Friday, 25 March 2011

The wrong demo: five reasons why

On Saturday Ed Miliband will be speaking, but not marching, at one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations for many years.  Activist Luke Akehurst writes passionately and eloquently about the need for all of us involved in the Labour movement to march and, on the face of it, it is an obvious way to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Tories. But there is a big difference between it being right for individual members to be involved, and it being right for the Leader of the Labour Party to speak there.

Ed is in an uncomfortable position – “walking a tightrope”, as the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan puts it. He’s not wrong: look, and you can find at least five compelling reasons for his not being involved in the demo.

One: Labour didn’t organise the demo, the TUC did. Who can say what other people will say? Who can say what they will do? Things do not bode well regarding the other speakers. “Keep your sleazy hands off our kids,” Unite’s Len McCluskey told the Progressive London conference, in a message directed at the Metropolitan Police (not very good political judgement, it would seem, considering the Met themselves now stand to lose heavily from the cuts and could have been a useful ally against them). And if, like the earlier student demo, there are police clashes, heaven help us.

Two: the talking-to-the-wrong-constituency argument. We are playing to the principal constituency of those who work in public services or are in the trade union movement, and who are therefore somewhat more likely to be already against public sector cuts. But we are not necessarily pulling in those who are not in those demographics – many of whom agree that cuts are necessary – and who think that debt-reduction is an urgent priority. What exactly are we gaining by excluding these people? Oh, and what happens when the righteous demos give way to unpopular strikes which directly affect them?

Three: the visuals. Unbearably superficial though it might sound, in the age of image and 24-hour rolling news, it’s not an option to forget what things look like. Protesting and being prime-minister-in-waiting are not necessarily incompatible but they are, at best, tricky bedfellows. Also, modern politics has different presentational norms from 1970s politics; what may have seemed noble “power to the people” fighting then may now merely look merely “long-haired protest group”.  Stop The War rather than Jarrow.  We can differentiate, but don’t assume that others will.

And do we really think it’ll make a difference, the not marching? Just because Ed will not be marching (or wearing a donkey jacket a la Michael Foot, thank God), and even if the demonstrators show exemplary behaviour, this does not mean he will be portrayed on the evening news as the aspiring prime minister we need him to be. Cut to Ed. Now cut to McCluskey. Cut to Tony Benn. Cut to Bob Crow. Don’t forget there will be the Trafalgar Square follow-on demo with Galloway and assorted fellow-travellers, probably in the same clip. And the overall, 30-second impression to the public is…?

Four: the message will be dangerously distorted. Akehurst and former General Secretary Peter Watt have correctly identified that Labour’s subtler message “we think cuts are ok but not this far, this fast” will be easily subsumed into a general “no cuts” message. Against all cuts, period: a message which hardly helps our economic credibility, when the Tories and the right-wing press are daily peddling the too-easily-digested story that “Labour maxed out the credit card”. In reality we are trying to ride two horses at once – cuts and no cuts – and, at some point, we’ll fall off.

Five: the in-the-pocket-of-the-unions argument. The importance of union support in Miliband’s election and the movement’s current domination of party financing are well-known. As Hasan notes in the same article, Unite have made no secret of their desire to put pressure on Labour to be supportive. Even if this pressure is no more than usual (and hardly an astonishing fact), we are giving a free kick to the media, because the reality is irrelevant. The mere perception that the brothers strong-armed him into attendance will be enough.

One or two of these reasons would allow room for debate about the pros and cons, but…five? Set against all this, if we chose the opposite road, there would be one big disadvantage: the opprobrium of some parts of the movement for the Leader not having been with them. People would feel that Ed had let them down, it’s true (they may feel that anyway, because he is slightly semi-detached from it all.  So the damage may already have been done). But how long would this last? And in playing to our own constituency, rather than that which we need to win, are we making the wise choice?

It’ll probably make us feel good, to march together and swell with righteous indignation at the Tories. We need a bit of that, and welcome. It’s important to show a level of solidarity with our core supporters. And it’s also self-evident that it’s much too late for Ed to pull out now. But, against that, you can’t help feeling that our political management of the demo will turn out to have been a significant error of judgement in three critical battles. The battle for economic credibility; the battle for political credibility; and, in the end, what remains of the battle against the cuts themselves. A lose, lose, lose.

This post first published at Labour Uncut and featured in The Week Uncut, the most popular posts of the previous 7 days. Response posts were made at the blogs Moments of Clarity and Sturdyblog, and the article was quoted/linked by other articles at Labour Uncut (Dan Hodges), Liberal Conspiracy (Sunny Hundal) and Martin in the Margins. Linked also in the LSE's weekly roundup of the UK's political blogsphere.


  1. A banker, a public sector worker and an unemployed man sit at a table. 12 biscuits are in front of them. The banker takes 11, turns to the PSW and says "Oi, mate I think that unemployed chap wants half your biscuit".

  2. Like it! (Have to confess that @ScarletStandard got their first. But still good.) Are you marching today then?

  3. I get to told off for having views like this............. wondering if you get flack too! Then I noted how many retweets!!! Sorry Rob!

  4. I do get flak, yes. But perhaps you misinterpret - this time I had 24 retweets, excluding my own, through to the original Uncut piece.

    And the shortened URL has 546 clickthrus and counting, not to mention those who just went directly there from Labour Uncut.

    So I'm actually extremely pleased with this article ;)


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