The Blog

Occupy Parliament Square: Messy, Brilliant and In Need of Mummy

Standing in the middle of Parliament Square, I watch the October twilight turn the breath of the Superintendent and the Baroness into steam. In the middle of hundreds of protestors with placards like "People, not banks!", the Green member of the House of Lords Jenny Jones is receiving a Pinteresque line of questioning...

Standing in the middle of Parliament Square, I watch the October twilight turn the breath of the Superintendent and the Baroness into steam. In the middle of hundreds of protestors with placards like "People, not banks!", the Green member of the House of Lords Jenny Jones is receiving a Pinteresque line of questioning.

"How would you like it if I pissed on your mother's grave?"

Jones blinks. They are debating whether Danny, a young man who has been occupying the plinth at the feet of a statue of Churchill for over a day, has broken the law. The policeman's question is in response to Jones saying the statue was "just a lump of metal - human rights are more important". If it's just metal, then your mother's grave is "just a grave", the Superintendent points out.

"Just a lump of metal!" The Superintendent went on. "That boy urinated on Churchill earlier. And then he performed fellatio on one of our greatest heroes. That man defeated the Nazis!"

I quietly think to myself: hell, that man defeated the Nazis. I'd do more than fellate him. Later, Jenny tells me she was puzzled by the question about her mother's grave. "It was quite illogical. I mean, for one thing, my mother was cremated."

This is Occupy Parliament Square, which aims to hold onto its ground outside the mother of all Parliaments for nine days to "occupy democracy". A couple of days ago, Jenny Jones was arrested for "obstructing the police" as they tried to break up the demonstration. When she came back today after being "de-arrested", the police had obviously decided to use more cerebral tactics on her. But she is one of dozens who have been arrested or claim to have been mishandled by the police during the latest protest organised by the Occupy movement. For many onlookers, what motivates this crowd - which dwindles to dozens and swells to hundreds depending on the hour, and has thousands of fellow-travellers online - is a mystery.

A frustration Occupiers complain of is that their message is not getting out because the media choose to focus on the protest aspects of their activity, rather than the substance of their message. In fairness, whilst I was there a photographer for a London free newspaper chuckled as he took several pictures of the lad on the Churchill Statue, ignoring for example the Baroness debating with a policeman about whether Churchill's ghost would like to receive oral sex and a small seminar being given under a tree about creating a sustainable economy. But if the protest is just a sideshow, what actually are they about?

"It's about policy and power distribution," says George Barda, one of the main organisers, as he passes his five month old son gently over to his partner and sits down on the grass with me. "For example, lots of people in this country, I think, are worried that this 'economic recovery' is fuelled by a re-inflating housing bubble. And we know that's dangerous. But most politicians aren't talking about that. We want to bring policy discussion and power back to people."

Another Occupier put this is "creating a debate about the debate". The central thread which every single of the dozens of protestors I spoke to agreed on is that mainstream politics is broken because it has a consensus about what should be debated in the first place, and then positions itself relative to that. Labour postures against austerity, it was pointed out, but have committed to the Conservative spending levels for a certain duration if they win power.

On this broader point, everyone there agreed. But many had different individual issues that they thought deserved more attention, and in that field there was enormous variation. One woman told me "the revolution will be here in five years", as if it was gestating away in some giant womb and she would be its wet-nurse. At around 9pm a middle-aged woman told a big group that the most important thing at that moment was to "truly be with these trees". The majority of people I spoke to shared some key central concerns - being against the privatisation of the NHS, wanting redistribution of wealth, wanting green politics, being against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This mess of ideas seems to be what stops onlookers and potential supporters from having a clear handle on what Occupy really stands for.

Kate, another Occupier, says that what they're trying to do is "create a new thing". This act of creation is in motion, and that is the point. If Occupy are right, and the politicians and media have controlled the terms of debate for decades, then starting a new debate will at least initially be messy. This is the central paradox of Occupy - it is partly a policy laboratory and partly a protest movement.

In the policy lab element seminars are given on ideas from the likes of Labour MP John McDonnell, Ann Pettifor from the New Economics Foundation and John Christensen from the Tax Justice Network. Here we find members of the apathetic 'selfie generation' sitting in the cold to hear about transitional periods needed to replace nuclear power with solar energy, or a frankly terrifyingly detailed accounted of how the proposed trade agreement between the US and the EU will set up a legal system that may undermine national sovereignty. Given the amount of coverage UKIP get for having two ideas - "get out of the EU" and "I drink pints of beer, just like you mouth-breathers do" - it does seem unfair to paint Occupy, with all their nerdiness, as just war hero-fellating layabouts.

