March 26: the peaceful majority

By the time I arrived at the Embankment, the police had already started turning people back from the front section of the march. Crowds of union members in matching T-shirts – purple UNISON, orange GMB, easy to distinguish at a distance – had formed in the middle of the road, flanked by people passing out placards and vuvuzelas from cardboard boxes and copies of various socialist papers off trestle tables.

I passed a young couple holding hands, arguing about their protest gear: “I don’t want a general strike one, but everyone’s got the No Cuts ones.”

That’s about right. The march wasn’t just staffed by the usual suspects, the hard-left unionists and the white-collar politically-engaged types – it spilled over with people of all sorts of political persuasions, including plenty of Lib Dem voters feeling a combination of betrayal and guilt.

For some it was a march to stop their jobs being lost and their workplaces closed down; for others it was a polite expression of a sad desire to take their vote back, to do it again, and not make the same mistake this time.

It was a grand day out. It was a long way round to get to Hyde Park for a picnic, walking slowly via Whitehall and passing the armed policemen outside 10 Downing Street, where little children jumped up and down and shouted “out, out, out” but couldn’t possibly have understood why.

Handing out vuvuzelas was a nice touch; they made it possible for a group of people who weren’t all there for the same reasons to communicate their displeasure with a wordless horn blow rather than having to set aside individual issues to form a single chant (though “no ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts” was a recurring shout).

The horns gave the children something to do. Even the pre-teens had placards, often ones they’d made themselves. One, in multi-coloured felt tip: “My educayshun got cut so now I can’t smell.”

Not one person I met or spoke to mentioned tax dodging. I saw a few “eat the rich” banners but for the most part those holding them were marching with other cuts-focussed friends – “homelessness is not a crime”, “end back door privatisation”, “this placard is rubbish because my TA was fired”.

The protesters who occupied Fortnum & Mason seem, from the reports I’ve seen, a long way away from the people I spoke to, the teenagers and parents and grandparents, ambulance workers and fireman, midwives and teachers who gave up their Saturdays to march. Whole workplaces came out to say the cuts should stop, generations of family marched together against cuts that will hit all of them – among them a group of midwives whose first thought on hearing of the Oxford Street trouble was “I hope the shop workers are OK”.

And many of those people, who’ve never heard of such a thing as the Black Bloc, will feel betrayed by what happened on Oxford Street yesterday afternoon. They came to march and to register their opposition, not to smash the state or fuck the police. (Another good point for the vuvuzelas – fewer sweary chants when children were present.)

When a few people were building Trojan horses, these people were packing picnics. And while the photogenic youth movement smashes windows and throws paint, the quieter, gentler, older one has the attention of the leader of the opposition – and is booing him when he says he supports some of the cuts.

A few of the pictures I took during the first part of the day found their way to the Guardian live blog of the event. They show, and I saw, good humour, biting sarcasm, bitter sadness, vast diversity, politeness, responsibility – and anger. These were people who had already tried talking to their elected representatives and working to make the best of things, and who had decided that wasn’t good enough.

And it must be rare, very rare, to see so many of those people from so many occupations and walks of life, all mobilised against something. As Paul Mason pointed out yesterday:

This passive but fairly angry mass are the people that pose the biggest political problem both for the government and the opposition; because when you can mobilise more or less your entire workplace – be it a special school, a speech therapy centre, a refuse depot, an engineering shop or a fire station – to go on a march, then “something is up”.

Yes. Something is up. And the media whose adherence to news values and desire to shock and titillate makes it easy to reduce this protest to its most violent events – on both the right and the left – needs to remember and bear witness to that.

Otherwise we will have an estimated 400,000 people who not only feel betrayed by their government, but also by betrayed their media.




Edit to add: Ryan Watts, a photographer who was at the march, pointed out on Twitter that the good work of the police is also overshadowed by the violence – the peaceful majority saw policemen being helpful, friendly, chatty, directing them gently, passing out useful information, and even expressing a wish to be on the march themselves. I don’t imagine those policemen see much of their experience reflected in today’s headlines either.

