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Why David Aaronovitch is wrong about the anti-austerity demonstration

aaronovich and demosWhat 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 things 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 – all of which have had demonstrable impacts on politics.

How does giving cash to political parties on the “understanding” that certain policies will and won’t be pursued in office? 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.

This article firs appeared at All that is Solid

16 Comments

  1. John P Reid says:

    It’s more, he’s questioning the mind set, of 200,000 to think that there demo, is sensible idea to convince a end to austerity based on the idea, that despite 11.3m people voting Tory, 4m voting Ukip 9.3m voting labour plus millions ore voting Lindem,Irish national parties, that as several thousand people are against it,it’ll some how persuade a government voted in by 11.3m and several million more votes gained on the same policy, that the few thousand protesting are in the right,

  2. gerry says:

    It was lovely to see the anti- austerity marches showing their fellow citizens that we don’t all support the policy of making the poor and those on benefits pay for the problems caused by the bankers, the City, the hedge funds et al…

    Aaronovitch is right in one respect though: the Tory agenda has wide popular support – polls say the benefit cuts are very popular esp with working class voters! – and THAT is what and who we must try to change: those 15-16 million people who voted Tory and UkIP and who believe the scrounger stories endlessly pumped out by Benefits Street, Skint, Jeremy Kyle, Benefits Britain, all those deluded people who could have come straight out of Tory HQ central casting! But he is wrong to sneer at those who are at least saying “No, there is an alternative”…

  3. aronovitch hopes in the depth of his Thatcherite soul that the election ended the debate. Poor fool now realises it only started it.

    The Tories did not win the election though Labour lost it. WIth 36.9% of the vote they increased their poll by 0.8%. They won because the opposition was fragmented.

    Aaronovitch may have abandoned the Communist Party, but not the belief that those in power should not be questioned. This is more than just old fashioned tory deference. it is a belief in dictatorship, albeit elected dictatorship Stalinism and Thatcherism had a shared belief that as Stalin once told a member of Tito’s resistance, politics is about taking power and imposing your will.

    Know your enemy

    Trevor Fisher.

  4. Dave Walsh says:

    He’s right, too soon to rally. We lost the argument, get over it. And anti-austerity is too wide a platform to protest about, especially when, as you rightly say, cuts to benefits are supported by many on low pay and other traditional working class voters.

    Why don’t we have more focused rallies ‘for’ something instead? More Social Housing for example? Or even better, PR now… the outrage against the unfairness of the voting system seems to have subsided rather too quickly for my liking.

    My issue really is that after two election defeats and a third one looming once the Blairites complete their leadership coup, the traditional ‘march’ is still seen as the best weapon in the armoury. We need to do better.

  5. swatantra says:

    Funny that! I came to exactly the same conclusion as DA, before the Demo on Sat!
    The people had already voted FOR Austerity, and they’re welcome to it; they got the Govt they deserve. So the Demo was pointless!
    And I was particularly annoyed because the traffic chaos in the City meant I had to make alternative plans to get to the Hustings in Stevenage, on top of which the District and Circle Lines were not working.

    1. Matty says:

      It caused a traffic jam? OMG!!!

  6. I hope these comments will be preserved for posterity, as the ignorance shown about the results of the general election is priceless.

    The election result was not a vote for austerity, the poll data shows clearly that the majority of people do not want austerity. That they did not want Ed Miliband’s labour is a different issue. The protest on Saturday was the tip of an iceberg of anti austerity feeling. The fear shown in this exchange is correctly picking up a change in the weather.

    Polls show that only 1 per cent of the public want the HS2 train which the political class want a a cost of £50billion. Watch out for the protests in 2017 as that white elephant generates a backlash. And the argument “But you voted for this”. No, elected dictatorship does not prove support for any particular policy. Just that one group of politicians played the system well.

    Nice to see UKIPs 3.8 million votes put into the equation. Yes, they did well, but the UKIP stance on the HS2 project is total opposition

    A little less naivety about the results of elections please. Labour lost. The Tories did not win.

    Trevor Fisher.

    1. Sue says:

      true!

  7. gerry says:

    Trevor – what most Tory and UKIP voters agreed on in 2015 was: no tax rises, a referendum on Europe, benefit cuts, reduced immigration.

