28 March 2011

The press coverage of the 26th March march is depressingly predictable.

The time that I worked out that the March for the Alternative might be quite big was when I went into the Hobbycraft shop to buy a bit of display board for a placard.
Stafford Hobbycraft is not exactly what you would regard as a hot bed of radical action. People go there for beads and feathers and paint. I mentioned to the lady at the till that I was planning a poster for the protest march, and she surprised me by saying there had been lots of people coming in for ribbons for the protest.
As our small coach hit the motorway it was pretty clear that we were playing tag with dozens of coaches all heading in the same direction, union groups, from Wolverhampton, Pensioners groups, librarians, Sure Start.
The queue for the loos when we stopped at the service station were impossibly full of middle aged women like myself. No point queuing not enough time to avoid holding up the coach. 
Virtually all the people I spoke to on the coach had in common that they had not been on a protest march since the 1980s. One mature lady who worked for a PCT and was waiting to see if she would be transferred to one of the new GP consortiums told me that her 6 year old granddaughter had shamed her into coming onto the march.
Wembley coach park was already packed by the time we got there and in central London the march was well underway, so we assembled our banners and crammed into the tube, with an assortment of strangers all bound in the same direction.  
In central london we joined the end of the march – which steadily became longer and longer. We could see no beginning and no end. We were hoping that we would make it to Hyde Park, but soon it became clear that this was unlikely. There were so many people, and the movement was less of a march and more of a slow shuffle. It was all good natured and patient, and we got into conversation. People helped each other to get snacks out of back packs and take turns on carrying posters. We admired the posters carried by the other people around us. I could see The RCN banners carried by our group, Unison, firefighters, Librarians, University groups, lecturers and students. The union of journalists, various branches of the Labour party. There were lots of people carrying posters in support of the NHS. There were surprising groups like the Writers' Guild.
A favourite poster was “Drama therapists against the cuts”. We all agreed this is the kind of people doing valuable but little understood work, that would be very likely to suffer now. 
A young girl carried a poster saying “its my birthday, so if you are going to kettle me it better involve cake”.
A small group from Wales sang a-capella. 
A group carried a coffin with the words RIP Adult Social Care.
There were stilt walkers wearing tutus in Unison colours.
The GMB cycled by in amazingly creative cycle floats.
An elderly communist sat with his feet up on one of the benches, handing out leaflets to anyone who wanted to take them.
A young man handed out flyers for a seminar on community organising in Venezuala. 
There was a bit of chanting – but nothing compared to the march I had attended in October around the Conservative party conference. The October protest had involved many people who were politically active,  that understood what was happening, and knew there was a need to challenge it. The people marching on March 26th were not protest veterans. They were quiet people who have gradually seen what the government are doing, and know they are not happy.
Occasionally groups from the Socialist Workers party worked their way through the crowd, and tried to stimulate more noise.
I noticed one small incident involved the photographers. There were photo lenses everywhere. There were little clusters of photographers on every vantage point each looking for a potentially valuable definitive photo of the event. One cluster was clearly getting frustrated that we were not more strident. They chanted for us “You say Cut back, We say fight back”. It was as if they were trying to “teach us” to protest in a way that they might use.
As we passed under each of the bridges we were under close observation from yet more photographers, and by watchful policemen. The photographers were again keen to make things more lively. I could see that there are set roles that the press want protestors to fulfil.
We kept walking – so very slowly – by the time we got to the Houses of parliament it was clear that we would not make it Hyde park. By the time we got to Trafalgar square we needed to peel off and make it back to the coach.  We began to get news of problems in Oxford street as relatives left text messages. But this may as well have been in a different country – it was nothing to do with our experience of the day. Here is another account by Mary Hamilton
Even where trouble occurred it probably hardly justifies the Sunday headlines. Here is an account from the Uncut protests. Another by Dominic Campbell from Fortnum and Masons, and one from Trafalgar square. Here is an account of the hard core protestors have become known as the Black bloc.
On Sunday we hear that Vince Cable is telling us that there won’t be any change of policy in response to a protest. I actually do not believe this. Comforting though it might be for the government to believe that this was “the usual suspects” stirring up trouble, and rejecting the eminently reasonable plans of the coalition, it is pretty clear from the many accounts that are coming out about the day that this was a protest by Middle England. It is reasonable people coming together calmly in an organised fashion to express their concern. If the government wishes to ignore it then that is their choice. There will be a price to pay.
The press also need to consider their role here. The right wing press at present wish to present this overwhelmingly peaceful mass protest as something else. If ordinary people protesting peacefully cannot have their voice heard then this will lead to trouble. People will either be forced to become more radical than they wish to be, or they will take the view that there is no point in engaging with politics at all. That no one will listen.  There is a growing feeling that the press need to be more careful in the way that they report. also here.
I think there is a challenge to the Labour party too. As a Labour party member, an activist still bruised by the experience of the general election, it is easy to feel frustrated that people did not understand at the time when we could have made a difference. Now we have to take on a different role, and assist people to express their wishes effectively. Ed Miliband's speech at Hyde Park indicates the scale of this challenge.
What happened on the 26th March is that 250,000 to 500,000 people took a day to come to London, and say listen to us. We have a right to be heard. They represent many more who would have liked to come. What this government has not yet grasped is that government must be by consent. They may judge that what they are doing is for the good of the people, but if they cannot carry people with them it is doomed to failure.
The government has chosen to use the media over the course of many months to denigrate the work of millions of public servants. It has chosen to say that the work done by many involves “non jobs”. The people who filled the streets of London beg to differ with this opinion. They know that the services they give and the services they rely on matter.
The government has believed that it can afford to confront the large swath of middle Britain that was represented in this march, and that creating division between private and public sector is beneficial to their cause. This is misguided. The problems that we are facing can only be dealt with by communicating better, and by coming together through a clear understanding of the facts.  We cannot do this without accurate information. We have to be able to trust the press to help us do this.