Some thoughts on the 20th October “A future that works” march
I’m throwing this up having just got back from London with an over-excited dragon fairy who to all intents and purposes had a great time on the march. Puffles had many a photograph taken, and got to meet up with past friends and some long time Twitter correspondents for the first time, including Dr Stella Creasy MP - currently Shadow Crime Prevention Minister but a top tip from me for a future Cabinet post should Labour get re-elected.
Yet despite this, I’ve come away from the march feeling utterly deflated and pessimistic about the general future – of politics in particular.
I wanted the march to be a little bit like the last one – where we all met up for breakfast before heading down together. Unfortunately that didn’t happen this time around – mainly because I didn’t get my act together in time. So I headed down with placard (from the last march over a year ago) and with Puffles (who was new to all of this). Not really knowing who was driving the flying umbrella, I headed towards Russell Square assuming I’d find a feeder march heading in that direction. I followed what I thought was the tail end of it – a group of NUT marchers from Sheffield.
I had a hunch we were going in the wrong direction – heading towards Trafalgar Square rather than the muster point at the Embankment. Having got to the Square, I pondered whether to go to head to Embankment or head to the Mall where I knew the route was going to pass. Just as I got there, the very front of the march approached. The best thing I thought was to perch myself halfway up the rise (as Whitehall feeds into Trafalgar Square) so that anyone who recognised either myself or Puffles would be able to grab us.
What do activists left of the political centre look like?
As it turned out, I got a close-up view of the tens of thousands of marchers that streamed past – with me partially hidden both by my placard and by Puffles who was perched on top, grabbing all of the attention. (It’s what dragon fairies do when they are attention-seeking).
While Puffles was busy posing for photographs, I spent the next couple of hours people-watching. It struck me that very few people in mainstream politics have ever done anything like this: People-watching a demo almost for the sake of it. That’s pretty much what I did for the first half of the afternoon: getting a close-up view of what tens of thousands of left-of-centre and far-left demonstrators look like – warts and all. And it was fascinating to see.
Do leaders of political organisations have an understanding of just how diverse the trade union movement is?
I don’t know whether they do. This is not about standing on a stage looking over a big crowd, or even working a room at a conference. This was standing at a specific pinch point where most of the marchers walked past, getting a close up view of ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, political views (judging by banners and slogans) and affluence. As an experience alone, it taught me a great deal. For any politics’ watcher out there, for the next large demonstration (there will be another one I’m sure), I recommend doing the same thing: Finding a narrow point along the march route and watch the procession from front to back – and draw your own conclusions.
I’d actually say the same for any Liberal Democrats and Conservatives too in terms of people-watching – to get a feel for both the diversity of the people taking part, the strength of feeling and also the thrusts of argument. Chances are with the latter two you won’t like or agree with them at all, but it might increase your understanding about what others are going through with austerity. I’d also say the same for Labour and left-of types should a Countryside Alliance-style large demonstration takes place in the future - for the same reasons.
Politicians – and policy civil servants too – live in bubbles. I used to live in one such bubble once. It was one of the reasons why I was so desperate to get out and about to meet people on the front line in the policy areas I worked in. You could say I would turn up to the opening of an envelop or a front door, but doing so taught me a great deal. Yet it was always one of the things where everyone agreed we should do more of it but where everyone never really got round to it – certainly not on a systematic basis anyway.
Yet what was significant about my perch point on this march for me was being able to see so many people from all over the country up close over such a short period of time. When else do people get the opportunity to do the same thing? When you are on a march you miss most of it because you are moving with the tide. When you spend the whole of it standing in one place as most of it goes past you, you get to see far more of it.
But numbers were significantly down on last year. Why?
I can only speculate. Around a quarter of a million people were there in 2011, but just over half of that were there today. (The official website claims that half a million people were there in 2011). I was expecting the stream of marchers to continue until way past 4pm, so was quite surprised to see the back of the march and the police escort arriving in Trafalgar Square around 3pm. That was when I knew that turnout was going to be significantly lower than the previous year.
Reasons? The weather, the fact that the job cuts have bitten hard in the public sector especially, breaking the trade union organisational links that could otherwise have mobilised more people. Cost of transport too – a day out to London is not cheap. If you’re unemployed, getting to London is out of the question without support. An air of resignation perhaps? Or is it that the political opposition to the Coalition has simply not inspired the people?
At the end of the march, Puffles got spotted by a number of followers from the Young Green Party – with whom we went off to a pub just round the corner from Selfridges. Many other marchers had done the same and it was standing room only in most places. Yet as the sun began to set, so the spawn of the super-rich in their sports cars came out to play. And that was when it struck me.
