Trenton Oldfield and the guidelines of protest.

Aside

No, this is not a slightly dodgy fan fiction of harry potter. Instead, the harsh sentencing today of Trenton Oldfield for six months represents a significant milestone of the loss of freedom in the United Kingdom, coming as it does at the end of a long line of recent blows to free speech. We seem to have forgotten as a society that a vibrant democracy must include the right to dissent, especially when those dissenters say or do things that seem strange or downright offensive to mainstream society.

I find it particularly odd that the Judge’s sentencing remarks not only seem to recognise this trend, but state the new paradigm of acceptability so blatantly. According to the BBC:

Oldfield had acted dangerously, disproportionately, had not shown what he was actually protesting against, and displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist.

She said: “You did nothing to address inequality by giving yourself the right to spoil the enjoyment of others.

 

Thereby delineating what is acceptable when it comes to personal political decisions and avoiding jail time. For a demonstration to be acceptable, it must be kept out of quietly out of sight and out of the public eye. Nevermind the frankly odd assertion that it’s prejudicial to demonstrate against elitism, the strangest comment in the justice’s remarks is that Trenton ‘had not shown what he was actually protesting against’. Perhaps the large public discussion about elitism following his arrest does not count. Perhaps the judge was being wilfully obscure. Or perhaps the judge was asserting that one is only allowed to protest against mainstream causes and issues that are already in the public domain.

This statement seems even stranger when we consider that part of the reasons she gave for sentencing him so harshly was that ‘you did nothing to address inequality’ and ‘displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist’. You can’t have this both ways, you can either complain that the stunt was not a true demonstration because it had no clear aim or you can claim that his stated reasons behind the stunt were not valid. You cannot have both.

What the presiding judge does seem to think by her remarks and the sentence handed down is that unless one’s stated cause is acceptable to the political mainstream and is carried out in places where it can be ignored then the person who holds those views should be prepared for harsher punishments than usual. This is the only explanation for custodial time in a situation which would probably usually have warranted a fine.

It goes without saying that this is a worrying development in the history of debate and demonstrations. Because Trenton Oldfield dared to disagree with a rather popular boat race and hold views contrary to those of the political establishment, it somehow follows that he should expect to be judged more harshly than someone who’s protesting for something fashionable. Consequentially, free speech is being modulated along terms of what is acceptable to the hegemony and is clearly free no longer. This is a sad day for democracy and a sadder day for our country. 

Shares for rights: A half decent idea terribly executed.

The recent furore over Osborne’s plans to allow workers to swap their rights in exchange for shares in the company must not be allowed to detract from what is essentially a good idea: allowing employees material investment in their places of work thereby bypassing the need for coercive governmental legislation. In this case, however, any debate over the role of workers privately negotiating their own terms of employment with their employer has been overshadowed by the messenger, as Osborne’s dreadful public image not only poisons the chalice but stabs the drinker for good measure before throwing them, weighted, down a remote well.

But just because the idea has been proposed by a bumbling fool doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it some deeper thought. In theory, the current government is here attempting to make it easier for companies to hire people and for people to find jobs through allowing the employee to privately negotiate the terms of the contract and have a stake in the business. This is, needless to say, excellent. In theory. In practice however, what Osborne is proposing will merely make commonplace the employee exploitation. There is no reason for the company to grant favourable conditions to owning these shares thus eradicating at a swipe any stake the employee could have in the company for which they work. We would be left with a situation where the young, already obligated to work for nothing in unpaid internships would, after the debt of university and internships, be forced to work under constant threat of losing their jobs with no way of recourse. Nor would the companies gain much if anything from this. While it is true that they may be able to hire and fire workers more easily there is no evidence that this would actually have any impact on the job market. Under constant threat of losing their jobs and with little if any disposable income what incentive would people have to spend what little money they have instead of saving it in case they get fired next week with no settlement package?

As ever, Osborne has missed a fantastic opportunity. By providing massive tax relief to companies which mutualise their work force through favourable stock options while leaving the details to negotiation between the company and employee he could have increased job security, spending power and worker happiness at a stroke. Instead, he’s presided over another PR disaster for the current government and increased whispering over whose side the coalition is really on during tough times.