The Saturday before last I went along to the union-organised protest against the cuts, in Bristol, meeting at Castle Park in the rain, marching up to College Green. It was a good turnout – some say 700, some say 4000, which it wasn’t – but despite that, and not just because of the rain, it was a fundamentally depressing experience. The sense of deja vu, been here before, done this before – and it didn’t make any difference then either. (I’m talking 30 years ago, with another 17 years of marching against the Tories to go). Same banners, same badges, same chants: “Tories, Tories, Tories! Out, out, out!” “No ifs, no buts, no to public service cuts!” True, there were some rather more imaginative lyrics in the anarchist songsheet being handed out (sample, to the tune of “Mickey”, “Oh Boris you’re so fat, cut your hair you…” I’d best not go on). But none of them caught on.
At the rally in College Green there were the usual speeches, semi-audible through a squeaky megaphone. I wasn’t asked to speak, and didn’t offer. I’m about as suited to that sort of thing as Anne Widdecombe is to dancing the tango. No-one can ever hear me, or even see me, even if there’s a box or bench to stand on. And to be honest I find it all a bit embarrassing…. Not my way of doing politics, though I may just have to bite the bullet and get used to it if this lot stay in power much longer. Which they will.
I did have lots of conversations with people in the crowd: the RMT, the CWU, PCS, some local transport campaigners, and constituents who recognised me, as well as the Labour activists who’d turned out. But I left thinking – this isn’t how we need to do it this time round.
My spirits were restored by a brilliant piece by Johann Hari in the Independent (who is almost always brilliant, and without a doubt the best political commentator around today), in which he argued that protest does make a difference, even if doesn’t always seems so at the time. > here’s link ghttp://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-protest-works-just-look-at-the-proof-2119310.html, will link properly later.
And this weekend we had another protest in Bristol city centre as people congregated at the Vodaphone store to call them to account for allegedly not paying a £6 billion tax bill. Like the marches the week before, this was replicated in city centres across the country, forcing the closure of Vodafone stores in London, Birmingham, Brighton, Leeds …… Did it persuade Vodafone to write a cheque? No. But did it feel like something was happening, that a point was being made, that an impact was being felt? Yes. (I should say, I wasn’t there and I’m not sure it would be appropriate for me to have been there. I’m sure some will argue, as they always do in cases of direct action, that the protestors were out of order, preventing shops and customers going about their business, and it’s not the sort of behaviour us politicians should endorse. So I won’t…)
But I will say this… Compared to the 1980s, when organising protests came down to handing out leaflets, flyposting or rallying the troops at poorly-attended branch meetings, this time round it could be very different. New media makes it much easier to spread the word, to build alliances, to let people know what’s going on on the day. And to be imaginative in the type of protest, and the way people express their views, from online virals and spoofs, to flash mobs and demos, to simply reweeting an article you really think other people ought to read.
I’ve been watching over the past few days as the storm has grown online around the housing benefit cuts (and please, this isn’t just about the cap, but that’s for another blogpost), and over the past few weeks as disability campaigners have rallied people to their cause. I’m glad Labour MPs are in there, engaging, being spurred on to action (and sometimes doing a bit of spurring to action themselves!) We need to do some hard-thinking about how we operate in this new environment, how we use it to agitate, educate, organise. As Johann Hari says, protest does make a difference. We can’t get rid of this Government overnight, but we can try our damndest to stop them bring this country to its knees and kick them out at the very first opportunity we get.