Like dozens of others up and down the country, it was going to be just another local anti-cuts protest. Lewisham Council, a Labour-controlled authority wants to cut £60m from its budget between now and 2014 (full story here). But no one going on the march to protest outside tonight's council meeting could have foreseen what was to happen. This is best left to Kate B's Twitter commentary, bits of which are reproduced below:
Lewisham council protest 2nite 6pm Catford town hall: fury @ Bullock's huge cuts list for a deprived borough ... Cops losing control at lewisham ... Ppl screaming let us in ... This is mad never seen protest like it ... Ppl have broken past cops into town hall ... Riot cops at a council meeting jesus ... Now ppl fighting riot cops ... Think yr going to need some bigger cops gideon ... Jesus ppl r going for the police theyre fighting back ... Whole street outside lewisham council is closed + full of coppers ... Everyone at this protest sayng theyre inspired by the students ... Gideon youve got a big fuckn problem here Ive never seen ppl take on riot cops ... Lewisham is a Labour council too. Jesus man that's anger ... Lewisham is a v poor borough. What does the govt expect?
When was the last time an attempt was made to storm a council meeting by a 400-strong protest? I don't know but there's a report here and a video here.
Kate's final comment is right. In my experience over the last few years of doing stalls and speaking to hundreds of people on the streets and their doorsteps there has been an undercurrent of anger, but an anger tempered by isolation, impotence and hopelessness. You can strike and protest as much as you like, they'll never solve anything. Indeed when I was in the Socialist Party one comrade called this 'proxy consciousness': a disillusionment with, irreverence toward, and alienation from official party politics married to a fundamental lack of belief in one's ability to change things. Many a conversation took place where someone would agree with your points about class, inequality, New Labour, pensions, banks, NHS and whatever, but after they'd leave with a nod of the head and wish you good luck. They were issues people cared about, but they didn't see them as issues they should take charge of and fight for: that was what we, "the activists" did. And how could it be otherwise after the defeats of the 80s, the throwing back of working class consciousness, the collapse of a world-wide alternative to capitalism (despite its obvious problems and grotesqueries), the expunging of socialism from everyday politics and the successful sell of consumerism to millions of atomised people?
Nevertheless the combustible material was there and now it is being touched off. I can't remember who said students are the advance guard of the working class, but the support and solidarity the 10.11.10 protest and subsequent days of actions and occupations have inspired is bleeding into wider layers of the population. As Kate notes, "everyone on the protest saying they're inspired by students".
It does also mean the labour movement and the left have to up its game. I'm sure it's the same for many others reading this: up until this year really - and leaving aside the build up to the Iraq war - my experience of the period has been a series of small-scale set pieces. A strike here. A campaign against a closure there. Struggles have been isolated with little in the way of mass expressions of solidarity. But now all bets are off. Class struggle, previously subterranean has now exploded out into the open. Confidence is building rapidly, especially among younger people and no one has the ability to shut it down. A new carnival of protest has ridden into town seething with energy and vitality. For many people who've been knocking around the labour movement for years, the sudden explosions of activity are as strange and alien to us as it is to the raw demonstrators and occupiers who are tasting activism for the first time. And while this is an unfamiliar situation to us, it is doubly so for the powers that be. As tonight's scenes from Lewisham repeat themselves over the coming weeks and months ahead, the discomfiture of having a movement breathing down your neck will be felt by politicians from all parties who vote to cut, however reluctantly they may do so.
The left has to adapt and win this new movement to socialism by persuasion, passion and above all politics. That is the acid test the situation demands. It is how we will be judged by the movement before us and the generations who come after us. Are we up to it?