“Why did you come to the March For The Alternative today?”

Tories: no transport cuts to lunch clubs for the very elderly in Islington

A few answers, from today’s TUC-organised march in London, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the coalition government’s austerity measures. These words come from people who marched from Victoria Embankment to Hyde Park as part of the main march, and spoke to me in the park shortly after Ed Miliband’s speech.

Ambulance worker from Manchester, who travelled with a group from his union:

Some of what the government is doing will directly affect us – we’re going to stop being a foundation trust but we don’t know enough about what will happen yet. But I’m here because I’m against the whole thing – pensions, pay, everything.

Tim Lewis, who travelled from Cambridge alone:

I’m here for a couple of reasons. I think the Chancellor is absolutely full of shit, for a start, and what the government is doing is insane. I’m also here partly out of guilt because I accidentally voted for a Lib Dem candidate thinking it would help keep the Tories out of power and we all know how well that turned out.

Adam Green, a history student with a placard reading “Unite against apathy”:

It’s not just about the tuition fees – I mean I oppose the tuition fees but there’s lots more going on. Like, what’s happening to the NHS, I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I don’t want to just sit there and say I’m only going to fight for the things that affect me and my friends. You’ve got to stand up for everyone. And the government can afford to cut business tax but it can’t afford to help out people who are homeless and that just doesn’t make sense to me.

An NHS worker in her 50s who came with her branch of UNISON:

I’ve been in the NHS all my working life and I’ve never seen anything so wrong-headed as what they’re planning to do. GPs are rubbish as it is and asking them to decide how to spend money as well as look after sick people is just daft. My children and my grandchildren think I’m crazy for coming.

Sylvia Dunhurst, who has severe mobility issues:

When I had my accident I was off work for nearly a year, and when I tried to look for jobs afterwards there weren’t any that I could do that could cope with my wheelchair. So I do what I can to keep myself active but it’s incredibly hard to scrape by at the moment. The coalition seems to want to take away the things that make it possible for me to live my life with any sort of autonomy and dignity.

A teacher at an inner-city primary school in the Midlands:

Some of the children I work with are very deprived. A lot of them don’t speak English as a first language, some of them are children of asylum seekers and refugees, and their parents are desperately poor. The cuts are taking away funding for teaching assistants and they’re pushing more good teachers away from doing these hard jobs because the workload is going up and the pay and pensions are going down.

Geoffrey, a 72-year-old pensioner:

Because if we don’t march against this then they will say we agree with it. I don’t agree with it. They are taking away things that people need. My friends who are in homes need help to get around and that’s being taken away. They can’t be here because they can’t get around, but I can be here, so I am.

Sally, 8, who came with her mum, dad and 11-year-old sister:

Um, because I like going to the library to get books and I like my teachers.


More thoughts on reporting the march tomorrow, when I’m done celebrating being another year older.

Unpaid work experience vs market norms

On Monday, Fleet Street Blues posted an argument that the NUJ should not be pursuing their current campaign against unpaid work experience for journalists. Regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong, something I read today shed some light on the whole affair for me. I’ve been reading a book by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational: the hidden forces that shape our desires (thanks @lydnicholas for the loan). There’s a chapter called “The cost of social norms” in which he discusses what happens if you take a social relationship – courtship, for instance – and apply market forces. He sets up an experiment which studies how hard students will work at mindless tasks for researchers if they’re asked to do it for no money, 50 cents or $5. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the students who aren’t paid who work the hardest.

Those who got paid 50 cents didn’t say to themselves, ‘Good for me; I get to do this favor for these researchers, and I am getting some money out of this,’ and continue to work harder than those who were paid nothing. Instead they switched themselves over to the market norms, decided that 50 cents wasn’t much, and worked half-heartedly. In other words, when the market norms entered the lab, the social norms were pushed out.

