We are the angry mob

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.

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  • thebristolblogger  On October 31, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Good post.

    The trade unions with their timidity, paranoia, control-freakery, self-censorship and sheer unadulterated backwardness are turning out to be the best helpers the Tories could possibly hope for.

  • bristolwestpaul  On October 31, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Kerry the demonstrations and dare I say it ‘riots’ around the Poll Tax did for Thatcher and Major only hung on by getting rid of it. The demos against the cuts were easy to ignore by the Tories as the left was split between Liberals, SDP and Labour, the miners strike was ill timed and poorly executed and was what the Tories wanted anyway. It’s when they see those who they expect to support them start demonstrating that things change. The demos need to continue so that when the middle classes have had enough there is something there for them to join.

    The picketing of Lib Dem MPs is also critical now, they have never faced demonstrations and they may well lack the resolve of the conservatives, especially if it is in their own constituencies and includes people which they know voted for them.

  • Sarah  On October 31, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Interesting post. Please let’s not forget that confrontational ways of “doing” politics paved the way to most of the progressive changes we have ever had – the Tories aren’t going to give an inch without being subject to demands. Glad you had a good morning – I think it’s pretty inspirational that so many people were prepared to give up their usual Sunday routine to make their voices heard, and am glad the unions who will be defending their members’ jobs were well represented.

  • Skiamakhos  On October 31, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Hopefully they may take more notice of these demos than Labour did of the 2003 stop the war demo. I’m sorry – I’ve marched against successive Tory then Labour governments, voted LibDem last time, found them no different. I’ve joined Labour now because I believe they represent the best chance now of getting a progressive government that will create a Britain that’s fair & good for all, but any talk by Labour MPs of demos against this kind of crap has to be backed up by a genuine intention to listen to the people once back in power. Will you do that? When we get you back in, will you stop when the people say “no more!” on an issue & re-evaluate? There are hopeful noises about this coming from Ed Miliband but I really need to know it’s true.

  • Quietzapple  On November 1, 2010 at 4:09 am

    The marchers of the seventies might have been told by some of their IS lecturers that marches serve to maintain – perhaps increase – the ardour of the marchers. I was as I watched.

    I now know I should have marched, we are members one of another. The IS people should too.

  • RichS  On November 1, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    @thebristolblogger, what evidence do you have for your criticisms of trade unions. As Kerry points out, they were at the heart of the rally she went on. And PCS, which she mentions, have been instrumental in setting out the alternative to spending cuts – see http://www.pcs.org.uk/altdoc

  • thebristolblogger  On November 3, 2010 at 7:56 am

    I’ve been a trade unionist, with a few breaks for unemployment, for the best part of 25 years.

    I’m currently a member of the CWU and Unison. My Unison branch has recently negotiated away terms and conditions for nothing in return, it has attacked the GMB for proposing to ballot, it had no national strategy for dealing with the cuts and it has invited me to no meeting to discuss the cuts.

    The Branch Secretary also tried to get me the sack fairly recently because he doesn’t like my politics, which don’t fit his tired old man’s sellout worldview.

  • RichS  On November 3, 2010 at 9:42 am

    I’m really sorry to hear that thebristolblogger. But I have to say that’s not the experience of all trade unionists in all trade unions. I work for PCS and am a member of the NUJ and GMB. Two of those unions have made me proud in their responses to the cuts, the other is nowhere near as effective as it ought to be. But that doesn’t mean I write off the whole union movement. Unions will be a major part of the opposition to the cuts, that’s just a fact. The only question is, will other unions follow the lead I believe PCS is giving.

  • thebristolblogger  On November 4, 2010 at 8:35 am

    I can’t see Unison in Bristol following the PCS lead. It has been effectively neutered.

    The other issue, beyond the branch secretary openly assisting management to dispose of politically difficult staff immediately prior to the largest cuts in history, is that the Chair of the Branch had his facility time cut by half by management(again immediately prior to the cuts assault) without a peep of protest or action from Unison.


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