Ballots, protest marches and ‘doing democracy’

Summary

Unpicking who is saying what on protest marches and elections – and why democracy encompasses far more

A number of friends and social media followers went on the march in London earlier. Poor health (in particular hay fever & mental exhaustion) plus lack of money put paid to any desire by me to go. I had the idea of doing a time-lapse scene in Trafalgar Square but the forecast & subsequent rain also put paid to that idea: my kit ain’t waterproof.

“Hang on – your side lost the election! Sit down, shut up and accept the will of the people you anti-democracy freed0m-h8ting communist!”

Chances are people would still have been protesting had Ed Miliband been returned with a majority given their messages on spending plans & ‘tough decisions’. Also, note the 2002 Countryside Alliance march which was just over a year after the 2001 general election. Marching & protesting is just as much a feature of a healthy democracy as is a sound & transparent public policy process that involves those with an interest & expertise in a range of different areas shaping public policy. (To what extent those taking part in the ‘non-voting’ aspects of democracy are successful in their endeavours, is a different question).

One of my earliest but least-read blogposts asked what impacts on people’s voting preferences. In the run up to the recent general and local elections I asked:

Do you want to vote for:

  • The person you think will best represent the place you live in?
  • The party whose values you most associate with?
  • The party whose policies/manifesto you like the most?
  • The individual who you think will make the best prime minister?
  • The individual who has the best chance of keeping out the party/candidate you dislike the most?

There’s a lot that people can extrapolate from a cross in a box – especially when it comes to the convention of manifestos. The convention is that Parliament (in particular the House of Lords) will not oppose legislation implementing policies listed in a winning party’s manifesto because this is ‘the will of the people’. But how many people at general elections read through all of the manifestos and pick the one they like the best? How many even get through a summary of each one?

Were the 2015 manifestos written as programmes for government or written with an eye on possible coalition negotiations?

This is something we the general public may never find out – or not until the memoirs of those around at the time are written. Which of the policies were included to be dropped as a means of persuading another potential coalition partner to drop one of theirs? Which policies were included in the different party manifestos with the authors knowing that there were serious problems with them? With the Conservatives, the top few include:

  • Scrapping the Human Rights Act
  • Extending the ‘Right to buy’ to housing associations
  • Uncosted cuts to social security budgets

Similar unpicking of Labour & Liberal Democrats’ manifestos could be done, but as they did not win the election, such an exercise is academic. The Liberal Democrats – facing the next five years with MPs totalling single figures don’t have enough to cover the ministerial portfolios.

“So…what did the march achieve?”

I didn’t go on it so don’t feel qualified to comment.

The bit I’m interested in are the experiences of those taking part in a large demonstration for the first time – as a handful of people from Cambridge did. My first experience of a large London protest march was in 2001. My reasons for being there were to protest against exploitation by multinational corporations, and about the debt crisis, and for the environment. It was a miserable rainy day and me and lots of inexperienced new activists found ourselves led by the established far-left and their front organisations straight into a police kettle in Oxford Circus where we stood for 9 hours getting drenched & bored before they let us out. The context was the year 2000 demo the previous year. Hence lots of riot cops in 2001. Being alone having lost my flatmates in the crowds, with no familiar faces around me and being face-to-face with fully-tooled-up riot cops in the days before smartphones was not a fun place to be – and I’ve kept my distance from the organised far left ever since.

“Have there been better marches?”

One of the things easily overlooked on marches is the social side. Lots of experienced activists questioned (again) the merit of A-to-B marches, with speeches by speakers regularly found at such demonstrations – see the list on Urban 75 here. One I went on a few years ago that I got more out of was where I had Puffles with me and was able to chill out afterwards with a mixture of Puffles’ followers and Young Green Party activists in a pub off the beaten track. In a social media age, bringing people together to meet face-to-face who might only have corresponded online is one of the positive things about such gatherings. Personally I tend not to go on marches directly because I don’t feel like I’m making a difference. In recent times I’ve started reporting from, & filming/interviewing because it’s creating new content and giving a voice to those who might otherwise not get the chance to speak out on video.

“How do you ‘improve’ an A-to-B march?”

Putting on such a large demonstration requires the mobilisation of huge resources – the like of which very few organisations have. In 2001 no trade unions backed the May Day demonstration, and as a result a few thousand of us got locked in a kettle for ages and achieved very little. But then some might say A-to-B marches don’t really achieve much more.