A whole series of experiments follow, in which Arielly mixes social norms (gifts of chocolate, for instance) with market norms (cash rewards) as motivators and looks at the impact on the work people are willing to do. Money – even the mention of money – always sours the social norm. When the social contract is based on goodwill and barter that doesn’t mention a monetary value, people are willing to work for very little. The minute money is mentioned, people switch to using market norms, and suddenly discover that their reward for working is way under the market rate. So, with the NUJ campaign, the fight seems to be happening between those who see the work experience relationship as a social exchange, where inexperienced journalists gain experience, knowledge and bylines in exchange for their work, and those who see it as a market exchange where the journalist is not being fairly compensated. Just as, in the row over HuffPo bloggers not being paid in the aftermath of the $315m sale to AOL, people who were accustomed to seeing their work as part of a social exchange suddenly, at the mention of money, reframed it as a market exchange and decided they weren’t getting a fair market rate for their work. Suddenly, a lot of ongoing conversations about the value of free work make an awful lot more sense.

Who can work for free?

Since Arianna Huffington sold the Post to AOL, there have been lots of posts on all sides of the debate about whether bloggers working for free is a good thing, a bad thing or simply an unavoidable thing.

It’s true that many HuffPo bloggers arecelebrities or working people or other types who pure and simple don’t need pay, who do it for the platform. But more are unpaid, community bloggers who write for love, for dedication, and in some cases in the hope that their work for free is a gateway, a way to build their profile and to end up with a paid writing gig. No one’s forcing them to write for free. But to me this issue seems to fit neatly into a continuum with a free guest post on one end and months-long unpaid media internships on the other. Media and writing careers are desirable; people want a way in; editors want a portfolio of cuttings; the only way to get one is, often, to work for free. Online or off.

And that means that media diversity shrinks. There are thousands of aspiring, talented writers who can’t afford to work for nothing but expenses paid; hundreds of students who have to earn money during their summer breaks and can’t take time out to go do unpaid work experience. Very few people can afford to be a journalism entrepreneur or start up a hyperlocal blog, and genuinely spend the time and the money and the energy involved in covering their community well, when there’s rent and utilities and bills to pay.

Further down the line, what about those who can’t afford to drift from freelance paycheck to freelance paycheck, with no sick pay or holiday or job security, in the hope of getting something more permanent? Do they capitulate, go over to much-derided “content farms” like Demand Media or Suite 101 just to get some writing credits and try to earn money at the same time? Or do we lose those voices from the conversation because of the economic barriers to entering a media career?

I’m not saying that the HuffPo can or should solve those problems. But I do think they’re problems that need thinking about when we think about paying writers – because if media businesses don’t pay people with no experience, we’re guaranteeing that the people with experience will be a certain type of people. And that, in the long run, means a poorer public dialogue and a skewed view on the world.

Education, education, education: the political

This is one of a pair of posts. This one looks at the unanswered questions after the tuition fees vote. The other one declares and explains my personal biases.

18 is a magical age. Drinking, voting, leaving home, and exams that have the power to change the direction of your entire life – and the end of free education.

It’s peculiar, how education changes in the August of the year you pass your A-levels. Suddenly education is a privilege, not a right. Suddenly you must justify your choices harder than ever before, make sacrifices, shop around, evaluate the potential quality of your teaching in a way you have never had the chance or obligation to do before. Suddenly education is a marketplace, not a common good.

And it’s about to become more so, thanks to the trebling of tuition fees and slashing of university funding. As part of the cuts to humanities, funding for languages at university has been decimated – even as the coalition tries to push more teenagers to take them on at GCSE. Education is not a life-long concern – and education for its own sake is utterly devalued by a government that persists in painting certain subjects as more worthy than others.

When we talk about the cuts to education, adults tend to forget that many teenagers don’t go to university because of the career options at the end – they go because they care passionately about their areas of expertise and because they love to learn. For the same reasons that 17-year-olds do A levels and 6-year-olds love art lessons. Because of the joy of learning.

