Steve Richards: Don't expect protests to achieve much

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Students protest. MPs vote in the House of Commons. The protests are vivid, dramatic and, even in these freezing temperatures, have a whiff of urgent glamour. Parliament is rarely noticed and politics is viewed with disdain.

Almost certainly by this evening a majority of MPs will have voted through the mind-boggling increase in student fees. The protests will have made no practical difference whatsoever and may have even hardened the resolve of some Liberal Democrats to display masochistic solidarity with their Coalition partners. The acts of orthodox politics will have prevailed over protest.

The pattern is familiar. Protests do not change policies. It is a myth that the poll-tax protests brought about the fall of Margaret Thatcher and the dumping of the policy. Terrible opinion polls, by-election losses, Europe and the fear of Tory MPs that they would lose their seats led to her demise. In the subsequent leadership contest, Michael Heseltine was the only candidate who campaigned unequivocally for the scrapping of the poll tax. He did not win.

The million people who marched against Iraq on the eve of war made no difference to Tony Blair's fearful determination. If an editorial in The Sun newspaper had turned against him he would have been in much more of a state, but by then the only force that could have stopped him was MPs in the House of Commons. Most MPs supported the war, but they alone had the power to call a halt to Britain's involvement and some of them tried to do so. Blair suffered the biggest revolt of his leadership, but most Conservatives supported him.

However far back we go, the pattern applies. Both Labour and Conservative governments ignored the great CND marches. The London demonstration organised by the Countryside Alliance did alarm Blair. He even sent poor old Michael Meacher, his Environment minister, to join the march in order to show that the most timid government in recent history shared its concerns. But the timid Prime Minister could not altogether ignore MPs who wanted a fox-hunting ban and new laws on the right to roam. Even the fuel protesters, with their capacity to derail the economy, won only a temporary reprieve.

Over recent days, television screens have been full of images of John Lennon to mark the 30th anniversary of his death. Lennon staged "bed-ins", "sit-ins" and protest songs that are still sung. When Paul McCartney performs a Lennon song live he tends to choose "Give Peace A Chance". It made no difference then and makes no difference now. The fact that US authorities feared Lennon as an insurrectionary menace revealed more about their level of deranged paranoia than it did about the Beatle's capacity to make any practical difference.

This is emphatically not to argue that protests have no purpose. Imagine the complacency that would accompany the revolutionary zeal of the Coalition if its plans for an astonishing 75 per cent cut in funding for universities was greeted with passive silence, or if the Liberal Democrats' U- turn on tuition fees was met with a yawning indifference. Liberal Democrats in particular, but others too, are thrown by the intensity of the anger. Like all human beings, they would prefer to be loved than loathed. Desperately, they try to rationalise that "going through the fire" is a form of maturity in the same way that Blair decided he had become bolder when he faced unanticipated levels of unpopularity over a war in which he had hoped for a "Baghdad bounce" in support. The protests keep them on their toes, even if they do not change their policies.

More importantly, they show that a young generation has become politicised and that might over time have profound consequences. When I was at York University in 1979, most of the students did not seem to know a general election was taking place, let alone have a view on it. They had already anticipated the more atomised society that the victor of the election sought to create. Punk rock was the closest they got to the outside world and even that was a fading force in the late 1970s.

The indifference marked the start of the reactionary era. Today's protest and others show at least that those taking part recognise a connection between politics and their daily lives. Even now, some of my old student contemporaries fail to do so, seeing the strange things that happen to them in their cut-off lives as more to do with fate than the consequences of political acts. Today's youthful protesters will not be so remote.

But to make a practical difference they will have to hold their noses and recognise that fusty old party politics is what matters in the end, whichever party they choose to support. I wonder how many students demonstrating today voted at the last election. Quite a few famously forgot to register and were therefore disenfranchised on the grounds of indifference.

The current anger extends well beyond students; yet the angry have no chance to do very much about it now. They had their opportunity at the election to hold candidates to account. How many were politically active then? Over a third of those entitled to vote did not bother to do so, although admittedly at the last election the choice was a fairly narrow one.

Any big change over the next few years will arise from votes in the unglamorous arena of Parliament and not by protests in the streets. This is a hung Parliament. The Liberal Democrat MPs have the power to defeat the Government at any time. I doubt if they will do so, but it is up to them. Thatcher became destabilised when she started to lose votes in the Commons on relatively trivial issues. She was untroubled by the demonstrations. What made John Major's life a form of political hell were the knife-edge votes in the Commons on the Maastricht Treaty and other matters. Blair would have been finished if he had lost the vote on the introduction of top-up fees for the less intimidating amount of £3,000 a year.

Looking ahead, performances in by-elections and opinion poll ratings will have more impact on the stability of the two Coalition parties than a protest focused on what it is against, but is less clear over what it is for – beyond a vaguely defined support for a graduate tax.

Protests are unavoidably exciting and bonding experiences. They attract charismatic stars. Only last week, Arcade Fire gave their support to the students as they rocked the O2 arena. In the late Sixties and early Seventies Lennon was by no means alone among rock stars, even if peace was not given that much of a chance. They have parts to play in the noise that shapes a democracy.

But they are noises off. The decisive roles are still carried out by those in the least glamorous of vocations. The Commons is unreported. Policy-making and the choices that inform the process are viewed with indifference. Yet in the end orthodox politics will determine the future of higher education and a thousand other policies. The protesters will not. Look at what happens today.;

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