LONDON (Reuters) - From small demonstrations to protect local public services to mass marches that could turn violent, Britain will see more unrest in 2011 as trade unions and a new political generation try to join forces.
Student protests and London’s worst street rioting in almost two decades failed to block tuition fee hikes last year but did reveal a tech-savvy, angry group of young Britons who some on the mainstream left want to harness.
The official National Union of Students leadership seemed almost sidelined by more militant groups in the fees protests, but other union chiefs and a new generation of opposition Labour politicians look keen to avoid the same fate.
But they must also win over middle-class voters — a task they believe will become easier as cuts bite this year.
A disparate collection of union members, students, activists, bloggers, sometime rioters and handful of anarchists and environmentalists gathered in a basement conference hall in the headquarters of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) last weekend.
Their aim: To find common ground and learn new media skills.
“We are looking to mobilise as big a coalition as we can to increase pressure on the government,” TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber told Reuters at the “NetrootsUK” event.
The coalition government says it must cut spending by 19 percent by 2015 to reduce the deficit and avoid the financial fate of Ireland and Greece, bringing howls of protest from affected groups.
“Because the cuts affect everyone, they are an excellent opportunity to build support and alliances,” said Carlo Ruzza, professor of political sociology at Leicester University. “The students are still angry and I think they will remain active, at least for now. Others will want to tap that.”
The birthing pains of a wider anti-austerity movement are obvious. Activists were divided over whether they wanted to simply water down reform, block cuts altogether or bring down the coalition — and perhaps the wider capitalist system.
The depth of factional disagreements shocked some new arrivals to the protest movement such as 20-year-old English student Jessica Riches — an occasional blogger whose Twitter feed from a sit-in at University College London helped spark dozens of occupations elsewhere.
“If you’re all in one room together, you can manage those disagreements,” she said, clutching a glass of wine at networking drinks after the event. “But online in particular, it can really get out of control.”
Nevertheless, Riches says she will remain involved and like many others, says she is developing a taste for activism and enjoying building new friendships.
Organisers say the disagreements — which include wildly divergent positions on the role of violence, direct action, property damage and whether leadership is needed at all — do not necessarily matter if all push in the same direction.
They hope a wide range of activity — both local and national — will shift public opinion. They argue Britain does not need to slash spending as fast as it plans and say fairer taxes would be a better way to cut the deficit.
As a model, they point to protests against former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s proposed “poll tax” in 1989-90.
“The poll tax riots reflected wider public sentiment — although many would also have been distressed at the violence,” said Will Straw, 30, editor of blog Left Foot Forward and an organiser of the event as well as son of former senior Labour minister Jack Straw.
“But what stopped the poll tax was Conservative MPs getting letters from constituents opposing it. It’s all about winning the wider argument.”
In some ways, the campaigners could become victims of their own success. The more unpopular the government — particularly the Liberal Democrats, now resented by one-time student supporters for going back on a pledge not to raise tuition fees — the less likely coalition MPs may be to rebel and force elections that would sweep them from office.
In reality, much will depend on the wider economy and whether the cuts are seen as having saved the country or devastated growth.
But some say even simply prompting the coalition to marginally roll back on proposed cuts would be a success.
The Labour Party — still recovering from a leadership campaign between brothers Ed and David Miliband — has been largely absent from the protests.
Only two Labour parliamentarians attended the event, with the keynote speech left to newly elected 33-year-old Labour MP Stella Creasy. Taken along to Thatcher-era protests at the age of nine by her parents, she said she might take to the streets again for union-led protests planned in March.
“For me, it has to be more than just about marching,” she said, adding she believed she could still affect policy from opposition even without elections before 2015. “Just because we are not in government does not mean we do not have power.”
Editing by Jason Neely