by Dan Hodges
My old generalissimo at the GMB, John Edmonds, used to have a nice line on demos. “If we’re going to have a march, lets make sure it’s a public demonstration of our strength, not our weakness”.
Watching the pictures of Millbank Tower being invaded by a hoard of rampaging journalists, the odd student anarchist in tow, I was reminded of those words. In terms of numbers and organization, last Wednesday’s protest was impressive. It has been a while since the unions managed to get 50,000 on the streets in support of a single issue.
Nor did the unfortunate dénouement at Tory HQ appear to undermine public support. A Sunday Times poll found that 65% of those questioned backed the demonstration, an even higher number than opposed the government’s policy on tuition fees. The issue dominated the media, captured the Parliamentary agenda, and energised the movement. A triumph of direct action.
But a counter-productive one. Set aside the violence, indefensible though it was. What was alarming wasn’t the spasm of aggression. Or the lack of awareness of potential damage to a wider cause. It was the sheer enthusiasm. The love of protest.
On the surface that sounds counterintuitive. Enthusiasm. Energy. Excitement. This is what we are told has vanished from our politics. We have to recapture it. Re-ignite the flame. Seize the imagination of a new political generation.
Well on the basis of Wednesday, it’ll be a doddle. Look at the energy on the streets. The excitement on the blogs. The clamour for a repeat. Further student demonstrations are being planned for later this month. A more general day of action against the government’s cuts is being planned by the TUC for next spring. A mass mobilisation so large that even Ed Miliband may be invited.
Yes sir. The progressive movement has awakened from its slumber. We are in our element.
Except that being in our element means being in opposition. We have our boots on the ground, adrenalin in our veins, the wind in hair, a placard in our hand. We are again on the march. The march to the left’s comfort zone.
In the aftermath of the election, many, myself included, urged the party to face the realities of opposition. But there’s a difference between facing up to opposition and wallowing in it. And the abandon with which some of the Labour movement have freed themselves of the responsibilities and shackles of power is a sight to behold.
“Just shows what can be done when people get angry. We must build on this”, said John McDonnell on Twitter, as the hunt began for the lunatic who had nearly decapitated a policeman with a fire extinguisher. As cleaners who can only dream of a graduate’s salary began to sweep up the debris outside Millbank Tower, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCSU, was quoted by the Guardian as describing “the anger shown by the students”, as, “encouraging”.
And what of the official opposition, those bit part players who, were the revolution to succeed, would actually have the job of clearing up the Tory-Lib Dem mess on student finance? Harriet Harman reportedly knocked seven bells of out Nick Clegg at PMQ’s. If you watched News at 10 closely you may have spotted her. She was the one squeezed in between the guy laying on a table in Millbank Lobby smoking a substance not available from Dunhill, and the kid young enough to be revising for his GCSE’s nearly getting hit by a pane of glass. Andy Burnham’s office was forced to issue a robust denial to rumours that he has been kidnapped by Somali pirates. In fact the only Labour politician to generate coverage was Alan Johnson, and that was by driving a coach, horses and wagon train through Ed Miliband’s policy of a graduate tax.
There is an old communications cliché: the medium is the message. And direct action, tempting, indeed thrilling, though it may be, is no medium for a movement that wishes to communicate proximity to, and readiness for, government. Whatever the polls say, over time, people perceive the disconnect. They recognize that the politics of protest is not the politics of power, but the politics of impotence.
The day after the demonstration I posed the question on Twitter, asking when was the last occasion in the country that a march or demo had resulted in a change of public policy. The best anyone could come up with was the Chartists in 1848. It could be that the heroes of Millbank Tower are also on the brink of smashing a 150 year precedent. But I have my doubts.
A few years ago I was chatting to one of the GMB’s most experienced officials. A veteran of the war against Thatcher, he had become known across the movement as “Crazy Horse”. “The greatest mistake the left ever made”, he said, “was taking to the streets. Once you set foot on the streets they have you. It’s like playing an international football match away from home. They own the ref, they control the crowd, they write the match reports. You think you’ve won 2-1 and you walk off to find you’ve got beat 5-0”.
He was right. Those students who protested, the vast majority peacefully, should not be condemned for their actions. They picked a side. They should be praised for it.
But they should also be told the truth. Marching, of itself, achieves nothing. Smashing windows achieves even less. Protest, however intoxicating, is not an end in itself.
And the wider Labour movement needs to face some additional truths. The politics of protest is not the same as the politics of skilful opposition. That does not mean opposition should always be measured or constructive. Within the appropriate political parameters it can, indeed should, be raw and visceral. At times even destructive.
But those who advocate ever more provocative protests of the sort we saw last Wednesday are saying that we should clamber onto the backs of tigers. Think for a moment if that fire extinguisher had fallen two feet to the right. If the faces of protest on our screen had been replaced by the face of a grieving widow, husband or child. Would that represent a solid foundation for John McDonnell? Encouragement to Mark Serwotka?
Those who forecast a gathering storm may well be right. The savage coalition cuts may unleash a hurricane of protest. But if that storm strikes, the Labour party and the wider movement has a choice. We can stand out in the open and attempt to harness the tempest. Or we can find solid shelter. And then lend our aid and our labour when the storm has past.
There is protest. And there is power. Labour cannot be the party of both.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.