Lunge! : How student politics lost its Marbles

“Honestly? I doubt you made even this much difference.”

Student politics is dead. Its poster boy, Jonnie May-Bowles, is in prison, a martyr to a one man cause. His crime: poverty of imagination. The sentence, reality. The knowledge that being flippant isn’t enough. You don’t make a process ridiculous by being ridiculous. The adult world turns, and if you won’t embrace it, you court irrelevance.

If you’re young or young at heart, feel a profound sense of injustice and anger at the government, or the distribution of power in the country, and spend much of your spare time attending demos, public meetings, benefit gigs above pubs, with a £2 entry fee that goes toward making placards, with acts built on received wisdom, because you simply must be part of something, then it’s time to let go. The dream is over, the fight is lost, and the reason is simple – you’re a bunch of clueless drones.

Members of the government sleep like babies every night, knowing that what passes for organised resistance in the land is marginalised, self-interested, incapable of reaching out to the public at large and stocked with hopelessly naïve student radicals; the sort of people who excel in finding others like themselves but couldn’t radicalise the orphaned son of a murdered Islamic extremist.

The general public, most of whom are politically docile, care for material concerns and personal pleasure more than the political culture of the nation. Society isn’t at ease with itself but then it doesn’t need to be; for most people it doesn’t strictly exist. Margaret Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” speech is much derided; held up as the mantra of the compassionless right, but Mrs Out Out Out was on to something when she said that there were only families and individuals within families. For most people in Britain that is reality.

Thatcher’s policies, geared toward monetarism and individualism, guaranteed that even if it wasn’t true when she said it, it is now. For many people in this country, society is an abstraction. We’re all part of it, maybe, and some of us care about how it’s structured, but provided our own interests are never threatened; provided we have a job and a home and enough disposable income to fund distractions throughout the week so we don’t have to think too carefully about what we’re actually for, then all is well. Politics, in this formulation, becomes an indulgent afterthought.

Jonnie May-Poll

What should we make of Jonnie May-Bowles, the attention craving, shaving foam attacker whose insipid protest against Rupert Murdoch’s political influence, made idiots cock-a-hoop?

May-Bowles, who calls himself Marbles, perhaps indicatively, as every aspect of his attempt at self-commodification seems lazy and half-baked, (surely May-Poll would have been a better pun…as well as a real one, not to mention appropriate for an activist incensed at the policies of the Coalition government elected in May of last year?) tried to convince both himself and the public that he was striking out for the little people when he launched himself at Murdoch’s wrinkled puss with what may be the weakest rallying cry in the history of political protest.

“You naughty billionaire,” he said, pushing the shaving foam onto Rupert’s stubble, in perhaps the only functional assault of all time, and one instantly thought of Watt Tyler, Emily Davison and Mohammed Atta; protestors who died on the world stage.

Except Jonnie May-Poll hadn’t died. Worse, his catchphrase, which in his own mind was set to become the slogan of choice on a million t-shirts, and enter the lexicon of political sound bites, second only to “I have a dream”, failed to catch on. ‘”You naughty billionaire”: Hillsborough, Wapping, Sky, The News of the World – everything had built to this one, devastating put down from our unelected representative, Jonnie May-Poll. We’d have said it alright, if only we’d thought of it.

May-Poll, like every protestor of his generation, chose to make his point with a politically empty gesture. A content free, symbol free (if you have to explain it, it doesn’t work, Jonnie), ideologically bankrupt piece of political theatre, that illustrated the problem that opposition to the government and their friends face; your enemies are adults, playing adult games with people’s lives. You, in contrast, are a bunch of self-righteous children who desperately want to feel important.

Why did May-Poll do it? He told the world that he’d struck the blow for “everyone who couldn’t”, a statement that some pre-schoolers would have found rather profound. Sitting in his cell, following the incident, Jonnie would have spent the evening thinking of ways to pre-empt criticism that he was a self-indulgent, attention craving tosspiece, who’d trivalised an important argument, though his career choice of stand up comedian made any denial a hard sell.

