A nearly successful demonstration
What a joy it was to march yesterday! What swelling pride I felt, looking at the Victoria Embankment from Southbank as I joined the crowd via Waterloo Bridge: a serpentine ribbon of half a million righteously indignant citizens using their democratic right to make their views known. What a thrill to be surrounded by so much fraternity and love; to know that I am not alone in my anger; to feel entirely part of a total and, at the same time, completely individual.
The balloons. The swathes of colour of the PCS union, to which I used to belong in my previous professional incarnation. The woman in a wheelchair with the banner “Cameron, if you want my benefit, you can have my disability”. The Pret employee standing outside, displaying the badge “TRAINIEE” (but refusing to let me take a picture – company policy). My current union, Equity, singing songs from Les Mis (I think I may re-join PCS). The 5-year-old lad from Sunderland chanting “No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts”.
What a disappointment the rally in Hyde Park was in comparison…
If one needed a perfect physical manifestation of what is wrong with our movement, there it was for anyone that cared to look. At first a niggle. Then a suspicion. Finally, a strong feeling of confusion and pointlessness. People milling around, mostly passively observing speeches (the stand-out was Sam West’s on cuts to the Arts), commenting “oh! she was very good” or “he really isn’t very good, is he?” (you know who you are). A general sense of WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
Why had the atmosphere changed so radically? During the march there was purpose and direction. Everyone knew against what they were demonstrating. At the rally a series of speeches, most of which seemed shoe-horned into the general anti-cuts mould, diluted that unity of purpose. Up to that point there had been a plan. We meet “here”. We march. We make noise. We are heading “there”. It was Direction in its simplest, most honest expression.
At the rally, someone needed to step up to the plate and take this crowd of half a million and point us – clearly, concisely, unequivocally, inspirationally point us – to the next point of our journey. Unite us in purpose and direction. I hoped, rather than expected, that it would be the Leader of the Opposition. In a colourless, tepid speech – in which the word mainstream was mentioned a dozen times – he politely declined.
I returned more frustrated than I went. Only my frustration was now diffuse and shapeless. Reports of sporadic violence in the West End and the BBC’s disgracefully disproportionate, tabloid coverage annoyed me further. Then I read a blog post by a chap called Rob Marchand on Labour Uncut. And my frustration began to condense and take shape and little droplets of anger started to drip in the back of my throat.
Rob Marchand seems a nice man. He claims to be a party loyalist and I have no reason to disbelieve him. His motives are obviously honourable. His view is expressed in a reasoned and seemingly reasonable way. But at its heart lives the rotting, festering core of everything that is wrong about the political process.
The thesis is that Ed Miliband was right not to march with the unions. There is much about the lack of wisdom of “playing to our own constituency” rather than the one we need to win. There is much about appearing economically credible; giving as little room as possible to the media to present EM as radical. Five reasons are sighted: 1. It was a TUC not a Labour demo and so the party did not have control of the message; 2. The demo was addressing the wrong constituency, i.e. people who will vote Labour anyway – it is middle England we need to “win over”; 3. The visuals – it would give media the opportunity to present EM as a militant lefty; 4. The message can be distorted (see 1); 5. EM will be seen as being “in the pocket of the Unions”. It was clear to me that, sadly, this sort of thinking had informed EM’s speech.
I thought, naively, that the political process flows from what one believes is right and fair. If it is what voters also believe is right and fair, then they will vote for you. If it is not then you try to convince them that it is right and fair. A basis of truth. A basis of leadership. When did politics become so perverse, so flipped on its head, that the starting point is what “plays best” as right and fair to the undecided, marginal voters?
Leadership is about conviction. It is not about ditching views which may be unpopular in some quarters. Looking at a poll showing what the target voters think about X issue and going “let’s say that!” is not Leading. It is not even Following. It is Pandering.
We appear to have learnt very little from the Blair years… The lesson that being led by polls, results in disastrous Frankenstein policies, has not been learnt. The lesson that making wrong choices in order to try to please every voter, eventually will lose you most voters, has not been learnt. The basic lesson that having a nominally Labour government [on this point, please see important ADDENDUM] is of little value, if their agenda is confused at best and Tory at worst, has not been learnt. The order of the day continues to be: “say and do whatever will get you elected”. Can we accuse Nick Clegg of hypocrisy for having done precisely that?
30 million people voted in the UK in 2010. An astonishing proportion of them gathered yesterday in one place. Ed Miliband had an opportunity to fill them with political purpose. To crystallise the reasons why the way of life we are trying to achieve is right and fair. To send this unprecedented group of politically active people back to their friends, their families, their work-place armed with arguments, better informed, motivated, more politically astute. The price of him being displayed as “this”, “that” or “the other” was well worth paying more than four years from a general election.
What we needed was Leadership, Purpose and Direction. We marched from the Embankment to Hyde Park; made it from A to B under our own, wonderful, human, peaceful, humourous steam. What we needed was for someone to step up and say “Now, let me lead you from B to C and further”. Ed Miliband politely declined.
My thanks to the wonderful tweeters who shared these pictures.