly called their fiery blockade the Bonfire of Austerity, with the flames fanned and teased by a brisk westerly wind that swept over the River Thames. A megaphone led chants, “they say cut back, we say fight back,” as more gas bills were thrown on the fire to keep the protesters warm.

In the shadow of the Houses of Parliament on the riverside, shouts of “Tory scum” joined with the noise; these protesters are older than the youthful Anonymous crowd, they remember the pain of the Thatcher years and will never trust the Conservative party in power, believing that austerity was not an economic necessity but an ideological project by the government.

They were proved right a week later when Prime Minister David Cameron promised “a leaner, more efficient state” on a “permanent” basis, dressed in white tie, during a five-course banquet, whilst sat on a golden throne (no, really).

Walking across the bridge and away from the Bonfire of Austerity, I headed into Parliament Square, where Occupy London illegally protested two years ago. The slouching statue of Winston Churchill was surrounded by hundreds Guy Fawkeses, their range of signs varying from anti-surveillance and pro-Snowden slogans to “let's have a chat about capitalism,” “remember the Gunpowder Plot?” and the quintessentially British “Down With This Sort Of Thing.”

This protest had a distinctly anarchic, international flavor to it. I could name the leaders of the People's Assembly, and their demands – more social housing, an end to austerity, public ownership of utilities – are simple, Keynesian, familiar. Anonymous, by comparison, do not assemble locally, and they have no roots in the old trade union movement. They come from the internet, with all its humour and paranoia, its incoherence. When Thatcher famously said of her neoliberal economic policies that “the point is to change the soul,” she never predicted that the souls of her conservative fantasy land would rebel against her, try to change back again.

Unlike the long-in-the-tooth unionist veterans of the People's Assembly, this generation has no memory of a politician ever working in their interests, and has never been asked to select one. They grew up as income inequality worsened while Tony Blair strutted around the lecture circuit, started wars and took a retirement salary from his masters in finance. Where the People's Assembly worries about the kind of people who sit in Parliament, Anonymous prefer instead to invoke their symbol Guy Fawkes and dream of its annihilation.

Yet could these two movements, who after all express anguish and disgust at the same problems, be reconciled in some way? They aren't yet comparing possible solutions to the problems of rising inequality, imminent environmental collapse and Orwellian state surveillance, but they agree at least that these are the problems. Both are utterly sincere.

While Anonymous is more dismissive of Westminster, both movements have a strong belief in organising from below, sharing a profound distaste for the idea that ordinary people should wait for crumbs to fall from the top table. The People's Assembly frequently reminisces on the fact that the welfare state, weekends, and universal suffrage were not delivered out of institutional kindness but because the powers that be were terrified of what would happen to them if these things were not given. As one of their top spokesmen, Owen Jones, said on television towards the end of the year: “don't leave politics to politicians.”

And perhaps the greatest symbol of their mutual interest is that of Westminster's political class itself. As I walked from one protest to the other, I stood still for a few minutes to eavesdrop on the policy wonks and ministerial advisers who were scuttling out of the Houses of Parliament, desperate to avoid talking to the throng of angry subjects. “Of course, it's not really about anything,” one said to his colleague, while another said “they're just having fun.” I even heard one ask, “who are these people?”

The most worrying part about that was not anything that they said, however; it was that it was impossible to tell which party they worked for. Three years of austerity has taken place with an opposition from Labour that is at best weak – others would say outright complicit – for failing to bring pressure to bear on some of the government's most punishing policies.

The historic, world-renowned National Health Service has not been outright privatised, but it has been gutted out so that private for-profit interests are now heavily involved in almost every function of its operation, from medical supply to even the running of hospitals. The biggest beneficiaries of Cameron's reorganisation of the NHS have been major donors to the Conservative Party, but the process of private finance initiatives in public healthcare was begun by the previous Labour government.

The Royal Mail, the oldest postal service in the world, was three months ago privatised for £3.3bn after a valuation made by Goldman Sachs, who performed the work on behalf of the government. Its value has since climbed by 80%, and Conservative donors Lansdowne Partners made an instant £18m profit as the price jumped on the second day of trading. Labour's stance was merely that it was undervalued, not that it should remain in public hands.

Other policies of austerity have caused considerable harm to the poor, such as the infamous “bedroom tax” for social housing tenants that has pushed many of the poorest households towards homelessness; and finding thousands of terminally sick and disabled 'fit for work' (many of whom have subsequently died) in order to withdraw welfare from them.

I attended Labour's annual conference in Brighton in September, intending to hang around at fringe events to talk to party activists and attempt to gauge the distance between the party leadership and the grassroots for a story in the Columbus Free Press...only to discover that there is no such thing as a grassroots activist any more. The Labour conference was a weird, almost nerdy event, populated largely by twentysomethings in suits who all looked as if they either wanted to be politicians or, bizarrely, thought that they already were.

I recall with particular horror attending a meeting of the Young Fabian Society, a think tank within the party, in which several very dispassionate young spads (Westminster insider jargon for 'special adviser') took it in turns to repeatedly drag the word 'passionate' before the group and torture it half to death in the name of dull personal ambition. There was also much invocation of words like 'synergy', and a depressingly unfruitful discussion asking “how can we get through to voters?” I wondered at the time where all the real political will had vanished to.

Crossing Westminster Bridge to see ordinary people, real, disaffected voters, setting fire to their energy bills, and watching the Anonymous crowd in Parliament Square set up a sound rig to dance the pain away, seemed to give a much clearer impression of where the Left had gone since Blair purged his party of its sincerity fifteen years ago. Yet the political parties seem only cosmetically concerned about how vacuous and distant they have become.

The debate about the growing gulf between elections and democracy was thrust into the spotlight in October by the comedian Russell Brand. Brand called for a mass boycott of the electoral system on national television on the grounds that endorsing no change at all is “only going to encourage them,” sparking a PR crisis for the entire Westminster village and dragging the influence of corporate cash on the political process into the limelight.

As various former and current cabinet ministers felt compelled to come out and defend the voting process, their position was undermined when the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a statement to defend “the power of voting.” As the leader of the Conservatives' coalition partners the Liberal Democrat Party, Nick Clegg is most famous for doing the exact opposite in government of numerous pledges he made before the 2010 election; his name is synonymous with selling out.

To put that in context, an endorsement of the power of voting from Clegg is roughly as worthy as an endorsement of the reliability of Wall Street from Jamie Dimon. Worse still, only 44% of 18-24 year-olds voted in the last election, even before Clegg betrayed the youth vote by tripling university tuition fees after

In the face of such angry apathy from Britain's youth one might plausibly argue, as Clegg did, that this was due to the “realities of government.” But that's the point. When there is a justifiable belief that austerity is a fig-leaf for corruption, and a growing consensus that voting delivers nothing except consent for more pain, people can only question whether the government has any grasp on reality.