Although this march was primarily an anti-cuts one (certainly as far as the non-branded protest banners and placards were concerned), the ultimate powers that todays politicians and institutions are up against are the ones that have spawned levels of ostentatious consumption and wealth that even the hoarders of such riches cannot consume it all. This was a point Josie Long made at her show in Cambridge a few days previously. How is it that we have got to a situation where we have such extremities of wealth and income inequalities? How have we got to a situation where this is tolerable – even acceptable? (To the extent that next-to-nothing is done about it).
Given the scale of everything that is going wrong – Tar sands in Canada and the predicted collapse of the Arctic ice caps in the very near future due to climate change as far as the environment goes, to the continual malaise that is the Eurozone (along with the frightening rise of extremism in some parts) to…well…I don’t even want to go further. But having seen a number of our senior politicians up close, I can’t think of any of them – whether as individuals or as a team – who could get to grips with the scale of the challenges we face locally, nationally and globally. Recall back in June 2012 I slammed top politicians over their woeful lack of leadership in these crises.
A crisis of politics?
This is where we seem to have got to. It’s not just mainstream politics either. It’s interesting to see both Labour and the Conservatives struggling to deal with challenges from the more extreme wings of their movements – whether the Greens as far as Labour is concerned, or UKIP as far as the Tories are concerned. The far left were there with mass-produced placards and papers. They sensibly kept away from Puffles – going near fire-breathing dragons with large amounts of combustible materials is never a good idea. Yet slogans, methods – and even clothes and hair styles of the people trying to sell or give out their materials seemed ever so similar to demonstrations of over a decade ago. It was as if nothing had changed – despite the fact that digital and social media are revolutionising communications.
The negative connotations of political language
This made me think about the loaded nature of many of the key words and labels we use in politics. In the minds of the wider public, are they loaded with negative connotations? Does the language make you want to get involved?
This is perhaps why Cameron with his PR background came up with the concept of “Big Society”. The problem was that the idea was so devoid of structure and content that it never caught on. Given that mainstream politicians seem to have accepted the straightjacket they are in, everyone is fighting to find something that differentiates them policy-wise inside this tiny little box. One Nation Tory, New Labour, Orange Book Lib Dems – a different colour from the same little box? In the current media climate, all things environmental can be spun as high tax, anti-business and anti-jobs. Feminism can be spun as something anti-male, and as for the “S” word (socialism) – well…as far as the media is concerned it’s no longer mentioned in polite society. Also, a couple of activists who had lived in other countries mentioned that as past or current repressive regimes had labelled themselves as socialist, such language inevitably had negative connotations for them too. Just think back to pre-1989 and the USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. You get my point.
How did the institutions of nation states become so small in comparison to large corporations?
When we then look at the size and scale of political institutions vis-a-vis the multinational corporations and the wealth of the super-rich, there is a massive imbalance. I covered this during the DfT West Coast Mainline debacle. Public institutions responsible for regulating business have been hollowed out to such an extent that we ended up with things like the banking crisis. Such were the sizes and scales of the banks that no regulator on the planet could get anywhere near soundly regulating them. Not only that, there was a financial incentive for ‘light touch regulation’ given the financial donations to political parties made by people and institutions from that sector. And if the going gets tough, such firms can bring in heavy artillery in the form of lobbyists, PR firms and expensive lawyers and barristers that the state today simply does not have the resources to compete against.
“So, what’s the solution Pooffles?”
I don’t know. I genuinely do not know – and that frightens me. So much of what comes out of policy-wonkville-and-thinktank world feels like tinkering with the edges. Yet as Josie Long said earlier in the week, violent revolution doesn’t feel like a nice alternative either. She also alluded to the idea that we had regressed as a society – where once things like health, education and public utilities belonged to all of us; that free education, free healthcare, good pensions were things to be proud of. “You can’t get more bigger society than that” – was her point.
This made me think about the relationship between five institutions: “The People”, “The Crown”, “The Government”, “Parliament” and “Public Services”. I remember reading a US prosecution document citing a number of banks & bankers over LIBOR fixing. The preamble was along the lines of:
“Under powers vested in me by The People of the State of New York under the … Act…” before going onto detail the charges and the laws allegedly contravened.
Mindset-wise, this made me ponder about the both the powers and the wording around the terms & institutions “The Crown” and “Parliament” we could insert words along the lines of “The People of the United Kingdom of…etc” to acknowledge that ultimately it is the people that should be sovereign, and that the wearer of the Crown (and the institution) only wear that Crown (and hold the powers vested within that institution) because they have the consent of the people; consent that can be withdrawn at any time.
It may only be symbolic. It may only be a first step. But at the moment it feels like our systems of party politics, of government, of law making, of law enforcement and of accountability are so dysfunctional that they’ll need one hell of an overhaul to sort them all out. And with that I wouldn’t even know where to start.