    That was really why 15-16 million people voted for those parties, 50% of those who voted.

    The parties that opposed austerity (Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Respect etc) got 10%, and we (Labour) were somewhere in the middle, and got 30%.

    So don’t deny reality Trevor – the majority of those who voted backed austerity-on-steroids, and now they have got exactly what they voted for…

  8. Matty says:

    Interesting that at the Nuneaton hustings, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05ztpck/newsnight-labour-leaders, there was a UKIP voter who voted for them because none of the other parties were strong enough on defending public services. For him it was a protest vote.

  9. Gerald Allen says:

    For me, the fact that the demo attracted 250,000 people so soon after the general election is something to celebrate. The heirs of Ramsay McDonald and Philip Snowden, J.H. Thomas etc will always sneer at it and play it down, and if the movement against austerity go’s from strength to strength as it surely seems to be doing then they will, along with the Tories and their yellow media vilify it and try to destroy it. Once the Labour leadership contest has finished then there has to be a campaign against this government inside and outside parliament. Bearing in mind that this government only has a majority of 12 then the Parliamentary Labour Party should harass and hound them at every opportunity, just like the Tories did with Attlee’s 1950 government which was weakened and exhausted after the momentous reforms of the 1945 Attlee government, after delivering the NHS and education reforms, the nationalisation of the bankrupt and clapped out coal steel and electricity industries and one of the fiercest winters on record in 1947.We will soon see how Cameron’s government manages with a relentless campaign against them, having to keep his MPs confined to the HoCs instead of looking after their lucrative directorships/jobs in the City and banking.
    When you look at the likes of Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen and their backgrounds, both their parents were lifelong members and very prominent members of the Communist Party of Gt. Britain, as they were themselves and they unlike their parents have taken the establishments 30 pieces of silver, it always brings to mind that quote from Nancy Astor, the 1st woman MP(Tory) to A.J. Cooke from across the floor of the HoCs “You train them, we will buy them.”

  10. dear Gerry

    I just wrote a piece on the collapse of the centre which is the only real story of the election. The Lib Dems collapsed, everything else is speculative. However there is no doubt the country moved to the right, and I have said to the chartist group for over five years there are ominous resemblances to the Weimar republic. Check the Chartist web site.

    However when asked specific questions about austerity in opinion polls, 60% were against it. its a common phenomenon in elections that people vote for parties they don’t agree with, often for the reason that security is what they value most. My own parents were working class tories in the Birmingham hockley slums. They worshipped Joe Chamberlain and his slum clearance programme of the 1880s (they were not alive when it happened) and when the slums were demolished in the 1970s under the Tory government of Ted Heath were convinced Joe had come back from the dead.

    Their university graduate son could not convince them they had lived in slums all their lives because Joe Chamberlain was not a Tory (he was a Liberal Unionist). I know all about the limits of political understanding of the ordinary person, and it does not mean they don’t vote for progressive politics if they need to. At the moment I am re-reading Bridget Jones. THat is my target figure

    Trevor Fisher.

