Well, I’ve just about recovered from a very long Saturday – getting up at 4 to catch a 5.20 coach for the 5-hour journey down to London for yesterday’s TUC ‘A Future that Works’ march and eventually getting to bed around 2.30 this morning. In spite of the rigours of the long day, sore feet and 11 hours of coach travel, the experience was almost – almost – entirely an inspiring, invigorating, uplifting one.
The long journey – and the rest of the day – was marked by new friendships, by kindnesses, by food, help and advice shared; by generosity of money and of spirit; by humour – in shared jokes and on waved placards (my personal favourite was “The price of not travelling with plebs: £160. A Future that Works: priceless“, with “Oi, Cameron, leave those quids alone!” a close second); by noise, camaraderie and the encouragement of spending a day among people committed and aware enough to know that it was worth giving up time and travelling whatever distance necessary to stand up for what’s right; and by one small cloud in an otherwise sunny day.
But more of that in due course. First, a few personal highlights.
Make friends and be influenced by people
Sitting opposite my wife and me on the coach was Jacky – a down to earth, straight-speaking, no-nonsense, self-educated lady who works full-time as a carer for her two sons suffering from varying degrees of autism and had taken a very rare day off to travel down and join the march. Jacky faces losing financial support from a government that values neither disabled people nor the enormous economic contribution made by those who care for them unpaid. Yet in spite of the challenges she faces, she has applied for Labour’s ‘Future Candidates Programme’ in the hope of being able to serve and help others.
Jacky ended up keeping us company throughout the day – and oh, how I wish I could have put a ring through Cameron’s and Osborne’s noses and dragged them along with us. Not a shred of self-pity, lots of humour, plenty of useful and useless facts and a constant desire to be generous matched by a profound sense of thankfulness for every small kindness. I doubt that even Jacky’s example could change Dave’s or George’s mind about their scrounger-versus-skiver rhetoric – but only because they’re fools.
Generosity was a conspicuous feature of the day in general, as food, help and advice were shared freely among people who were complete strangers to each other. Camaraderie was as available as air to anyone who wanted it, and if someone stumbled momentarily, concern and helpfulness were expressed in an instant by whoever happened to be nearest.
It really was an example of humanity at its best. One which almost – almost – makes me feel pity for Tories. I’m convinced most of them have no idea what their closed-minded, hard-hearted, self-serving ideology makes them miss out on.
As we made our way along Victoria Embankment to join the main Unison contingent (I’m not in Unison, but my wife is, and my passion for the NHS made it the natural place for us to be), the length of the road and the gradual build up of arrivals made it hard to get a real sense of how many people were amassing for the march.
But as noon arrived and we began to move – the noise started, and we knew. Thousands of whistles, plastic trumpets, loudhailers, drums, interspersed with the occasional brass or pipe band, raised a din – a wonderful, beautiful, soul-lifting racket – that left nobody in any doubt that we were legion. And as we passed under Waterloo Bridge, the ‘roof’ intensified the noise until it felt solid. My current WordPress package won’t let me insert video directly into this post, so I’ve uploaded one separately immediately before this post that will give you a tiny idea of what it was like.
Hearing that noise was a revelation – or at least an eye-opener. We often don’t realise how strong we are – but we are many and ‘they’ are few. If ordinary people realise it and determinedly work together – many of the beautiful union banners carried ‘Unity is Strength’ and how true it is – we’ll win and they’ll lose. The only question is, will we and can we unite and stay united?
True strength doesn’t lie in stone towers and arcane traditions.
I want to offer thanks to the officers – many from outside the area – who policed the march. I saw lots of smiles, very few frowns, plenty of thumbs-up, many posing happily for pictures with marchers, and those I spoke to for information or directions were unfailingly helpful and cheerful. I also want to thank the off-duty officers who were there as marchers – I know of some and I believe there were many. The government has treated the police shamefully, but the silver lining of the cloud is, I hope, a restored sense both among police officers and among the public, that the police are part of ‘us’ – we’re all plebs in it together. The Tories have miscalculated badly, and if they’re not worried, they should be.
The big snake
It was hard to make out for sure, but I think we were about in the middle of the march. Certainly there were very many people in front of us – as we looked to our right from Victoria Embankment, we could see the massed banners, flags and placards of those in front already passing in the opposite direction along Whitehall, at the opposite end of Richmond Terrace, having already passed in front of the Houses of Parliament and started to make their way toward Trafalgar Square.
Yet when, footsore and thirsty, we eventually dropped to the grass at the entrance to Hyde Park, where the rally was to take place, we sat for over 90 minutes watching dense ranks of marchers continue to arrive along Piccadilly. In fact, when we had to leave at 3 (our coach was setting off at 5 and we had a long trek to reach the pick-up point, so we couldn’t wait for the speeches), there was still no sign of the rear end of the column.
Official estimates put the number of marchers at around 150,000, but I think there was at least a quarter of a million people taking part – although some, like us, weren’t staying for the main part of the rally.
Update: I’ve been told that police and unions estimated 400-500,000 marchers taking part.
The scale of the task
In the midst of all the inspiration, the scale of the task of countering the Tories’ influence was still clear. Being energised to the task, and a sober realisation of the task, need to go hand in hand for us to achieve it. As we gathered for the march, I went into a large bar on the Embankment to use the facilities. A crowd of people was in there, apparently oblivious (at least at that point, when The Noise hadn’t yet started) to what was going on outside and why, watching sport on the large television and cheering raucously. Nothing wrong at all with loving sport – but the government will be very happy if most of us anaesthetise ourselves with it so that we’re ignorant of what’s going on under our noses.
