Anti-austerity graffiti in central London. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Haven't I been on this march before?

The anti-austerity march left many people grappling with feelings of deja vu - but it doesn't have to be that way, says Michael Chessum.

Running through the message of last Saturday’s anti-austerity demonstration were two lower-level mantras, repeated from the stage, among the participants, and on the front pages of glossy broadsheets produced by the demonstration’s organisers: firstly, ‘this is massive’ and secondly ‘this is only the beginning’.  But regardless of the actual numbers on it, the protest would not have been the beginning of anything. If there really were only about 50,000 present, as some of the less charitable estimates have mooted, it would have been a similar demonstration to last year’s event; had there been a quarter of a million, it would have resembled the 2011 ‘March for the Alternative’ organised by the TUC.

Since that 2011 demo, the numbers have oscillated and the political climate rolled on, but – at least on the surface – the anti-austerity demonstrations have remained the same. Saturday defined itself, like every national demonstration organised by the TUC or the People’s Assembly Against Austerity,  entirely in relation to what it opposed – austerity, Tories, exploitation – in an attempt to keep its appeal, both to the public and to its trade union general secretaries, as broad as possible. Five years into a decade of Tory rule, with the left’s ability to formulate an alternative having failed at the ballot box, there is little sign of the official institutions of the labour movement moving beyond ‘anti-austerity’, or articulating anything like the radical alternatives that have sent shock-waves across Greece and Spain. Another phrase muttered under the breath of those attending Saturday’s march was ‘groundhog day’.

But this isn’t groundhog day, or it needn’t be, as long as grassroots campaigns and the organised left can work marches like last Saturday’s into a wider strategy. A to B marches are often slated as passive and ineffective, but they certainly have a role to play. If well organised, they can offer a barometer of public sentiment and a galvanising focal point for activists, and are a relatively easy way for new people to become involved. For all their faults, the sheer regularity of very similar A to B marches over the past five years has built up a kind of basic infrastructure around which other tactics can more effectively take root. In the student movement, where London marches are also an annual event, they form one date in a busy calendar of occupations, days of action and local demos.

But the task of linking marches like last Saturday’s to a programme of mass strike action and disruptive direct action is in many ways back to front. Large national marches are supposed to be the expression of a movement in struggle; in Britain, they have for many people preceded struggle, and for many labour movement institutions they have become an alternative to struggle.

For every step forward in a grassroots housing campaign or a workplace dispute over the past few years – the E15 Mums or Ritzy Cinema workers, for instance – we have taken two steps back in most trade unions. Having run large-scale industrial disputes (albeit still limited to one-day strikes) over pay and pensions in the first half of the coalition government, most major unions have retreated since. For their leaderships, organising members to attend an annual London march has become a means of avoiding a much more serious task – using the collective power of workers to force the government into retreat; they are Dave Prentis’s version of outsourcing.

The two key problems – the lack of a propositional politics and the over-reliance on the London march – are essentially a problem of political leadership. Here, there is no reason why the next five years needs to repeat the mistakes of the last five. Although the higher echelons of the union leaderships (and indeed the speakers on the platform at demonstrations) have remained constant, we are witnessing a change in the currents that swim beneath the left and the labour movement. A series of struggles since 2010, along with the (seeming) decline of the Labour left and the implosion of the Socialist Workers’ Party, have allowed the development of a new common sense among many new activists. Broadly speaking, direct action, liberation politics and bottom-up democracy are in vogue – waiting for trade union leaderships to give a lead and staging long political rallies are not.

A variety of political groups – some brand new, such as Plan C and Brick Lane Debates, some fifty years old – all slightly more radical and anti-capitalist than the leadership of the People’s Assembly – reflect this common sense. Much of the debate around the renewal of the left is now bound up with the outcome of the Labour leadership contest, but whatever its outcome, much will now depend on the willingness and ability of these groups to shift their focus from critiquing the rest of the left to taking initiative and leadership in the wider movement.

In 2010 and 2011, major trade unions declared their support for a student movement that had shocked the country with its vibrancy and scale, and then made good their promises of mobilisation with mass strikes and marches. That momentary cohesion between the official institutions of the left and the explosion in social struggle that took place represented, with hindsight, one of the most promising and pivotal moments in the development of this generation of the British left. It is this cohesion that needs to be regained and developed, but this may become impossible if the basic skeleton operation – the annual march – fails to become the basis for something either tactically or politically bigger, and becomes a defensive repetitious trudge.  In order to avoid that, we need newer political forces to take some responsibility.

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.