Monday, October 22, 2012

'A Future That Works', 20th October 2012

In London On Saturday over 150,000 people beat a raucous and angry path through the corridors of power.  It was a march for 'A Future That Works'.  From all over the country they gathered: teachers, nurses, bakers, shop workers,  civil servants, schoolchildren and many, many more.  Whistles were blown, banners were raised, drums were beaten and brass bands played triumphant tunes.  The leader of the opposition spoke to the gathered crowd in Hyde Park, followed by the luminaries of the Trade Union movement.  It was a glorious day.  And it achieved fuck all.

Does that sound harsh? As the crowds walked down the Embankment and through Westminster on their way to Hyde Park spirits were high.  It's hard not to feel inspired at the sight of tens of thousands standing up for the rights of essential workers, standing up for those who strive away on vanishing or frozen wages to keep the country running.  Under this government the populace sometimes feels like it's undergoing a mass conversion to an unsympathetic, cruel and predatory outlook.  The victims are those who rely most upon the state, the ill, the poor, the young, the disabled, the unemployed, the elderly.  Meanwhile, Cameron shamelessly enacts a tax cut that means those earning over a million pounds a year will be £40,000 a year better off.  Who can stand to live in a land where those with the least pay for the mistakes of those with the most?  The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer (or just die off, whichever is quicker).

As we march through the streets we see all kinds of banners.  Some have (literally) been through the wars, rail workers banners faded with age showing streamlined art deco locomotives speeding through the countryside.  Shipbuilders use the RMS Queen Elizabeth as a symbol of their technical excellence.  Trombonists play happy tunes as they march under the orange and black banner of the GMB.   You begin to get caught up in the fever of the crowd.  "Surely" you think, "surely if this many people feel strongly, if this crowd can gather from around the country, then something can be done!"

But what can be done?  There's a lot of sound and fury here, but it feels increasingly and frustratingly unfocussed.  As we get to Hyde Park we're directed towards the stage.  The ground is soggy underfoot, with wood chips being put down to try and soak up some of the puddles that dot the field.  As I move towards the front to get a good view I realise "... is that Glenn "he's old and sullen vote for' Cullen up there?".  It is!  Or rather, it's James Smith wearing a fetching scarf and explaining the health and safety procedures for the site to us.  Seeing him up there gives the moment an odd tinge,  satire and reality are colliding.  'The Thick of It' is frequently spookily prescient at times, and at that moment I wouldn't have been particularly surprised if Nicola Murray had wandered on stage to give a typically incompetent and blithering speech.

James Smith
I worked my way right to the front of the crowd.  Maybe too even close to the front, as I got shooed out of the way by an angry news cameraman for stepping in between him and a news reporter I faintly recognised.  I was, I hoped, in a prime spot to witness some red hot political theatre and hear some firebrand union rhetoric.

But first some music by Natalie McCool.  After building up this head of steam through London, and finally arriving at Hyde Park, pumped up, ready to cheer and yell, it was a bit strange to watch a band for a bit.  Especially as their songs were pretty apolitical.  The highlight of their short set was an acoustic cover of some of the 'Drive' soundtrack.  Now, I really like the 'Drive' soundtrack, especially 'Night Call' and 'A Real Hero', which they mixed together, but what I wanted to hear was something spiky, sloganeering and punky.  I wanted to hear a call to arms, to see some real anger on stage.  But I suppose some low-key acoustic indie music about feelings n' stuff is good too.  I understand that Natalie McCool and her band were there as grateful recipients of some young person's music grant, which is nice, but as good as they were I wished they'd played something with a little more fire in the belly.

Natalie McCool
I wanted to see spittle flying from mouths, to see burning passion smouldering in the eyes of the red-faced speakers - I wanted someone to bang the lectern with their shoe like Nikita Khrushchev!  Thankfully up next was 'Red' Ed Miliband, who as leader of the opposition would surely provide all of the above and more.

Like a general surveying his troops he majestically mounted the stage, and you could just tell that behind that noble countenance was a speech primed to unite us all under his banner, the battlecry that would fill us with vim and vinegar and send us out off around the country to devote our time and energy to kicking this cabal of stuck-up, psychopathic rich boys out of government.  A hush fell upon the crowd.  Miliband began his speech and told us that basically he agrees with what the government is doing but if he was in power maybe he'd try doing it a bit slower. 

