The first thing to say about the march: it was a helluva lot of people.
In the small world of parochial politics, getting fifteen people to a meeting is great, and getting 35-40 for a talk on campus is impressive. Estimates vary from 250,000 to 500,000. Either way, that’s a huge amount of people.
For that reason, my abiding memory of the day will be crossing over a bridge over the River Thames and seeing the march for the first time. There were, as Michael Caine would have said, “thousands of them!”, snaking along the roads as far as you could see, both left and right. There were so many people that it was more of a shuffle than a march at times.
A main reason why huge protests such as the March for the Alternative are brilliant is because it’s not just “the usual suspects” who are attending. There were many families on the march, and people from all backgrounds and ages. I saw banners from the Crown Prosecution Service, student nurses, teachers, Equity, even “Gleeks Against the Cuts”.
Paul Mason has written a very good piece on the protest, and this is what he had to say:
Unison – a union which has a reputation in the trade union movement for passivity – had mobilised very large numbers of council workers, health workers and others: many from Scotland and Wales; many from the north of England. Unite likewise, and the PCS seemed capable of mobilising very large numbers.
What this means, to be absolutely clear, is people who have never been on a demo in their lives and in no way count themselves to be political.
I also saw many small self-selected groups not mobilised by unions: family groups, school groups, speech therapy groups.
There were even people protesting about the closure of their day centre. It’s a very moving image:
The march itself was astonishingly peaceful. On the coach going back, one of our number was checking their blackberry and said there had only been nine arrests. Out of about half a million marching, that’s very impressive.
There was also some good humour amongst the protestors. My favourite placards that I saw were “Charlie Sheen wouldn’t take this shit” and “Stop being naughty you lying meanies”, carried by a young child.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I got back home around midnight, checked Twitter and found that goodness knows what had broken out in Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square. When we passed Trafalgar Square around 4-4.15 it was very peaceful. There was music, singing, dancing and someone giving out leaflets for Republic. And not a kettle in sight.
Some of that seems down to some heavy-handed policing. Dave Osler has a balanced blog on the Trafalgar Square kettle for Liberal Conspiracy:
I’ll admit that the activists were hardly angels. But the policing was ridiculously heavy handed for much of the time.
The ugliest thing that came to my notice occurred in Craven Street, where the boys in blue wanted to push the demonstrators back and shoved their riot shields into some girls of about fifteen or sixteen. I won’t forget the look of fear on those poor kids’ faces in a hurry.
We were passing by Fortnum and Mason between 3.30 and 4pm, soon after the shop had been occupied. This was because it had taken us 20 minutes to go to the toilet in a Costa Coffee House. The atmosphere had completely changed. We could see red flares had been set off further down the road. There were anarchists there from the “Black Bloc” who had covered their faces; that’s never a promising sign. A group, I think from UK Uncut, had started singing outside the shop “They’re selling chocolate eggs for forty pounds”, to the tune of “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain”.
The mood was beginning to get a bit dicey. What’s more, the line of police had their riot helmets down, and our group of five had split into two. The three of us at the back of the group managed to push through the collection of anarchists, UK Uncut people and other marchers who had stopped to watch, and gratefully joined the other two members of our group who had joined the back end of the march.
I’m inclined to agree with the views of Paul Sagar and Anthony Painter that not only was the violence daft, it was also a strategic error from UK Uncut to host protests on the same day as the TUC march. (See also Mehdi Hasan and this on Next Left as well).
As I’ve made clear before, I do not condone any violent protests whatsoever, even if I can understand the sentiments that made them happen. A democratic solution to protecting public services has failed. A majority of the public voted for parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) who had less draconian spending cuts planned than the Conservatives. Yet, just as with the tuition fees issue, we have Lib Dem MPs voting for measures that are directly contradictory to their manifesto. It’s no surprise, then, you’ll get some angry people trying to effect change “by other means”.
I also don’t have much time for anarchists. This isn’t just because they throw bricks through windows, which does the cause of the protestors more harm than good and detracts from the much larger, peaceful protest.
At some point I’ll hopefully get round to writing a more detailed blog post on the subject, but basically my main problem with anarchism is that it’s a rubbish, unworkable political philosophy. I never understand why there are people who consider themselves left-wing who are anarchists, since there’s no real difference between anarchism and libertarian free-market fundamentalism Milton-Friedman-style.
Also, these anarchists who were part of the UK Uncut protests seem to be in favour of businesses paying more tax. What kind of crazy off-shoot of anarchism is that?!
The strategic errors made by UK Uncut were put very trenchantly by Mehdi Hasan. I can’t help but quote it at length because I agree with every word of this:
But I’m entitled to my views – and I’m annoyed with the violent “protesters” (thugs?) who tried to wreck an important and historic march by rewarding right-wing, pro-cuts media outlets with the negative headlines and imagery that they had so craved. Then again, what else does one expect from a bunch of outraged kids who prefer to gesticulate for the sake of the Murdoch-owned television cameras? For whom “solidarity” is merely a word to daub on the side of TopShop, rather than a lived act of joining fellow citizens on a mass scale? In my view, solidarity isn’t about smashing windows in a coordinated manner. (Oh, and I refuse to refer to those louts as “anarchists” until I see any evidence that the disgruntled youth I saw kindling that pointless bonfire in the middle of Oxford Street has read even a page of Kropotkin.)
Here’s my rather simple and old-fashioned view: the trade union movement persuaded 500,000 people to turn out on Saturday to protest against the coalition’s spending cuts and “march for the alternative” – the Robin Hood Tax, green investment in education and jobs, reform of the banks and a crackdown on tax justice. 500,000 people. That’s half a million people for those of you who can’t count.
There were dozens of speakers at the Hyde Park rally – from the Leader of the Opposition to elected general secretaries of Britain’s biggest and smallest unions, from the National Pensioners Convention to Operation Black Vote, from poets to freeminers. There was a call-centre worker who’d walked all the way from Cardiff to make his voice heard. And, no, I didn’t spot a pot of hummus in his hand.
So why was there a need for an “alternative” protest, away from the main march in London and the rally in Hyde Park? Why did UKUncut – a group, incidentally, whose aims, principles and even tactics I have wholeheartedly supported since its creation last year – decide to stage a sit-in at a posh shop no one’s ever heard of on Saturday afternoon? Don’t get me wrong: UKUncut had nothing to do with the violence at the weekend, and have since been wrongly maligned by much of the mainstream media, but why consciously opt out of a march involving – one more time – 500,000 of your fellow citizens? Couldn’t the well-heeled shoppers in Piccadilly have been rudely interrupted on Sunday instead? Or Friday? Or Monday? Any day other than the day of the TUC march? This scene from the Life of Brian comes to mind…
Put simply, the March for the Alternative was not UK Uncut’s parade to rain on. Instead, the march’s message has been urinated on from a great height.