Given the diversity of interests & organisations taking part, I’d be interested to see organisers trying the People and Planet methods -> see their summer camp in July here. Rather than having tens of thousands of people watching one stage, why not have say Hyde Park as the end point where you have a massive mix of open space conversations, freshers-fair-style stalls, ‘big speech’ stages for those that want it, & art, music & spoken word alternative stages elsewhere?

“That sounds dangerously autonomous!”

This is the culture shift Labour & those to the left of it have struggled with ever since the development of the Internet. Which of the established institutions – whether political parties, trade unions or campaign groups are prepared to put their resources into something that they don’t have complete control over? With Labour’s affiliated trade unions, would they be prepared to finance something that other political parties such as The Greens, the SNP or Plaid Cymru benefit from? This is already an issue Unite the Union is grappling with in Scotland following the general election. (ie ‘What do you do if the majority of your members voted for a party other than the one your union is affiliated to?’)

“From marchers to locally-active citizens?”

I’m thinking of younger and/or recently politically active people here. There still feels like we have a huge gap between what happens at demonstrations and the day-to-day life of local government and what council & councillors do. The number of ‘uncontested elections’ at a local government level reflects this. Hence one of my starting points for lots of people is to invite them to send an email to their elected representatives simply to let them know they are there, as well as the issues they care about. (See https://www.writetothem.com/)

My take is that there’s far more to democracy than either the ballot box or marching alone. Not everyone will be comfortable marching just as not everyone will be comfortable joining a political party or campaigning at election time. But how do you go about creating the spaces where people (who all too often have very little time) can find out what activity suits their lifestyles & dispositions? Hence the thought about demonstrations, protest marches and gatherings being much more than A-to-B marches sandwiched between speakers.

“Your lot still lost the election!”

Just as with Labour in 2001 & 2005, election victories can hide a multitude of problems. Tony Blair was faced with an astonishingly weak Conservative Party as an opposition just as David Cameron faced a Labour front bench that never looked like a government in waiting. Internally, the Conservatives still have to deal with historically low membership numbers along with the 4million people who voted UKIP. (Just as Labour & the Liberal Democrats have to face up to the 1million people who voted for The Greens).

With the EU in-out referendum due in the next two years, UKIP are unlikely to go away despite their documented internal troubles and the disappointment at the number of seats (one – Douglas Carswell MP) they won at the general elections. The political fault line along the Conservative-UKIP boundary will remain in the news for the foreseeable future.

Democracy and devolution

One of the things the London-based media don’t seem to understand with Scotland is the concept of Scotland being a country in the mindset of the people of Scotland. Those opposed to the Conservatives can understandably say that Scotland comprehensively rejected the Conservatives. And Labour. And the Liberal Democrats. Watching a debate on The Scotland Bill in Parliament (in part implementing the Smith Commission recommendations post-independence referendum), it was interesting to see Conservative MPs saying that the people of Scotland had comprehensively rejected the commission’s proposals 2 months after they were published by voting SNP MPs in 56 of the 59 constituencies. (See the SNP response to the commission at the time here).

Thus you have the largest political grouping in Scotland saying ‘We did not vote for the Conservatives’ policy agenda’ in a similar way that Euro-sceptics say ‘We did not vote for the EU’ – but with the Euro-sceptics in the Commons being predominantly from parties backing the union of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

Devolution in England too?

Since the middle of the last decade, slow progress towards devolving powers to local government has been made. But old Treasury habits die hard. To what extent will The Treasury allow local councils to raise their own fund through taxation, or borrow to invest in essential infrastructure such as housing? In places like Cambridge where housing demand is huge, it feels like a no-brainer.

Yet irrespective of party political persuasion, in order for democracy to work at a local level it requires active citizens. But then this means people doing more than putting a cross in a box once every few years, or going on a march every so often. Hence messages such as this one do no favours – unless an elected dictatorship where you vote once every five years for someone to take all the power to do whatever they like without any checks & balances is what you want.

One thought on “Ballots, protest marches and ‘doing democracy’

  1. In your list of reasons why people vote you could probably add “Whatever has been getting my riled and how can I best demonstrate this at the ballot”. Hence you end up with absurd things like:-
    – people fed up with Lib Dems “selling out” and switching their vote to the Tories
    – people deciding that Scottish nationhood is a key issue all of a sudden
    – people deciding that EU (and immigration) are grave threats despite no big treaty changes

    Honestly whilst telling anti-austerity marchers told to ‘go wave your banners while grown ups run the country’ might not be helpful … it has a ring of truth to it… Indeed I tend to think that politically a lot of the country (from all sides of the debate) have a lot of growing up to do.

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