At the protest, everyone I spoke to shared a similar sentiment. The protests were about the cuts. The anger is about the lies, the broken promises, the injustices. The coalition’s last-minute attempt to persuade furious protesters that in reality they just haven’t quite understood the implications has done little, if anything, to help – in fact, its list of myths certainly doesn’t cover the main objections I have (though at least it’s provided some great parody ammunition).

Many of the big questions remain, at least to my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong) unanswered:

  • How much is this going to cost the country?
  • Why are we borrowing more when the coalition’s stated aim is to reduce, not increase, the deficit?
  • Why the uneven nature of the cuts, aimed at humanities more than science?
  • Where’s the evidence that humanities graduates don’t contribute to the economy to the same extent as science ones?
  • Where’s the study that shows what impact the fees and cuts might have on poor students, minorities, students from poorer schools?
  • What’s going to be done to make the Student Loans Company fit for purpose, if it’s going to be overseeing so much more money?
  • What is the sale of this debt into the banking system going to do to the economy, in the short and long term?
  • We’ve seen analysis of EMA and participation – but where’s the analysis of the impact of stopping the EMA on attainment, aspiration, attendance, self-esteem?
  • Why is debt you have no hope of paying back fine for students but bad for countries?
  • Whose voices are going to be missing from the wider conversations and absent from our universities in ten years’ time, because of fees, because they’re critical thinkers but not great mathematicians, because they can’t afford college, because they’ve been told their chosen field is worth less than others, because they don’t believe their education is worthwhile any more?
  • Why are universities covered by the Department for Business and not the Department for Education, anyway?

And the anger is going to get bigger as the injustices are perceived to mount up – the post-Christmas VAT rise coupled with this year’s round of bank bonuses is going to add fuel to the #ukuncut fires – and some of the anger will stop being directed at Nick Clegg and his merry band of pledge-skippers and start to be aimed at others in power. Dumbledore’s Army are already marching, and for all the pearl-clutching about yobs poking Camilla with sticks and the discourse about falling support for students, the narrative has escaped the cosy confines of the right-wing press. Groups of kids are using decentralised technology to organise protests in real time – and making jokes about Godzilla at the same time. They don’t need the support of the Daily Mail. They’ve got their networks, and the Mail doesn’t matter any more.

And bear in mind, while everyone on every medium is talking about peaceful protest, that this is a group of young people who have never seen peaceful protest work. This is a generation of politicians who have never listened to peaceful protesters, no matter how reasonable. Would there have been resignations if there hadn’t been a pitched battle going on outside?

“This is not good news for anybody”

After work today I went to the student protest. Been itching to get there all day – 20 minutes from the office, and the helicopters buzzing outside the window like wasps, and the constant, hypnotic stream of tweets on #demo2010 and #dayx3. The horse charges covered by the BBC news (though I can only find this one-line mention of it online, now); the baton-beating of a journalist that went unreported on the rolling TV news. And the debate, another stream of words passing hypnotically by. I couldn’t not, at the end of the day, grab my iPhone and go.

I arrived not long before the vote was counted, a few minutes before the news spread that the measures to raise the cap on student fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year had passed by 21 votes. My small corner of the protest was pretty calm, all told, because I was kept outside Westminster Abbey along with a crowd of a couple of hundred newcomers on the outside of the kettle, with a double line of mounted cops and riot police with short shields between us and the massed students filling Parliament Square.

Twitter was light years ahead of the mainstream media. I passed more than one journalist on the outside of the cordon who didn’t have a clue what was going on, and the fact that I had a phone in my hand made me a magnet for people wanting to find out what was happening inside the boundary.

They talked to me, and I talked to others, and though most didn’t want to give their names all were happy to talk. This is some of what was said.

A woman whose 16-year-old son was still in the kettle:

I was here with a friend earlier and we were in the crowd when the horses charged. We just ran away.

