We now have the image that will define this age of retrenchment and rebellion, splashed across all the frontpages this morning. Even Grosvenor Square ’68 can’t compete with that kind of iconography.
Image: Matt Dunham/AP
But the real images of the night were not of the violent black-flag brigade, nor of the middle class heirs to the ’68ers, but of London’s black teenage youth.
Newsnight’s Paul Mason had it spot on:
‘Young men, mainly black, grabbed each other around the head and formed a surging dance to the digital beat lit, as the light failed, by the distinctly analog light of a bench they had set on fire.
‘Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.
‘While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations – UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex – the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style [sic] youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.
‘Having been very close to the front line of the fighting, on the protesters side, I would say that at its height – again – it broke the media stereotype of being organised by “political groups”: there was an anarchist black bloc contingent, there were the socialist left groups – but above all, again, I would say the main offensive actions taken to break through police lines were done by small groups of young men who dressed a lot more like the older brothers of the dubsteppers.’
Paul’s film for Newsnight – if a little breathless and romantic at times – captured brilliantly the arrival on our political scene of working class, predominantly minority ethnic, youth. ‘We are from the slums of London,’ one declared. ‘£30 a week is what keeps us in college and stops us selling drugs.’ Their moves would have done Guy Debord proud: the streets taking to the streets.
Two things explain their politicisation: the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and mass youth unemployment. The EMA led to a rise in participation in fulltime education of 6.1 percentage points among eligible 16 and 17 year olds, with a particularly strong effect among young men, who saw an increase in participation of 8.6 percentage points. It has been critical to the life chances of these young men and women, and it is not suprising that young black people in London in particular value it so highly: the youth unemployment rate for 16–24 year olds in this group is almost 50 per cent.
Their protests didn’t stop MPs voting for the rise in tuition fees and doubtless few believed they would. But what about the longer term consequences of yesterday’s events?
Most people now expect the Liberal Democrats’ youth vote to collapse, particularly in the university towns. Even those Liberal Democrat MPs who voted against their government will get punished by association at the polls; the closer they get to the election, the more rebellious they will become. Meanwhile, as the Coalition starts to develop an agenda for the second half of the Parliament – by which time much of the original Coalition agreement will have already been delivered – both the Liberal Democrat left and the Conservative right will want to assert their identities, putting pressure on the centrist middle ground that currently holds the Coalition parties together. That centre bloc is unlikely to break, but it will face more strains: last night’s vote may have been the most severe test the Liberal Democrats will face, but it won’t be the last.
This year’s youth protests could also turn out to be the vanguard for a different kind of rebellion next year: that of working families in low- to middle-income groups, squeezed by rising taxes, increased charges for services and cuts to tax credits. They will not be mobilised by left-wing trade union leaders, if at all. But their anger will find its way onto the political agenda, even if its takes a focus group to mediate it.
The longer term legacy is less clear. The generation of 1968 thought it was leading the way to a broader working class mobilisation and an assault on US imperialism. Neither came to pass, and in the end its most profound legacy was in the new social movements – feminism, environmentalism and gay liberation – that gradually made their way into the mainstream of political and public life in the 1980s and 1990s. That we have two metropolitan liberals governing our country is a testament to their success.
Whether the 2010 generation produces anything similar will hinge on whether their activism endures and is able to connect to deeper sources of socio-economic change, gathering political momentum in the process. After all, the eruptions of the Parisian banlieues have remained just that: eruptions.
Update: Anthony Barnett has this excellent piece over at the New Statesman on similar themes.