    1. Gerald Allen says:

      Gerry; Not sure if we are at the Weimar Republic stage yet, though there are similar situations we haven’t yet got the terrible unemployment and poverty that post 1st World War Germany was reduced to mainly due to the crippling reparations that were forced on the Germans(thinking here mainly of Britain after our recent election, but the situation in Greece may be comparable and to a lesser degree Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.
      Regarding your comments on your parents and Heath; I maybe wrong, but it seems to me that other than those of us that were active at the time of Heath as Prime Minister(1970-1974) he was as big a bastard as Thatcher; if he didn’t introduce the legislation to sell council houses(I think it was individual councils such as the Greater London Council and other big cities that the Tories had won in a reaction to the unpopularity of the 1966-1970 Wilson government, then Heath introduced the legislation in parliament in, I think, 1971 to make it a nation wide basis) he also introduced the anti-union Industrial Relations Act. The difference between Heath and Thatcher was that the Labour Movement stood up to Heath and forced him to retreat i.e.: the National Union of Mineworkers with Arthur Scargill at Saltley, Birmingham in 1972 and then The NUM national strike in 1974, the UCS/Clyde shipyard workers in 1972 and other examples. Thatcher faced a demoralised labour movement after the rightwing policies of the Wilson government, i.e.: wage restraining incomes policies and the so called winter of discontent and rapidly growing unemployment in the aftermath of the oil crisis of the 70s which was not able to withstand the ferocious onslaught unleashed by the Thatcher government. So for me; it wasn’t that Thatcher was worse than Heath; just that she was more successful than Heath. The breakaway of the Gang Of Four(Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rogers) and the formation of the Social Democratic Party aided Thatcher tremendously and gave her her three election victories.
      My take on the Tories election victory is that Miliband and Labour were running a far better campaign than Cameron and the media ever expected, particularly how Ed exceeded everybody’s expectations, yes the Edstone was a bit of a blooper but that came towards the backend of the campaign, certainly after Cameron and the Tories were s******g themselves and the pathetic performance of Cameron rolling his sleeves up, in a complete blue funk and after they had started their panic stricken scare tactics in the last few days of the campaign, 24hr non-stop smear broadcasts on the SNP running a minority Labour government which imho swung the campaign for the Tories, despite Milibands outright rejection of any co-operation with the SNP.
      Obviously UKIP had an effect with their campaign and I was surprised that the took more votes from Labour than the Tories and for all the success that they claim, and 4 million votes gave them a successful campaign I honestly feared that they would take Rotherham, Grimsby, Scunthorpe and not realising how small Mary Creagh was, even Wakefield(after her Blairite submissions in her unsuccessful leadership campaign I think Wakefield would have swung to the left had UKIP defeated her). While the immigration problem/scares are still with us and Farage will be ready to mount a renewed campaign and even more ferociously now that they have come 2nd in many Labour seats I think that they are in danger of imploding after the Farage display of the cult of the personality in his one man band show aka UKIP.

      1. gerry says:

        Gerald – I think you meant to respond to Trevor Fisher’s comments, not mine.

        I agree however with most of your historical analysis, but note that in 1983 we (Labour) nearly got beaten in votes by the Alliance – they got 26% and we got 28% but were saved by first past the post…

        And yes I am also pleased to see UKIP tearing themselves apart, in the process revealing Farage to be the egomaniac bully beneath that cheeky chappie facade…and likewise good to see the Lib Dems and Greens turn on each other too, which I know is very tribalist of me, but after this election I am truly grateful for small mercies, including Galloway being booted out, and Tower Hamlets hopefully returning to sanity and probity!

        1. Gerald Allen says:

          Gerry; You are quite correct about my reply, my apologies to yourself and Trevor. Had forgotten about the closeness of the SDPs vote to the Labour vote in 1983 but I was vaguely aware that it was close, but not as close as that.
          Agreed that we have to be grateful for small mercy’s in the last election campaign and look for whatever positives we can find so as to build for the coming campaigns/battles against these vicious rightwing class warriors. Saturdays demonstration/march in London was a surprisingly early start to the fight back.
          Don’t apologise for being tribal, there’s nothing more tribal than the Tories when they are pursuing their class interests which are on a 24/7/52 basis.
          I have to admit to supporting Galloway in the Bradford West by-election physically and financially, but just couldn’t bring myself to working for him at the general election in case of him retaining his seat he might have prevented Labour from getting an overall majority which as it turned out, was never going to be the case, and in all honesty I had to be consistent in the case I had been arguing for on here and Labour List etc for the last 3 years, that it had to be the return of a Labour government, warts and all, that a vote for the Greens, SNP, TUSC, Left Unity, Uncle Tom Cobbley and All was a vote to let Cameron and Osborne in. While he would have supported a Labour government on most things and his support for the Palestinian cause has always been the criteria on which I have supported him, though never having joined Respect, I still think he was far more of a socialist than anything the Labour Party in Bradford had to offer.

  11. gerry says:

    Trevor – great reply!

    Yes I know you are right that often voters back parties who have policies they don’t support, you call it “security”… and the fact your parents were working class Tories also made me smile: my working class living-in-Peckham inner London mum was one of those Labour voters who nevertheless started voting Tory in 1979 as she began to move up the social scale ( in her eyes!), and did so ever after…much to my dismay.

    I will check the Chartist website as you say: if the Chartists had known that universal suffrage in the UK would lead to never ending Tory or Tory-led government, with huge % of working class people voting Tory, they would spin in their graves!

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