I’m so proud of my son. I agree that it’s wrong to raise the fees like this. I supported him coming here – I came myself – but the police were getting so heavy handed in there and I’m scared for him.

I have a daughter who’s applying now to do film studies and you have to wonder what they’d think of that, the Lib Dems. It’s not what they value. But then with the cuts to science, you wonder what they do value, whether they value anything at all.

A man dressed in motorcycle leathers, who wouldn’t take off his helmet after he came out of the demo:

They were using Section 60 and searching everyone. They wouldn’t let anyone out without filming them or taking photographs. It’s not legal to do that. They have no right, but they wouldn’t let people out otherwise. They trapped us in there and now they won’t let people out. It’s not right.

Overheard, from a group of 15- and 16-year-old girls, giggling as they stamped their feet to keep warm:

We need a better chant. It’s so cold. “Freeze the fees, not our feet!” “Should we stay or should we go?”

A police medic, between politely directing lost cyclists and concerned tourists to various destinations via routes that didn’t go through the riot directly behind him:

It’s a long day. We’ve been on the go most of us since about 7am – I was running with the march when it started this morning. I’ve been all over. I spent a couple of hours with someone who was injured, a protestor – hit on the head with a bottle or something like that. People throwing things, it’s bound to happen. I did stop for a Twix and a cup of tea at one point, but I reckon we will be here a while yet. It’s not going to be a nice night.

Overheard, another policeman, talking to a student:

That’s nice of you, but I’m not meant to eat Nik Naks while I’m on duty.

Joey, a 17-year-old girl who’s studying for her A-levels:

I’m waiting for some friends who are still in the kettle. We ran into a boy, he said he was 15 and he’d come here with a group of older students, like 20 or something, but they’d gone off or he’d been separated and he couldn’t find them. He seemed, like, really immature and unsure and we said he could stay with us but in the chaos we got pushed one way and then we couldn’t find him. I hope he’s OK.

Sandra, a retired mum of two students who are studying elsewhere in the country:

It won’t affect me personally, or my kids, but it’s still wrong to expect young people to start life with such a huge debt around their necks. Of course fewer students are going to go to university. No one wants to be in debt the rest of their lives – that’s why the government wants to cut the deficit, after all. But this isn’t the way to go about it. It won’t even help.

Jodie, 14, who cares for her mother, who is scared her disability benefits will be cut due to the coalition changes to the system:

If I can’t get the EMA I can’t go to college. That’s all. I’ll have to work, because mum can’t support both of us on her benefits. So that’s it for me. That’s it. It’s over.

A student from Nottingham, who had missed his coach home because of the difficulty leaving the demo:

Of course it’s been cold and hard, but it’s been well worth it. It won’t stop here – it can’t stop here. It’s not over. You never forget the first time someone breaks your heart. Nick Clegg is done. We have to keep fighting. But this is not good news for anyone.

There’s another post in the works, a more thoughtful one, about the decision the coalition has just made and why I feel it’s so horribly misguided; my feelings on that are inextricably bound up with and informed by the fact that I was one of the very first batch of 16-year-olds to get the EMA, on a pilot scheme in Birmingham, and without that fact there’s no way in the world I’d be in London, a journalist, typing this. I wouldn’t have A-levels. And that changes how I write about it. So that post is for later.

David Cameron is Voldemort. No, seriously.

I’ve lost count of the number of articles on the student demos that start like this: Where did the passion come from? Why are students – schoolchildren – teenagers – taking to the streets in their thousands to protest, all of a sudden? Isn’t this the apathetic generation who doesn’t care about anything?

Frankly – no, no it’s not. I don’t think it ever has been. But the popular media has told itself, and the rest of us, a very sad story about young people that isn’t entirely true, and it’s not a surprise to see the mainstream media startled by a sudden, vocal proof that one of their favourite narratives just doesn’t work.

