The Art of Confrontation

In a guest article for Periscope Nottingham, Chris Tregenza tells us how confrontation can still thrive in the modern world of labour relations.

Asking nicely doesn’t work. Politely protesting in designated spaces doesn’t work. Real change can never be achieved if it is easy for those in power to ignore you.

Effective confrontation is hard. There is a tightrope of moral, legal and practical issues to walk. We praise the suffragettes for smashing shop windows but the same people also planted bombs and threw hatchets at politicians. The poll tax riot is seen as pivotal in the demise of Thatcher’s government but the early 1980s featured a number of inner-city riots which only strengthened support for Thatcher and that’s before we get into the question of whether riots and violence are ethical tools of political protest.

Strikes have long been the favourite tool of the left because they are impossible for the powerful to ignore. As a consequence, Thatcher put most of her time in power into hamstringing the unions. However, strikes and unions are a tool created in the 19th century, perfected in the 20th century but which in the 21st century have limited use. This is not due to Thatcher’s laws but down to a fundamental shift to the employment landscape. The big factories are gone and from children to pensioners, there are more UK residents outside the workforce than in it.

We need a new arsenal of confrontation which fits the fragmented, diverse and technological UK of 2020. Extinction Rebellion has pioneered some new tactics as have the protesters in Hong Kong but their effectiveness and suitability for our struggle is far from clear. To build a new arsenal we must be clear on each weapon’s purpose and their individual strengths and weaknesses. To that end, we should consider three benchmarks.

Hong Kong protestors in 2019

Publicity – Does the confrontation create a story which the media cannot ignore or which it will actively want to cover? We must always remember that the media’s need for eyeballs always outweighs any political bias. A good confrontation makes for attractive, interesting or shocking television. However, publicity can be a two-edged sword and some of the best confrontations gain little publicity. One of the most effective weapons of the 1980s & 1990s were strikes at GCHQ, which were small and dull but worked because of our second benchmark.

Impact – Confrontations must hurt (figuratively) those in power more than the general public. The GCHQ strikes worked because they impacted on the Government’s spying operations but had no impact on the general public. When XR blocked traffic on London Bridge, it was mostly the rich car drivers who were inconvenienced but when they disrupted the Tube system, they hurt ordinary people and lost support. Action must always have a clear impact on the powerful, either economically or by simply inconveniencing them. If it doesn’t, the action can easily be ignored or turned against the protesters.  

Guerilla – The days of mass strikes are gone because the social infrastructure – the unions and other demographic or cultural ties binding people together – have disappeared, making it incredibly hard to organise large numbers of people into a single action. The new weapons of confrontation must be achievable by small groups or individuals taking action in their own way. The success of the Poll Tax protests was not the big marches but how 100,000s of individuals simply decided not to pay. Similarly the Montgomery Bus Boycott worked because individuals chose not to ride on segregated buses. There is a need for leadership in such protests, but the key is a form of protest where individuals or small groups, especially those outside the workforce, can take action in their own way.

Each weapon of confrontation must be assessed against these three criteria but there is no silver bullet. No single form of action can tick all three boxes in all possible circumstances. Our new weapons will be crude at first, maybe only fitting one of our criteria but we will learn over time and new ideas and opportunities will present themselves.  

The next five years will be years of turmoil and confrontation. It is time to warm-up the forges and begin crafting the weapons of confrontation we need.

Chris Tregenza

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