A few hours after I attended UK Uncut's Great British Street Party outside Nick Clegg's home in south-west London, I was inundated with messages. It turned out that the Tory MP Louise Mensch had just very publicly blocked me on Twitter for being supportive of the protest or, as she preferred to call it, "the targeting of people's families". She signed off her intention to block me with the lament, "I thought so much better of you".
I am pleased to report that my devastation at such a turn of events has not completely robbed me of my judgment. Thus I am able to wonder why Mensch has responded so unfavourably to UK Uncut, and yet continues to tolerate the presence of Simon Hart in the Conservative party – a member of the Countryside Alliance protest outside Peter Hain's house in September 2004. As the Independent reported at the time: "More than 100 protesters hammered on the doors, blowing hunting horns through the letterbox and switching off the mains water supply to the house." Given that Mensch suggested people donate to the Lib Dems as a form of compensation to Clegg, I wonder when Hain can expect to receive his cheque as well?
Let's put the legitimate charge of hypocrisy aside for a moment. The real flaw in Mensch's logic – and that of many others who criticised our method of protest – is that it is simply incorrect. Unlike these critics, I was actually at the protest, and I can tell you with some certainty that it was not intimidating at all. Adults and children played music, ate potato salad and blew bubbles. There was no chanting, banners or angry slogans. It was, as promised, a street party. Some of Clegg's neighbours joined us – in fact, I spent a bit of time sharing cake with one of them, and as he watched the protesters he admitted: "I'm surprised someone didn't do this sooner."
Another asked me who we were and what we were doing, and when I explained it was a protest I felt obliged to reassure her of our peaceful intentions. She looked at me as though I'd gone completely mad and replied: "Yeah obviously; it's a street party." In the end, protesters were waved off by a neighbour who said: "I'm glad the weather stayed nice for you!" If that's Mensch's definition of intimidating, I suggest she leaves the country for the jubilee weekend. I can't imagine the trauma she will suffer.
Don't get me wrong: there is a valuable debate to be had about differing forms of protest, but I hardly think a lovely street party on a summer's day is the linchpin for it. So if we're trying to understand why certain MPs are forcing this debate, perhaps it's worth asking who is really targeting families.
Just two days before UK Uncut held its protest, the BBC reported that one in five families with disabled children in Northern Ireland were missing meals, and almost half couldn't afford to heat their homes, with 78% of people questioned citing welfare reforms as the reason for their situation. Earlier this month a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report stated that a quarter of children would be living in child poverty by 2020, as a result of £18bn cuts to benefits. And where was Mensch when the media was reporting these stories? Was she banging on the door of David Cameron, the party leader to whom she is so devoted? Was she raising her concerns in parliament? Was she talking to the families or organisations in question so that she could develop her understanding of the issues? No. She was obediently waving through the very policies that are driving people into such desperate circumstances.
The reaction to UK Uncut's protest on Saturday is one of contrived outrage: fauxprobrium, if you will. It is an attempt by certain political quarters to distract from the real issues under the guise of concern. It is using the cry of "Won't somebody think of the children" to turn a legitimate political argument into an illegitimate one. UK Uncut's members must be portrayed as thugs and bullies, else people might actually start listening to their anti-austerity message.
Well, here's a direct message to Mensch and friends: your attempt to smear these protesters was both cynical and fruitless. You don't scare UK Uncut. UK Uncut scare you. And in the end, isn't that rather the problem?
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