March for the Alternative

Posted on March 29, 2011


Large demonstrations like Saturday’s conjure up a strange mix of hope and futility. Disparate groups come together to shout, wave banners and hand each other flyers advocating diverse (and often opposing) causes. They are united by a belief that something is deeply wrong, but the energy and solidarity engendered always have a touch of the unreal about them. As protesters drift away and return to being mothers, GP patients and bus drivers the tenuous sense of unity and agency rapidly retreats. After that what is left?

The unreality of the protest march first struck me at an anti-war demo in 2001 as the US and its allies were preparing to invade Afghanistan. I remember seeing a Burqaa-clad woman carrying a Socialist Worker Party placard and chanting along to slogans denouncing western imperialism. I later reflected that this single image seemed to embody the fatal contradictions within the anti-war movement. No doubt opposition to that war and the invasion of Iraq that followed it was sincerely felt among both its Islamic and secular opponents and there was certainly some cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives. And yet the different political, moral and linguistic traditions that the two strands drew on made it clear that this was never more than a temporary convergence of views over a large, but nonetheless solitary issue. I would argue that the veiled protester can tell us a lot about why a pretty indefensible series of policies (the invasion of Iraq, collusion in human rights abuses in Guantanamo and elsewhere, 90 day detention) were even allowed to see the light of day.

The truth is that once the image of an issue or group has become fixed in the minds of voters they are seldom tempted to reexamine them, even as evidence to the contrary mounts. During the Blair years the Muslim (male or female) in traditional dress became branded in this way and lost the right to be heard. Secular politicians who courted Islamic leaders in opposition to war could thus be derided as opportunists and accused of palling around with misogynists and apologists for terrorism. Weed smoking students draped in Palestinian scarves could be dismissed as naive and confused. Associating with angry people in Muslim dress undermined the legitimacy of those who for very good reason opposed the government’s crusading foreign policy and disdain for civil liberties. It made the majority of angry people in Muslim dress who abhorred the violence committed in their name by terrorist groups an object of permanent suspicion. This dynamic shaped discourse over war and terrorism for as long as Tony Blair remained in office and left just enough reasonable doubt in the minds of the public and parliament for poorly conceived, but cannily argued-for policies to be pushed through.

The growing anti-cuts movement is an altogether different animal. From our safe distance bombs could never be more than abstractions and so would never become a deal breaker for the majority who vote with their wallets rather than their ideals. By contrast everyone has a stake in how fast the deficit is reduced and who pays for it, and no-one can claim indifference. And yet there are some parallels between the coalition and New Labour’s war offensive. A determined minority within government (do not underestimate the commitment of the Lib Dem hierarchy to seeing the cuts programme through) are pushing through an intrinsically unpopular agenda. To retain support or at least acquiescence in parliament and in the street they will have to resort to the politics of division, fear and obfuscation and mobilise the language of national interest and the war metaphors so beloved of secretly terrified politicians. It is on the question of how to counter these tactics that the anti-cuts movement can learn from the failure to stop the war.

Here are a few ideas:

1) Abandon the language and imagery of past struggles. The trade union movement since the 1980s has been branded in the popular imagination and the mere mention of the unions evokes images of the three day week, rubbish piling up in the street and pitched battles between miners and police. Sadly, politicians today do not even need to explain their reasons for claiming that unions (and the public sector) stand in the way of progress and efficiency, as it is taken as a given. Trade unionism, of course, is an indispensable part of British democracy and deserves the slow, hard work of rehabilitation in the eyes of the public. HOWEVER, calls for aggressive union action (someone handing me a flyer calling for a general strike was my most ‘unreal’ moment on Saturday) represent the kind of backward looking, negative and predictable approach that will play right into the hands of a government constantly on the lookout for easy scapegoats. The anti-cuts movement should not be a preservationist union-led battle to fight every cut, save every job and stop any reorganisation of public institutions. The trade union movement should be one of a cacophony of voices seeking a transformation of the way the economy and society are run, including reform of the public sector where necessary.

2) Avoid the trap of ‘oppositionist’ thinking. Being in opposition is fun, so the saying goes, because you can promise the world and never have to deliver. The problem is that oppositions tend not to sound very convincing when it comes to the details. An opposition based purely on the moral grounds of what impact the cuts will have on families and which opposes every cut will be easily dismissed as sentimental politicking which doesn’t take into account the dire state of the public finances. The moral case is strong, but is must be supported by a developed description of how it can be achieved on earth.

3) Elaborate a positive and convincing alternative vision. The alternative to invading Iraq was leaving Saddam Hussein in place, which even with such clear arguments against the invasion was a hard sell. Fortunately the anti-cuts movement do have an alternative vision, but it is one that needs to be elaborated and clarified. NEF’s Great Transformation sketches out a vision of an alternative future to the unequal, unsustainable, socially dysfunctional and economically unstable which many see as inevitable. The mantra of There Is No Alternative, if repeated often enough becomes self-fulfilling. More practical policy ideas are needed to transform the argument and convince people that there really is an alternative.

4) Offer practical policy measures. Between the opposition to government policy and the development of an alternative vision for the future must come practical policy proposals for how to get there. These must be real world policies that could be introduced tomorrow if the support were there, and not the property of a distant future. This means describing how policies will be paid for and implemented in a constrained public spending context and in the absence of global action like effective banking legislation. They do not need to deliver immediate impact or savings (government education reforms certainly do not), but should demonstrate medium-term progress towards longer term goals.

5) Embrace direct action, but keep it separate from the violence of ‘lifestyle’ protesters. Traditional forms of protest, as the anti-war movement showed, do not achieve much. They can demonstrate the drift of public opinion and shake up the stethoscope somewhat, but politicians rarely change their minds in direct response to a large number of people taking to the streets. Mass civil disobedience is far more effective as it shows that disaffection goes beyond marching and petition signing. UK Uncut have launched a brilliantly pitched and well executed campaign of high street occupations and sit ins, drawing attention to the billions of pounds lost to the exchequer through tax avoidance and evasion by corporations and wealthy individuals. Unfortunately, on Saturday they were followed by a small group of generic ‘lifestyle’ protesters (marching and dressing) in sync, claiming to be anarchists, but looking more like Mussolini’s blackshirts. The albeit low level premeditated violence that this group engaged in allowed the police and the right-wing press to link them to and therefore undermine UK Uncut. So far the latter has done a good job of keeping their protests peaceful and distancing themselves from the violence of others, but it is incumbent upon everyone to highlight that the key distinction is between peaceful and violent protest, and not between direct and non-direct action.