Getting to the march wasn’t easy. There was a long wait for the bus into town; when it came it stopped at every stop. After three or four stops a small boy, whose family had got on – complete with home-made placards – at the stop after mine, started tugging at his mother’s sleeve and asking urgently, Was that the first stop? Was that the first stop? Mum… Mum, was that the first stop? She tried to ignore him, possibly because (like me) she couldn’t work out what he was asking or why. Ignoring him didn’t help; fortunately, about five minutes later the bus stopped and we all had to get off. I measured the distance we had to walk to get to the march afterwards; it was the best part of a mile.
The route of the march itself was a mile and a half, give or take; it took us about an hour to get round, ‘us’ meaning me and the people I happened to be walking alongside. There was a contingent there from my local Labour Party, which – having just joined – I was hoping to find, but I never saw them. More by luck than judgment I’d ended up towards the head of the march. At one point, feeling a bit exposed out at the front, I stopped and let the march go by for ten minutes or so before rejoining it, but even then I was well up towards the head of the march, relatively speaking. When I decided to knock it off and go home, two hours after I’d first got to the end of the route, there were still people arriving. I stood and watched them for a while, thinking I was seeing the last few stragglers; a knot of people representing the chiropodists’ and podiatrists’ union seemed to be bringing up the very end of the march, which seemed fitting. Then I noticed, a hundred yards behind the podiatrists, a group of a couple of hundred marching under the usual assortment of union and SWP placards, with no indication that they were the last. I gave it up and went for a drink. I don’t think anyone knows how big the march was; I’d be surprised if it was less than 100,000 strong (the police estimated 60,000).
The march itself was orderly and peaceful, whatever else you may have read; things didn’t kick off, nobody got kettled or baton-charged, and hardly anyone even got arrested (there were four arrests – out of 60-100,000 – including one for being drunk and disorderly). It wasn’t a fun march, though; it didn’t have a carnival atmosphere, despite the entertainments laid on along the way (here a performance artist, there a samba band, and at the end of the route an extraordinary band playing a fusion of jazz-funk and traditional folk). This was partly because of the purpose of the march, which was antagonistic: it was a march against austerity and against the Tories, whose conference in the middle of Manchester has caused serious inconvenience to a lot of people (and bear in mind that there hasn’t been an elected Conservative councillor in Manchester since 1996, or a Conservative MP since 1987). The mood was defiant, and not defiant in a playful, “Tubthumping” kind of way – more a matter of defying authority, and defying people who think they’ve won. Pig pictures, slogans and masks abounded; one woman walked alone in a full-face pig mask, carrying a placard saying “I prefer apples”. (Think about it.) And this level of ridicule goes along with the mood of defiance – as if to say, why should we listen to you? The old “they say cutback we say fightback” slogan got an outing near where I was walking; the chanting was a bit feeble, but ‘fightback’ was very much the way people seemed to be feeling. This was particularly evident when we got close enough to the conference centre to make some noise in its general direction. For some people all the noise-making was probably energising, but I have to say I found it all a bit wearing; if I never hear a vuvuzela again I’ll be heartily grateful.
Back in the 80s, I remember the BBC taking notice of the peace movement (then in its second prime) by broadcasting a god-awful drama called “The Big March”. The big march in question was ostensibly a peace march, but what were the real motivations of the shadowy left-wing group organising it, eh? What indeed. In one scene the central character – a sincere but ill-informed peacenik – is marching (on a smaller march) alongside a seasoned veteran who periodically calls out “It’s coming yet!”, to cheers and echoing shouts from his fellow activists. She, the peacenik, naturally asks him what it is that’s coming yet, and what it has to do with getting rid of nuclear weapons. He launches into an explanation of how he and his co-conspirators are working within the peace movement for a much bigger goal: the goal of realising the unfulfilled revolutionary hopes of, er, Robert Burns:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that
Terrifying stuff, I think we can all agree. But probably not written by anyone who’s ever been on a march, and not only because slogans aren’t usually written in code. Perhaps I was just in a particularly disorganised part of the march, but the chants and slogans of my fellow activists were more reminiscent of that kid on the bus: I struggled to hear what they were saying, and then struggled to work out why. (What was that – “whose speech? free speech!”? No, hang on – “whose streets? our streets!”. Well, OK.) It just wasn’t that unified; there wasn’t a single revolutionary message that brought us all together (although I have to admit “Tory scum” was pretty popular).
