On Saturday the Labour movement played its trump card. By conservative estimates, a quarter of a million people joined the march against the cuts. Setting aside the violent posturing of the public-school revolutionaries, it was a model of organisation. The TUC showed it still has the troops, and the ability to mobilise them.
But what happens next? In fact, what was ever supposed to happen next? Suppose for a moment the shoppers of Fortnum & Mason had been left in peace. Imagine that images of Labour’s leader not been juxtaposed with balaclava-clad rioters trashing Top Shop. Or that the monument to the Battle of Trafalgar had not become the scene for the battle of the Olympic Clock.
Even in this rosy scenario, what outcome was expected? Or desired?
I asked some of those attending Saturday’s event what their definition of success for the day was. One person admitted they were attending simply because they felt obliged to do so, and thought the whole thing was a waste of time. A second said they believed it was a success because 500,000 had attended. The third said that they hoped – didn’t necessarily believe, but hoped – it had helped bring a Labour government that bit nearer.
The turnout was certainly impressive. But what does the number of people marching of itself signify? That these were “ordinary folk” opposing the cuts? Yes, they were. Nurses and fireman and council workers are certainly ordinary folk. But no more ordinary than, say, the farmers, or landlords or village postmistresses who marched ineffectually against fox-hunting.
That ordinary men and women demonstrate in support of a cause that has a direct and significant impact on them, and is dear to their hearts, is not of itself a sound measure of achievement.
I took my son to football on Saturday. All the other parents and kids were there as normal. None of them had chosen go to Hyde Park to listen to Ed Miliband. Then I went to do the shopping in Sainsbury’s. The same number of parking spaces were taken. The checkout queues were the same length as ever. No one voiced frustration that they were going to be late to fight the cuts.
This is what the squeezed middle does every Saturday. It’s what it did this Saturday.
If you want a measure of success, ask yourself this. What would have happened if you personally had asked a friend or acquaintance not involved in the politics of the labour movement if they were planning to attend Saturday’s demonstration? I know what would have happened if I’d asked my friends. They’d have thought I’d taken leave of my senses.
Trust me, I know only too well how hard it is for trade unions to generate profile for the issues that impact on their members. When I used to work for the GMB, every time I phoned the Today programme the first question I would be asked would be: “Are you planning to strike about this?” If the answer was “no” the response was invariably, “We’ll get back to you.”
But when I was working for the unions there was also a growing realisation that we had to break out of the “Strike, Demo, Protest” ghetto the media were trying to corral us into. On Saturday the movement wasn’t trying to break out of that ghetto. We were literally marching right back into it.
Yes there is growing discontent over the cuts agenda. But why do we think that demonstrations are the way to harness it? There is an old communications truism: the medium is the message. Do we on the left not understand that marching is not a medium that the vast majority of the country empathises with?
Middle England does not march. Period. It won’t march. It doesn’t know people who march. Worst of all, it thinks people who do march are, by definition, strange, and different and mildly threatening. The instant the first progressive foot steps on the roadway, we erect an invisible barrier between ourselves and those we seek to influence.
How do we know this? Because we’ve marched before. Labour’s leadership team has a new narrative, one that charges that Cameron and Osborne are trying to drag us back to the Eighties. They’re right, they are. And the reason they’re trying to do that is the Eighties was a period of total, uninterrupted and unassailable Tory domination, and total, uninterrupted and unprecedented Labour failure.
But we marched. Boy, could we march. For jobs. Against cruise missiles. For the miners. Against privatisation.
The result? We didn’t have many jobs, but we had lots of cruise missiles. We didn’t have any miners, but we had a lot of private shareholders.
Oh yes, we can march. But where are we marching to?