Similarly, out on the streets as we marched, many were curious, many stood and cheered and applauded – but some paid almost no attention, too intent on carrying their designer carriers to the next trendy shopping destination. Consumerism and the absorption with spending and status are the Tories’ allies, numbing people to the plight of others and the ‘robbery writ large’ of huge corporations and the politicians who aid and abet them.
But I’m not offering counsels of despair. Yesterday’s march showed that very many people are awake to what is being perpetrated. More are waking up – and we can wake more still, if we keep making the kind of noise that only a united people can make.
And so, on to the fly in the ointment, the blot on the landscape. The cloud that dimmed the sun, just a little.
Ed’s speech and the booing
As evening fell and our bus started to make its way northward out of London and a few people started to catch up on Twitter, word spread around the coach about the booing – that Ed Miliband’s speech to the rally had referred to a continued need for cuts and that this had, understandably, been booed by the marchers. Not only that, but BBC News was concentrating on this booing – and on aggressive behaviour by a group of about 40 idiots – in its coverage of the event, to avoid having to state that at least 150,000 people had marched in unity against the idiot actions of an idiot government.
I’d be lying to you if I said that this didn’t cast a cloud over my mood and stir up some complex feelings – at first. Then I determined that I was going to suspend judgment and set the whole matter aside until I’d been able to read the speech in full and draw my own conclusions. Well, here they are:
In case you missed it, here’s the key part of the speech:
“David Cameron calls it the “sink or swim” society. But you don’t build a successful country with sink or swim.
You do it by building One Nation. And that is what the next Labour government will do.
Of course, there will still be hard choices. With borrowing rising not falling this year, I do not promise easy times. I have said whoever was in government now there would still need to be some cuts.
But this government has shown us cutting too far and too fast, self-defeating austerity, is not the answer. We would make different but fairer choices including on pay and jobs.”
Was this statement by Miliband an act of betrayal, one that merited booing? Did Miliband misjudge his speech and his audience – or did he deliberately incur the boos in the hope of convincing ‘the markets’ and ‘business leaders’ that Labour can be ‘trusted’ to run a business-friendly economy and won’t raise taxes?
I don’t believe it was a betrayal. The rest of the speech was clear in its support for working people and its condemnation of the coalition’s too-far-too-fast cuts. I think that Miliband was aiming to cut off David Cameron’s most likely line of attack next week – that of accusing him of being too close to the unions, of being their stooge, aas Cameron tries to frighten people away from voting Labour by painting him as ‘Red Ed’. Miliband was trying to demonstrate strength of character by speaking ‘hard truths’. In short, to make sure that Cameron couldn’t repeat his remark, made in Parliament on 16 May this year:
“I often wonder whether his problem is that he is weak or that he is left-wing—his problem is that he is both!”
I don’t believe that Miliband misjudged his audience. I think he knew he was going to get booed and was taking a calculated risk. One that I have two big problems with.
Firstly, he handed the BBC and other news media an opportunity on a plate to skew their coverage of the march. Main coverage and the smaller, more regular ‘snippets’ mentioned the march (though only ‘tens of thousands’ rather than anything like the true figure) but quickly moved on to the booing. Given the effort, expense, commitment and passion of the huge number of people who marched and the unions who organised it, this was a dire mistake, a truly woeful miscalculation – and not even one that’s likely to bring the political benefit he was hoping for, as Cameron will simply switch tack and mock him for being booed by his ‘union paymasters’ (another favourite stock phrase).
Second – and I think worse – the miscalculation involves Miliband granting the Tory premise, the Big Lie: that ‘there is no money’, that our public sector is ‘bloated’ and needs to be cut back, and that Labour mismanaged the economy rather than simply being hit by a global crisis that hammered all the developed economies. The idea that we have a ‘deficit still rising’ because we’re over-spending, rather than because the economy is shrinking due to ill-advised cuts and because taxation isn’t effectively enforced on those who can most afford to pay.
Why is this worse? Because we – the country, not just the marchers – are looking for someone with vision enough, as well as strength enough, to see a different and better way forward for our country than simply ‘austerity lite’. Someone who has the imagination and perception to see beyond the lie that the economic argument was settled forever with the dominance of ‘market capitalism’, someone who knows that there are two ways to balance the spending equation and that cuts are neither inevitable nor even necessary.
Someone to offer hope.
If the electorate sees a Labour leader offer that – vision, hope and the boldness to say so – I believe that Labour won’t just win a majority at the next election but could see a landslide which will make 1997 look indecisive.
It happens that I believe that Ed Miliband can be that man. I think he has the strength and integrity, and I believe he’s capable of the vision. That’s why his speech yesterday was a disappointment – I believe he’s capable of being much better, much bolder, and of inspiring people to believe voting is worthwhile because it will make a real difference not just to how the country is run in the short term, but how it looks and stands for decades.
Ed Miliband’s real mistake wasn’t in calling cuts necessary to an anti-austerity rally. It was in not realising that it’s not the centre-ground he needs to claim, not business leaders and the markets that he needs to convince and win over. The most important thing he needs to show people – Labour voters, union members and floating voters alike – that he’s genuinely a Labour leader, on the side of the working masses (and the clue to why is in that word, ‘masses’!); that he’s a Labour leader with the vision to see that things don’t have to be the ‘more of the same but a bit less nasty’. He’s mentioned ‘ethical capitalism’ – we need to see that he has an idea of what that can be like and how it can be enforced for the good of 99%.
If he can do that, there’ll be a mass of people marching – not just in protest but to vote for him and the Labour party at the next general election and for many beyond.