What do you do when you give up trying to change the world? There are two options. The first is to fade into private life and spend more time gardening, building a model railway, or indulging whatever other ever-so worthwhile pursuits. The other is to try and make a career as a professional naysayer. It's but a short hop from "why are you bothering, nothing ever changes" to full on apologising for the establishment you once railed against. And so yesterday's anti-austerity demo that saw many thousands take to the streets and command the headlines on an otherwise sleepy Saturday also attracted a fair few armchair dismissals from the safety of Twitter. Chief among these was David Aaronovitch, who tweeted "What, in the name of all that is holy, is the point of an anti-austerity demo four weeks AFTER the election that decided the issue?" Many moons have passed since David claimed the Communist Party as his political home, but with the long-lapsed membership has gone some elementary understandings of how politics work. So on the off-chance David's reading this, allow me to provide some needed instruction.
What is the purpose of a demonstration? The most immediate, obvious objective is to demonstrate the strength of feeling about an issue/sets of issues. More or less every weekend the capital sees some sort of mobilisation of one form or another. This week it was tens of thousands marching against the cuts. Last week a few hundred cycled around London in their birthday suits to highlight climate change. Despite the relative novelty of the latter, which protest commanded the headlines? Which activity attracted the snarks and the criticism? If it wasn't in some way relevant, then the anti-austerity demo would have been as safely ignored as the World Naked Bike Ride.
These numbers matter. Whether it was a quarter of a million people or not is neither here nor there. A lot of people marched. And there is a rough relationship between the size of a demonstration and the broader constituency sympathetic to its political message out there in wider society. A couple of million people marched against the Iraq War because that reflected the tens of millions who were opposed. While much smaller, the still quite impressive numbers are, again, indicative of widespread dissatisfaction in the broader population. The bigger its mobilisations are, the bigger the "silent" group of dissenters is. And this matters. Presently, Tory strategists can look at yesterday's march and put it down to the usual suspects. However, had it been twice or three times as large it may have given them pause.
The anti-austerity demo is also very much of the moment. In early July George Osborne's emergency budget - designed to clear up the mess of the, erm, last government - will unveil around £12bn cuts to social security. That inevitably means disabled people will suffer, trying to get by on the dole is set to be tougher, and people who rely on state top ups because their miserly employers are going to get hammered. There will be people in those sorts of situations who do not know the kicking the government is itching to give them is on its way. When austerity as an issue is crowded out by other stories, more than a few people who cast an askance view upon the news might have picked up on what's coming.
Also some, you know who you are, don't see much point in A-to-B marches. The routine of assembling here and marching there to listen to speeches ain't going to change the world, but that runs the risk of privileging form over content. As this report from the BBC notes, the march attracted all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons - socialists and trade unionists marched alongside NHS campaigners and anti-fracking activists. What a march like this does is help draw together various issues and links them up. Often times socialists forget that the common thread running through these issues aren't as obvious to most people, especially those who haven't got years of political activity behind them. Not only are they getting exposed to those arguments, they know who's campaigning alongside them on related issues. In short, a demonstration builds understanding and forges links between activists. A large demo, as per yesterday's, can be quite energising too.
Lastly, this kind of extra-parliamentary pressure sits uneasily with some of the commentariat, as well as a fair few who inhabit the House itself. As far as they're concerned, Parliament is the only sovereign decision-making body in the land. Politics is about presenting your wares at election time, getting voted in (or not), and then laying off until the next round of elections. Because the Tories were proposing more cuts in their manifesto and they got voted in, everyone should sit on their hands. Anti-cuts campaigners had their chance and they blew it. Therefore, demonstrations, protest activity, and the like are borderline illegitimate types of politics. Of course, if our forebears had taken that view there would be no such thing as universal suffrage and weekends, for one. Yet its funny how this logic isn't extended to other forms of extra-parliamentary activity. For the best part of five years, the right wing press traduced the character and printed outrageous stories about Ed Miliband. They've peddled lies about poor people, about immigrants, about the EU, about the Labour Party. And how does giving cash to political parties on the "understanding" that certain policies will and won't be pursued in office sound? Would any establishment figure dream of declaring these extra-parliamentary activities illegitimate? Or will they be accepted as part of the rough and tumble of how we do politics? It seems David and friends have forgotten that politics is always much more than Westminster and elections.