The mainstream media delights in telling stories about terrifying, terrible youth. Soaring youth crime and inner-city gangsThe fattest teenager in Britain. Pregnant at 13. Asbos. Yobs are taking over the streets. 12-year-olds encouraged to have sex early. Drug-infested schools. And yes, these are cherry-picked, but it’s easy to find dozens, hundreds, thousands of stories like this, many with the same or similar headlines. It’s much harder to find positive stories on youth that feed into such well-known narratives – a good news story about young people is framed as an anomaly, proof that our Asbo-ridden drug-taking pregnant yobbish terrible youth is not quite as broken as we all, of course, thought.

Sure, the media reports prodigies too – and then delights in their downfall. And when a child star fails to fall, there are gleeful attempts to toss them down – vile upskirt photos of Emma Watson on the front page of the Star; jeering at the temerity of Daniel Radcliffe to appear naked on stage. Positive, uplifting role models for our teenagers, that we rip apart for sport. For newsprint.

But for thousands of young people the stories just don’t hold true. They aren’t pregnant at 15, or drinking on street corners, or morbidly obese, or on heroin, or committing knife crimes. They’re just trying to grow up. And for those children – the ones we see marching on the streets now – there’s another story that resonates much more strongly with their lives.

So let’s talk about Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Idealised Transition Into Adulthood. Let’s talk about the series of books that has defined a generation’s relationship to its school days, to its society, even to itself. The teenagers on these demos are far more likely to have read Harry Potter than any newspaper, at all – not only because the books speak to them but because the media speaks about, of and for them instead, and not in a very pleasant way.

Harry Potter offers an escape. It offers a world where Broken Britain barely intrudes at all, and the realities of everyday life – broken homes, morbid obesity (Dudley), vicious child abuse – are left behind Harry as soon as he enters Hogwarts – as soon as he enters education. And within those walls is a world where bullying is rife and problematic, sure, but teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, knife crime, all the myriad vices that the Daily Mail ensures us are endemic in today’s teenage culture – they simply don’t exist. Here’s a story that helps middle-class kids make sense of themselves without telling them they’re failures. Harry Potter is even a pioneering ground for participatory media – it’s not such a huge leap from fanfic and forum roleplay to the sorts of joined-up stories and easy control of narrative that pervades the UCL occupation.

Most importantly, let’s talk about the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the series, where education (in the form of Hogwarts itself) has finally come under such strenuous and sustained attack that our heroes decide to go rogue. Throughout the whole series politicians are weak, easy to manipulate, refusing to listen to children until it’s too late. They appoint Dolores Umbridge. They fail to notice the return of Voldemort. They fail to act decisively. They fail.

And throughout the series the children’s appeals to authority fail, but hard work and persistence and simply Being Right is enough to prevail in the end. Until the end, when, in a world without Dumbledore’s kindly smile to smooth over the cracks, the teenage heroes – sixth-formers, let’s not forget – must take on the assembled weight of the entire political system to try to prevent that system from destroying itself. For the sake of education, they fight, and they die.

Stories – especially popular, populist, wildly successful books, especially fairy tales and moral tales like this one – are a culture telling stories to allay its fears, to resolve the conflicts it fears will shatter it in two, to make sure there is a happy ending after all. They are like dreams, in that they enable the body conscious to process difficult events, working them into a pattern, a narrative that makes sense and which they can survive. David Cameron is Voldemort. Nick Clegg is shaping up to be Professor Quirrell, but he’s also got a shot at being Snape – in tomorrow’s vote on education cuts and university fees we’re all expecting him to kill Dumbledore, and only time will tell whether he’ll be redeemed by his later actions.

The media and popular politics paints teenagers as bad guys, as problems, as passive blanks or as villains. Harry Potter paints them as our saviours – our righteous, furious, glorious saviours who will do what’s right, even if it looks wrong to us, because it’s what’s necessary. Even if it’s violent. Even if it gets them into trouble. Because the world will be a better place in the end.

Why on earth are we surprised when they take to the streets?