Faced with few legitimate lines of defence he opted for stuff like, “the process was a farce, the pie being a visual metaphor for how ridiculous it all was” and “I wanted to show the public they could get involved and make a difference”, but these justifications didn’t ring true because anyone who could think for themselves understood that pie throwing and egg throwing, the latter seldom getting mass media attention incidentally, despite it being exactly the same thing, may be fun but it’s pointless. If May-Poll really wanted to hurt Murdoch, he should have simply presented him with a copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress.

I’m not certain why I got so depressed watching endless repeats of May-Poll’s tepid lunge toward The Dirty Digger. I expect part of it was knowing that it had nothing to do with the arguments; nothing to do with the intricacies of the scandal, rather this was a fragile ego desperately seeking veneration from equally self-righteous peers, though peers that Jonnie didn’t rate as intellectually astute, as he assumed they’d be impressed by the weakest part of a Clown’s set.

As Jonnie sat there, waiting to strike, I could imagine him thinking ahead to the moments after he’d inflicted the blow. This, he thought, would be a moment that would be played on TV for all time; May-Poll giving Murdoch a pie(ce) of his mind, the public’s mind – a decisive humiliation. I hate this man, Jonnie was thinking, though actually he’s only as powerful as successive laissez-faire struck governments have allowed, but let’s not think too much about that; after today I’ll become a permanent footnote in his story; his infamy will instantly be conferred upon me. You can’t have Jupiter without Io, and after today they’ll be no Murdoch without May-Poll.

What should frighten us is not the idea that May-Bowles, who really should have chosen one name or another, didn’t believe wholeheartedly in the value of what he was doing, but that he did. He’ll believe that until the day he dies because he’ll have to; the alternative, conceding he’s an idiot, and by extension validating criticism like this, would be unthinkable. If that thought, though already germinating as he lies in his bunk after lock down, listening to his cell mate masturbate above, is ever allowed to bleed into his waking consciousness, the edifice of purpose and importance he’s attached to himself would come crashing down and he’d just become a cock with an inedible pie made of shaving foam. In that event we’d have a suicide on our hands.

I believe all student politics is characterised by this form of cognitive dissonance; the need to feel important and involved in the issues of the day, coupled with the creeping realisation that nothing you do actually makes a difference, though you don’t understand why.

Well, as Morrissey once said, back in the days when he had something to say, I’ll tell you why.

Manifesto for the young

I’m an admirer of Tony Benn. It’s not a sexual thing; at 86 he’s probably ten years too told for me, but I like his politics and I admire the fact that he’s always chosen to communicate those ideas in an accessible way, else I might have misunderstood the important details.

Conscious that he’s getting on, and is burning the last of the left’s fuel, I’ve made the effort to see him whenever he appears – attending public meetings, one man shows and just the once, a stop the war demonstration, prior to Iraq; though obviously that wasn’t just for him – Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman was in the crowd too.

Last week, with Jonnie May-Poll’s exploit still wetting my sponge; I intruded on an anti-cuts public meeting at ULU, in which Benn was the headline speaker. Held in a tiny hall, on the 3rd floor of the building, a modest crowd of 40 had turned up to eat sandwiches with unimaginative fillings and feel good about themselves. Bar myself, and a handful of wizened lefties, most were tadpoles; a colourful troupe including a corseted siren with a huge, prominent mole on her right breast, a future academic with glasses half the size of her face and someone who’d come, presumably for a bet, as a militant lesbian.

Benn waited patiently, perhaps day dreaming about a wrestling bout with Denis Healey, while the ones no one knew made their remarks. There was a black and minority students officer, a woman who was announced as the first black equal opportunities rep at the LSE, prompting her, somewhat embarrassingly, to point out that she was here to talk about female students, not race, some earnest but dull Edinburghian and finally, a man who’d been bred from the DNA of the fat controller and a Victorian lawyer, complete with upturned moustache. The chair, a friend, complimented him on his excellent taste in clothes; the rest of us were left to ponder how little character he actually had, requiring so many conspicuous affectations.