Ed Miliband
The first 'boo' was unexpected.  People spun around, curious to see who this iconoclast was.  But searching for an individual quickly became pointless, as ripples of discontent spread throughout those gathered.  It can't be particularly pleasant to be booed by those you nominally represent, but then again it probably is depressingly politically expedient to be seen to be disliked by trade unionists.  I was standing maybe 15 metres from the man, and yet I didn't get the slightest impression he was speaking to me at all.  He wasn't even really speaking to anyone in that park.  This was a speech made to be cut up and digested in bite size morsels by the evening news.  

It was the speech of someone who was obliged to be there rather than someone who wanted to attend.  Strategically speaking his lack of effort has a point.  I mean, this isn't exactly a crowd of undecided voters, no-one here is hardly likely to decide to vote Conservative just because he doesn't tell them what they want to hear.  But it just seemed too transparent, as if he not only assumes he has our votes, but refuses to even humour us by acknowledging our existence. The momentum that I'd felt during the march itself seemed to dissipate like a mirage in the desert.  Standing up on that stage was the real face of political change, and it's the exact same thing as I detest, just with a slightly more attractive surface coating of red paint. 

Outside Downing Street
The union leaders that followed; Serwotka, Crow, Prentis, et al are better, especially the ones that have the confidence to start their speeches with a rallying cry of "Comrades"!  Bubbling under from the crowd are repeated shouts for the leaders to call for a general strike.  A few of them do, notably Bob Crow.  But somehow it feels hollow.  It's a wonderful fantasy: workers across the country downing tools, leaving their offices, refusing to cede control of the economy until the government stops brutalising them with dehumanising austerity.  But it is just a fantasy.  

The government has managed to legislate their way exactly where they want to be in relation to strikes.  Any 'legal' strike would be challenged this way and that through the courts until the 'correct' verdict was reached.  Any illegal strike would merely be another cudgel for the government to beat 'shirking' workers with and further their policy of divide and rule against the working class.  A ripple of alarm might spread through Westminster if they realised the workers could organise themselves in one nationwide strike, but the government has the tools, both legislatively, politically and physically, to contain it.

What is the effective response to austerity?  Around the world governments are bulk-buying tear gas to defend themselves against their angry citizens.  It seems that after a certain economic choke point there springs a violent street based resistance to austerity, as seen across Europe and particularly in Greece.  But what's as apparent is that governments will not shy from inflicting violence back upon those who might threaten the enactment of their crippling and failed economic philosophy.  

We're seeing our public services being diced up piecemeal and sold to shady, politically corrupt companies while millionaires become multi-millionaires on the proceeds.  In a way it's darkly funny that David Cameron accuses Ed Miliband of waging a class war.  As if we should be so lucky.  Weirdly enough it falls to one of the richest men in the world to point out what is blindingly obvious, as Warren Buffett says: "There's class warfare alright, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."  It's a depressing notion, and if you consider the current government as waging a social war against the poor, then it becomes increasingly apparent that we have no weapons with which to combat them.

As I was walking away from the protest I came across a miniature street occupation at the corner of Oxford Street and Bond Street.  Music was pumping out, and people with scarves wrapped around their faces were busy dancing and blocking traffic on one of the busiest thoroughfares in London.  Police vans dotted the streets, with officers looking on, presumably waiting for the order to go in, batons swinging.  It was a pointless bit of protest theatrics, the equivalent of an ant tickling an elephant's foot.  But pointless and juvenile as it was, it was still as effective as anything I'd seen the union leaders on stage at Hyde Park suggest.

Police on Oxford Street
Can we change things democratically?  The three major parties have almost no real political wiggle room between them, and all seek to implement the same unworkable ideas but in different ways.  There isn't a viable left-wing party to vote for, and no-one is remotely able to seriously challenge the dominance of Labour/Conservative/Liberal Democrat.  In this context the march feels like a salve on the bruised conscience of the Trade Union movement.  I would never deny that trade unions aren't a vital tool for workers, they're the best way in which the individual can confidently assert their rights to their employers.  I know that up and down the country they score a hundred tiny victories in disciplinary hearings and employment tribunals each and every day.  But as a wider force for political change?  Chance would be a fine thing.

Of all the positive, optimistic banners of strength through unity I saw there was one that stuck in my mind in it's frankness, accuracy and anger.  It scared me a little, but if anything is pointing the way to the future, it's this:

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