But then there is the protest element of Occupy. Why do they have to have these policy discussions here, in Parliament Square, where they know they will provoke a police response and therefore be narrowed into representing a generic-seeming "stand for democracy" as one Occupier put it, instead of for generating ideas? Whilst Barda was talking to me about creating a broader-based economy, he has to juggle a call from another protestor who has just been released by the police, all whilst trying to have a fag and a coffee. No context to run a people's think tank, is it?

"We're here because this is Parliament Square," an Occupier called Matty says. "It was built for protest. And that's what we're protesting about." She points over to Parliament, looking like a big sleepy Gothic walrus. Other protestors agree that putting an open forum for the ideas of the majority into some committee room seems against the whole point. "And if it looks messy," says a man dressed as a wizard, "well, democracy is meant to be messy."

Indeed, "messy" is a term many of the protestors used about themselves. They seemed quite self-conscious about it. Even George, as a key organiser, agrees a lot of people automatically think "oh Occupy, just a bunch of crusties". Ian, a 78 year old Suez Canal veteran, agrees. He is out for the day to paint Parliament. He does it to raise a bit of cash for Great Ormond Street hospital. He's been watching the protestors for days, and he agrees they are quite messy (though a police officer told me they are actually very contentious about picking up litter).

He says he is "at heart a socialist", and he has some sympathy for them. But what to an Occupier looks like a free-thinking movement of a new political zeitgeist to Ian looks like a baffling circus of hipsters. He largely agrees with the sentiments of the protestors when I relay them to him - he agrees politicians don't talk about the issues most people care about (housing, the bank bail out, suspicion over foreign wars). But when I asked him about Occupy's methods, he shrugs. To him, they're just part of a carousel of protestors and weirdos he sees all the time around the ancient buildings of democracy that he paints. "For example, last Friday of every month, about two thousand roller skaters turn up here. I mean, what are they about?" I admit I cannot tell Ian this. "How we discuss policy is as important as the policy", one Occupier put it. But what if that method shuts people like Ian out, as he stands with his easel shaking his head?

Something shifts around 5.45pm. Caroline Lucas, former Green Leader and MP for Brighton and Hove, has turned up. Suddenly the crowd, sitting around talking about different models for local democracy, stirs into standing. They gather around her as she gives a speech. She weaves a constitution-level argument about changing the electoral system with even longer-term policy goals of creating a green economy with energy independence. The crowd grows. Greyer and greyer heads join. People passing by wander over. The applause radiates out in wider and wider circles.

This is a very traditional politician's soapbox address, albeit one about issues not widely discussed by the three main parties. Lucas is even literally wearing coat tails, as if channeling the aesthetic spirit of Benjamin Disraeli. As she talks about changing the constitution so as to move the centre of gravity back towards the interests of most people, Big Ben starts chiming in the background, giving an almost comical sense of political gravity to what she says.

I look at the eyes of the people, young and old, sparkling as they gaze up at her and laugh at her jokes. I think of Occupy London's website, badly designed and lacking any easy access to anything that, say, a 78 year old Suez Canal veteran could latch on to. It has a quote from Tony Benn on it, as if he is Mufasa's starry ghost from The Lion King talking to them from beyond the grave. If this is a political movement in its infancy, what it will one day need is a mother or father. Some figure of stature that can be a rallying point and express simply to the nation what imaginative ideas Occupy has been tinkering away on. I mean, Russell Brand came by to other day to give them some pizzas, but I'm not quite sure he's the one.

Lucas told me later "first you have to raise questions, and then different solutions can come about. That's why I celebrate Occupy." Encouraging words from Occupy's Green Aunty. But her party and Occupy can at best only rub along with each other, if Occupy is to maintain its process of being a policy-forming roving protest movement. If it is creating policy ideas but also pouring energy into occupying statues of Churchill, only the latter will be seen by anyone outside of 'the movement'. It needs figures of responsibility to bring the bemused casual observer onboard. What it cries out for is mummy or daddy.