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A nearly successful demonstration

March 30, 2011

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.

So… Cuppa?

My thanks to the wonderful tweeters who shared these pictures.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. EliseDB permalink
    March 27, 2011 11:27 pm

    Great blog – this is exactly what I felt before yesterday. It was supposed to be a march for the alternative, but was actually a march for more of the same with a few minor tweaks! People need hope and choice! I could say so
    much more, but my letter to the TUC sent last week says most about my fears post march and rally!

    Dear etc etc

    I have been a campaigner on social justice and a Trade Unionist since the late 1970’s and will be attending the march tomorrow, as will many of my friends, neighbours and colleagues.

    I am looking forward to a march that will show how broad and inclusive the campaign against this latest round of cuts is. I also want it to be an example to my 10 year old daughter of the power of protest.

    But this march must be about more than protest, it must be about how we change the way our country is run for the benefit of everyone, not just the rich and large corporations.

    However, how can I encourage people to have the hope that there are other options to these cuts if the so-called “March for the Alternative” is only willing to include one political speaker, Ed Milliband. There is more than one option for how we do things, and to be perfectly frank I’ve seen very little of an alternative to big business biased policies in the last 14 years. Biased policies that have led this Country down the path of cuts and privatisation, where the poorest pay for the mistakes and greed of the rich.

    If the march is really for an alternative, then please reverse your decision to exclude Caroline Lucas MP as a speaker. Otherwise the message will simply be one of business as usual with a couple of very minor changes. The growing movement against cuts has shown that people have a strong desire for alternatives to more cuts and privatisations. As well as consistently campaigning against cuts the Greens have led the way in showing that there are alternatives. As a founding member of the Green New Deal Group, set up in 2008, Caroline has been at the forefront of an initiative that has brought together trade unionists, socialists and environmentalists to format costed proposals that offer a route out of the recession whilst protecting public services and creating jobs. The proposals set out by the Green New Group led to the Greens having the only General Election manifesto that offered a clear, costed alternative to the cuts.

    Unlike other political parties, Greens aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to the loopholes that have led to £16 billion of lost taxes whilst the divide between rich and poor grows. But talk isn’t enough, which is why Caroline recently presented the Tax and Financial Transparency Bill (due for it’s second reading in June). Caroline is once again showing that Greens are about more than just words, they are about taking political action for a fairer, more just society.

    Please don’t allow the hard work you do and the hope that it brings to people across the UK, to be diminished by only including Ed Milliband on your platform. The anger against the current Government is fully justified, but we must not let it cloud the record of the last Government, or their proposals to reduce the deficit with slower cuts. Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour all support massive cuts, the only difference being the speed of those cuts.

    The message of this march is clear; that we need to build a broad-based, inclusive and united movement against the cuts. But this message must also be about hope and alternatives, otherwise people will retreat and give up. The message will be weakened if the leader of the only political party that went into the last General Election with costed policies to cut the deficit whilst protecting services and creating jobs is excluded from the platform.

    If this march is really intended to be about alternatives, justice and equality, then please don’t tarnish that message by excluding Caroline from the platform.

    I already know of people who are refusing to go on the march, and some have resigned from their Trade Unions in disgust.

    Your own website, under the heading “About the TUC” states that you are:

    “The voice of Britain at Work….. representing 6.2 million working people from all walks of life, we campaign for a fairer deal at work and for social justice at home and abroad.”

    It also states that you:

    “…. build links with political parties…”

    Please stay true to your own words and let Caroline speak on the platform tomorrow.

    Yours in peace and solidarity

  2. Disagreeable Weasel permalink
    March 28, 2011 12:00 am

    Pandering is exactly the right word, and anyone who doesn’t know its origin should take a look at Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

    Rob Marchand’s blog is an almost perfect illustration of what’s gone wrong with the Labour Party during my adult life. Leaving aside the horror demonstrated at being connected with anything left-wing, Labour is being extremely naive to think that trade union members are automatically Labour’s ‘own constituency’. Even back in the heady 80s that couldn’t be presumed!

    Back then, I worked in the newspaper industry and became a print union shop steward (Mother of the Chapel) in my early twenties. I remember processing all the forms to allow people to opt out of the political levy! Amongst our union activists, Labour support wasn’t a given. I recall a couple of CP members on the joint chapels committee, a substantial number of SNP, and a Liberal. (If there was a Tory, it was never admitted, but personally I doubt it).

    How much more likely is it nowadays that a range of political allegiances (or none!)could be found within union members? They lost my support when Blair became leader, and though I still occasionally feel guilty about it, they’ll never win me back. And the longer they continue pandering, being ashamed of their history and the Trade Union movement, and becoming ever more indistinguishable from the old enemy, the longer it’ll take for them to find any kind of ‘constituency’. Depressing, isn’t it?

  3. Teresa permalink
    March 28, 2011 4:14 pm

    I am one of the many people on that march who have never voted Labour, so yes, it was a missed opportunity by Ed Milliband.

    On the other hand, I never expected anything better. The rally was an anti-climax but didn’t detract from the inspiration I got from being with around half a million motivated people.

    Labour may not have a worthwhile alternative but many of us who marched (and many who could not, for a variety of reasons) do:

    1. Take effective action to close all legal tax-dodging opportunities being used by large businesses and wealthy individuals (NB smaller businesses cannot use these tax-dodges, which means their large competitors have an unfair advantage over them, distorting the so-called free market. This is an uncomfortable fact for any right wing politician to argue against)
    2. Retail banking to be separated from investment banking, without further delay. Only that can deter investment bankers from reckless gambling with other people’s money and mean we never again have to bail any out.
    3. Keep taxing the banks heavily until we have recovered all the ‘money’ (borrowed by govt) currently propping up our rotten banking system.
    4. Get our troops out of Afghanistan, scrap Trident and further reduce the defence budget accordingly.
    5. Create a plan to pay off the national debt over a long period. My generation (born just after the war) and other generations have only recently finished repaying the huge national debt that existed at the end of WW2. That was achieved despite many post-war years when govts (inc Tory ones) ran annual deficits.
    There’s also the small matter (ha ha) of needing to replace fractional reserve banking with a system whereby govts (not banks) control how much ‘money’ is in existence but that may take a bit longer, I think…

  4. Dave Ratchford permalink
    April 1, 2011 12:37 pm

    Agreed. Agreed. Sadly agreed.

    I have to say I was impressed by UK Uncut though. What I initially (prejudicially) dismissed as a bunch of middle class students akin to a hobbyist reenactment club are actually a bunch of sensible committed activists who have a very, very clear message. May I commend to you.


  1. A nearly successful demonstration – ADDENDUM « sturdyblog

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