Rally Against Debt? It was more of a long queue

Lisa Hamilton, who observed the pro-cuts demonstration, was not impressed.

On 26 March nearly half a million people descended on the capital to oppose the government's cuts agenda and demand an alternative. Six weeks later 200 people (I'm being generous) stood on a pavement outside parliament to give a big "thumbs-up" to the same policies.

To say turnout at the Rally Against Debt was low is to be very polite. It was abysmal. Don't think protest. Think long queue.

In an attempt to gloss over the low turnout, one attendee has described the event as "not bad for a Facebook flashmob stunt". (Presumably the usual, good old Tory "blame it on the weather" excuse was rejected due to the unfortunately good weather.)

Hmm. A flashmob is, at least according to Wikipedia, a group of people who assemble to perform a seemingly pointless act often for the purpose of satire. A flash mob is not a publicised event with a shiny website.

The site (which hasn't been updated since a "we're trending on Twitter" post on Friday afternoon) promised a "great networking opportunity", a number of "high-profile guests" and "plenty to do" during the rally.

Unfortunately, the low turnout (Guido Fawkes claimed 500, but it looked less than half that to me) meant that most of the attendees already seemed to know each other and while Ukip's Nigel Farage had indeed flown in for the event, "plenty to do" seemed to involve standing increasingly closer together in order to make the crowd look bigger. There were also a couple of short-lived chants and EU flag-burning for those who like that sort of thing.

Toby Young, one of the most high-profile supporters of the rally, came in for mockery when he missed it – because he took his children to an exhibition about pirates at a (publicly funded) museum.

If the March for the Alternative suggested that a cross-section of society strongly opposed the cuts being made by the Tory government, then the Rally Against Debt suggested that white, middle-class, middle-aged men are opposed to taxation, don't like Europe or public services, but do like chinos, rugby shirts, looking after their own interests, and causing minor obstructions outside parliament.

The Rally Against Debt taught us nothing new. However, it did leave one big question: Why did this failure of an event generate so much news coverage?

Perhaps the snappers enjoyed the novelty of outnumbering the crowd.

You can find Lisa on Twitter: @lefty_lisa

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.