The honest truth is that, once it reaches a certain size, there is no way to tell exactly how big a demonstration is. But Saturday’s People’s Vote march was certainly bigger than this summer’s mobilisation against Donald Trump’s visit, and felt bigger than the March for the Alternative anti-austerity protest in 2011. It has a very plausible claim, then, to be the biggest protest since the Iraq War era.
For veterans of previous social movements who went on this protest, it was a strange sensation to be on something that big that was not primarily organised by the left. Here is a movement that has put well over half a million people on the streets, while public opinion has steadily shifted towards Remain. This has been done with no official support from either main party, and little backing from the unions. We can only imagine how huge these protests might get, and how far public opinion could yet shift, if Labour lifts a finger.
Despite attempts to paint it as a centrist parade, many of the attendees at the People’s Vote march were the same people who populated the big left mobilisations of recent years. There simply are not half a million centrist dads in Britain, and while the protest was disproportionately middle class and white, it was no more so than many demonstrations built by the trade union movement. Nonetheless, the relative absence of the left from the leadership of the official anti-Brexit movement remains its biggest problem.
This is not a problem of presentation, but one of politics and strategy. The steady flow of smug selfies from Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna is unhelpful. But the really damaging fact is that, when led by the political establishment, the anti-Brexit movement is not capable of putting forward a programme that can solve the problems at the root of the Brexit vote. Caroline Lucas remains the left’s only regular presence at People’s Vote events. Almost no one on the stage on Saturday can be found calling for the construction of millions of council houses, or the abolition of the anti-union laws, or taxing the rich more to fund social services.
The deepest problems for the anti-Brexit movement, though, lie in its comparison to the anti-Iraq War protests. Alastair Campbell has rightly been challenged on the fact that, when two million people marched against the Iraq War, he ignored them. The view that Tony Blair should be in prison, not acting as a spokesperson for the anti-Brexit movement, would have been shared by many of those who attended the march. His presence is a moral problem, not just a presentational issue, and it will terminally damage the movement if it continues.
The day of the march, 20 October 2018, ought to mark the moment at which the anti-Brexit movement became a serious social movement that challenged the power of the government. Just as vital as the need for radical politics in this task is an understanding of how to win. As well as discarding its infamous New Labour celebrities, People’s Vote must learn the lessons of the Iraq War protests – a movement of millions whose polite A to B marches were simply ignored.
For those of us who have been involved in social movements since 2003, this is common sense. The resurgence of protest movements earlier this decade, from the student movement of 2010 to the anti-austerity protests and Occupy protests, were all built on the collective experience of Iraq. Social movements, even if they are mobilising towards parliamentary votes, are only as powerful as their ability to disrupt things and force governments to listen. Marches are a great way to mobilise your base. But what matters is your ability to escalate as your target gets nearer.
The moral weight of numbers will change the atmosphere in the country, but the government must be made to fear the anti-Brexit movement as well. If Theresa May really is determined to drive Britain off the Brexit cliff without giving the people a say on their destiny, she needs to understand that a movement stands ready to fight her. In 2003, a portion of the anti-war movement raised the slogan “stop the city, stop the war”. As we reach the final months of the Brexit process, this must be the spirit of the our movement, too. This needs to become a movement of blockades, disruption and civil disobedience.
To live up to its potential as a movement, the anti-Brexit protests need a leadership that “gets” mass politics. As they have consistently shown over the past three years, the centrist establishment emphatically cannot do this. Another Europe is Possible and other left organisations are trying, with some success, to inject radicalism into the anti-Brexit movement. But to win, we will need the labour movement and the activist left to take the reins.
Michael Chessum is Another Europe is Possible’s full-time national organiser.