Various arguments were made, and you knew them to be serious because each speaker lent into the microphone. It was a scandal that the police should have been so aggressive dealing with the student protests of last year. After all, the real crime wasn’t the property damage, or the near fatal fire extinguisher accident, but the tripling of fees and the police. The government’s cuts disproportionately affected women. The fight had to be taken to the “Con-dems”! The girl next to me clapped so hard, I had to motion for her to lower her hands, to save my ear.

The audience was brought in. What could they do to make the campaign more effective, asked one? If the right was so despised, why did it keep winning, asked another? When will there be a harvest for the world?

It fell to Tony Benn to answer most of these questions, though not the one about the right winning, because this wasn’t the time or place. Benn, with a trademark flip of the left hand, left the audience and fellow speakers to a funereal silence as, with a mighty sigh, he smashed their naïve optimism.

‘Look’, he began, ‘there was a time, and I don’t say this lightly, when I would have given you the old speech about solidarity, today’s pariahs being tomorrow’s heroes and the time I met Churchill in the common’s urinal, but I’m just too old for this nonsense. I just can’t do it anymore.’

“No Cuts” pins were dropped.

‘How do you make the campaign effective, someone asked? Well, for a start, look outward. Stop having naval gazing exercises like this, where you all pat each other on the back and make resolutions to meet outside Whitehall to do the same in six weeks time. Start thinking about how you can reach out to people who aren’t like you, who don’t care, and if you conclude that you can’t, appeal to their basic humanity and sense of compassion by putting yourself in harm’s way; be prepared to suffer for your cause.’

‘Tony!’ cried the corset girl, ‘I’m suffering, have you seen what I’m wearing?’

Benn ignored her. ‘You’ve got problems you’ve barely started to grapple with. Why do so few care? Well, because most are unmoved.  When women campaigned for the vote, that was an issue, because half the population were disenfranchised. They wanted to be part of the political process but couldn’t be. They were prepared to go to jail as symbols of that injustice, die if necessary, yet you bleat when one of your number gets thumped in a scuffle.’

‘You don’t represent the people,’ he went on, ‘that’s the problem. Most are comfortable. People your age can vote, but they choose not to, they’re not interested. The people you need aren’t part of the political process, by choice, so they can safely be ignored. Most have been brought up in a free market society, so when something like student fees are introduced, it’s seen as inevitable, rather than reprehensible. Oh, it’s important but no one’s going to throw themselves in front of Nick Clegg’s ministerial car to get a free degree, are they? Perhaps you need to think about why not.’

I was eyeing the last coronation chicken sandwich at this point, but it didn’t feel appropriate to get up and take it.

‘What are you prepared to do?’ Benn continued. ‘Where was this level of anger on the day the election was announced? You’re all chasing your tails! Would you be prepared to move, en mass, to marginal constituencies and compel your friends and family to do the same, to radically increase your influence over the political class? Are you prepared to risk your future, disrupting society with civil disobedience, direct action and more, to make them listen? Or is this simply an anti-establishment phase you’re going through? How many of you are getting sex out of this? Do any of you actually believe in radicalism at all, or do you think that going to see a Mark Steel gig counts? Well? You want to make a difference? Join a political party and work hard to become an MP, otherwise just fuck off. Yes, that’s right, fuck off. Er, is anyone going to have that sandwich?’

Of course Tony Benn didn’t say any of that, apart from the sandwich part. He sat there, dutifully clapped after each speech and did his best to inspire the crowd at the close. Did he suspect he was addressing the PR men and I.T support engineers of the future? Probably, but to his great credit he didn’t show it. Perhaps he was just grateful that Jonnie May-Poll hadn’t turned up. How could he explain storming off during a standing ovation?

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