If we weren’t being ruthlessly welded into a weapon of subversion, we didn’t conform to the opposite stereotype either; we weren’t a lawless rabble (although some of the dancing to that folk-funk band was pretty out there). If you’ve followed reports of the march in the press – never mind Twitter – you’ve probably formed the impression that spitting, egg-throwing and close-range intimidation was very much the order of the day. It wasn’t; these stories are so unrepresentative of the march as to be basically false. It’s like the old ‘black sheep’ joke: don’t say “all left-wing protesters are thugs”, say “in one section of one march there were a number of protesters, who may or may not have been left-wing, one of whom spat on Michael Crick at least once”.
Let’s be clear: there was no great failing in the march that ‘allowed’ those individuals to ‘become the story’. On one hand, what is the march supposed to have failed collectively to do? I can’t imagine any feasible mechanism that could have stopped those people from joining the march (as I did), or from doing what they did once there. On the other – more important – hand, that story didn’t just happen: it was written, by people who chose to write it that way and knew (or could have known) that they were grossly misrepresenting the march. And there are reasons why they did this. Often, I think, the reason why right-wing journalists write about violence and thuggery on the Left is that, when they look at the Left, that’s what they see. Whether violent acts are widespread or sporadic, major or minor, real or very largely imaginary is secondary: any actual violent incidents are simply outward confirmation of the violence inherent in the Left. An extreme example: in the late 90s I was on the Steering Committee of the Socialist Society, which involved attending monthly meetings in London. The meetings weren’t eventful; 10-15 people would turn up, we’d get through the agenda by lunchtime, and sometimes someone would give a paper or there’d be a guest speaker. I was pretty chuffed to have got on to the Steering Committee (although it wasn’t actually a contested election) and, before my first meeting, made the mistake of telling someone at work about it. On the Monday morning, another of my colleagues greeted me: “Have a good time in London? Kick many coppers, did you?” I was startled and genuinely confused. “Did you kick many coppers?” she repeated, as if for the hard of hearing. “On your demonstration.” I explained earnestly (clearly there’s been some misunderstanding) that there hadn’t been a demonstration, I’d gone down for a meeting… “Yeah, your socialist meeting – same thing. That’s what you lot do, isn’t it?”
Well, no, it’s not; we know that, and (judging from their firm but low-key presence, and those four arrests) the police know it too. But the Right believe it is, and the Right will always believe it, or affect to believe it. After all, what incentive have they got for not believing it? Define violence as illegitimate – as the mark of political illegitimacy – and then find reasons to denounce the Left as violent: there’s no reason this should ever stop working for them. And the way it works is to put us on the back foot, set us wringing our hands and writing earnest articles about how this sort of thing has no place on the Left. It’s divisive, demobilising and above all endless: they will always come back for more.
The ultimate example of this (so far) is the Tweet in which Dan Hodges announced
The fact delegates to the 2015 Conservative party conference can’t enter without feeling intimidated is a national disgrace.
Now, work with me here: what’s Hodges actually saying? Is protest illegitimate? (Not Hodges’s word, but if something’s a ‘national disgrace’ I think we can assume that whatever brought it about isn’t a legitimate thing to do.) Surely not. Might different considerations apply to protest in large numbers? I think most of us would be reluctant to go down that road, if only from familiarity with the sorites paradox. Is protest only legitimate if it’s targeted at the people directly responsible for the problem in question (viz. the government) rather than ordinary decent people with no direct responsibility (viz. Tory party members)? That won’t work, because the problem people were protesting about was, precisely, the power and prestige of the Conservative Party, in which individual members have a small but definite stake. (If Labour were in power and doing things many people disagreed with, I’d take “Labour scum” as fair comment – it’d be unwelcome and hurtful, clearly, but I’d know where it was coming from and accept that I’d laid myself open to it.) Is protest not legitimate if it hurts people’s feelings? Is it not legitimate if anyone hears? Or is it just flat-out not legitimate, what with the Tories having won the election?
Hodges’s position seems to echo Peter Ramsay’s theory of ‘vulnerable autonomy’, which Ramsay used to explain the rationale of the ASBO; the idea seems to be that making somebody feel unhappy is itself an illegitimate exercise of coercion, against which the previously-happy person has the right to be protected. Carried into politics, and into the field of political protest in particular, this essentially amounts to redefining speech as violence – and, as we’ve seen, violence is the border-post of political illegitimacy, the point where politics ceases. These are deep and dangerous waters, and I recommend my friends on the left to get out of them pronto.
This was a big march; it was a big, well-organised march that went off peacefully; it was a big, successful march. That’s what we need to hold on to, and the message we need to put out. It’s not as if a march like that is going to get a fair depiction in the press or on the BBC. Not in the short term, anyway – in the longer term I’m hopeful, despite all the evidence. It’s coming yet for a’ that.