Saturday 26 March 2011

That march: two views

A couple of perspectives on today's big anti-cuts demo, which deserve to be quoted at length.

First, Philip Collins, former Blair speechwriter, writing in The Times yesterday (paywall):

The March for the Alternative, which the TUC has organised for Hyde Park tomorrow morning, could be a serious intervention in the debate. But, in point of fact, it isn’t serious at all.
What you see in the Labour response to the cuts are the British Left’s two signature characteristics: moral indignation and political failure.
It’s evident in every aspect of the TUC campaign. No further evidence is needed than the irony of the title. The one thing the marchers have not got is any alternative. What they have instead is synthetic anger and stock-in-trade exaggeration.
Trade unions are still the largest voluntary organisations in the country. They could be demanding responsibility under the banner of the Big Society.
Instead, they will be standing in Hyde Park tomorrow morning under the banner of “No Cuts. No Fees. No Sackings. Make the Bankers Pay”. The sheer enjoyed futility of this prompts the unsettling thought that the organisers don’t, deep down, expect the march to matter. They know that George Osborne is not listening. They know, too, that they don’t have the public support to turn this into the General Strike or the Jarrow March.
So what is the point? Why organise a march rather than, say, devise a list of reasonable grievances and negotiate? It’s because marching is an act of self-expression for a movement that prizes purity over politics.
It’s the emotional signature of the oppositionalist for whom slogans stand for deeds. He is someone whose moral righteousness only increases the more it falls on deaf ears. The infuriatingly unrealistic nature of his demands should alert you to the fact that, if by some miracle he should succeed, he would lose the cause that animates his moral superiority. What he wants is forever to fall short, so that he can continue, in the torrent of military metaphors that you find on every anti-cuts website, “the fight” or “the struggle”.
This is a cast of mind that finds heroism, rather than failure, in failure. It is astonishing, when you think about it, that Ed Miliband won the leadership by breaking with the party’s serial winner, Tony Blair, rather than with Gordon Brown, yet one more in the line of titanic losers. But the Labour Party is better understood through its failures than its successes. 
Ten months after a huge defeat, something strange is happening to the Labour Party. It hasn’t descended into recrimination, as it did in the split between the Gaitskellites and the Bevanites after 1951. It hasn’t veered wildly to the left as it did after 1979. It has started enjoying itself. It has become quiescent and comfortable in the role that, in truth, it rather likes: the natural party of opposition.

It’s not true, just because they are now the paymasters, that the Labour leader thinks the same as the trade union leaders. But there is a continuum in the comfort zone; Mr Miliband is at one end and the TUC is at the other. If they don’t throw this mood off, it will be fatal.
You’ll see it in the relish in Hyde Park tomorrow. It will be clear from every speech that the Labour movement hates the cuts. Almost as much as it loves them.

And here's Rob Marchant at Labour Uncut, on Ed Miliband's difficult tightrope-walking act today:

On Saturday, Ed Miliband will be speaking, but not marching, at one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations for many years.  Activist Luke Akehurst writes passionately and eloquently about the need for all of us involved in the Labour movement to march, and, on the face of it, it is an obvious way to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Tories. But there is a big difference between it being right for individual members to be involved, and it being right for the leader of the Labour party to speak there.
Ed is in an uncomfortable position – “walking a tightrope”, as the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan  puts it. He’s not wrong: look, and you can find at least five compelling reasons for his not being involved in the demo.
One: Labour didn’t organise the demo, the TUC did. Who knows what other people will say? Who can say what they will do? Things do not bode well regarding the other speakers. “Keep your sleazy hands off our kids”, Unite’s Len McCluskey told the progressive London conference, in a message directed at the metropolitan police (not very good political judgement, it would seem, considering the met themselves now stand to lose heavily from the cuts and could have been a useful ally against them). And if, like the earlier student demo, there are police clashes, heaven help us.
Two: the talking-to-the-wrong-constituency argument. We are playing to the principal constituency of those who work in public services or are in the trade union movement, and who are therefore somewhat more likely to be already against public sector cuts. But we are not necessarily pulling in those who are not in those demographics – many of whom agree that cuts are necessary – and who think that debt-reduction is an urgent priority. What exactly are we gaining by excluding these people? Oh, and what happens when the righteous demos give way to unpopular strikes which directly affect them?
Three: the visuals. Unbearably superficial though it might sound, in the age of image and 24-hour rolling news, it’s not an option to forget what things look like. Protesting and being prime-minister-in-waiting are not necessarily incompatible but they are, at best, tricky bedfellows. Also, modern politics has different presentational norms from 1970s politics; what may have seemed noble “power to the people” fighting then may now merely look merely “long-haired protest group”.  Stop the War rather than Jarrow.  We can differentiate, but don’t assume that others will.
And do we really think it’ll make a difference, the not marching? Just because Ed will not be marching (or wearing a donkey jacket à la Michael Foot, thank God), and even if the demonstrators show exemplary behaviour, this does not mean he will be portrayed on the evening news as the aspiring prime minister we need him to be. Cut to Ed. Now cut to McCluskey. Cut to Tony Benn. Cut to Bob Crow. Don’t forget there will be the Trafalgar Square follow-on demo with Galloway and assorted fellow-travellers, probably in the same clip. And the overall, 30-second impression to the public is…?
Four: the message will be dangerously distorted. Akehurst and former general secretary,  Peter Watt, have correctly identified that Labour’s subtler message “we think cuts are ok but not this far, this fast” will be easily subsumed into a general “no cuts” message. Against all cuts, period: a message which hardly helps our economic credibility, when the Tories and the right-wing press are daily peddling the too-easily-digested story that “Labour maxed out the credit card”. In reality, we are trying to ride two horses at once – cuts and no cuts – and, at some point, we’ll fall off.
Five: the in-the-pocket-of-the-unions argument. The importance of union support in Miliband’s election and the movement’s current domination of party financing are well-known. As Hasan notes in the same article, Unite has made no secret of its desire to put pressure on Labour to be supportive. Even if this pressure is no more than usual (and hardly an astonishing fact), we are giving a free kick to the media, because the reality is irrelevant. The mere perception that the brothers strong-armed him into attendance will be enough.
One or two of these reasons would allow room for debate about the pros and cons, but five? Set against all this, if we chose the opposite road, there would be one big disadvantage: the opprobrium of some parts of the movement for the leader not having been with them. People would feel that Ed had let them down, it’s true (they may feel that anyway, because he is slightly semi-detached from it all. So the damage may already have been done). But how long would this last? And in playing to our own constituency, rather than that which we need to win, are we making the wise choice?
It’ll probably make us feel good, to march together and swell with righteous indignation at the Tories. We need a bit of that, and welcome. It’s important to show a level of solidarity with our core supporters. And it’s also self-evident that it’s much too late for Ed to pull out now. But, against that, you can’t help feeling that our political management of the demo will turn out to have been a significant error of judgement in three critical battles. The battle for economic credibility; the battle for political credibility; and, in the end, what remains of the battle against the cuts themselves. A lose, lose, lose.


BlairSupporter said...

Ed M, if he had ANY political nous at all, only had to ask himself ONE question:

What would Tony have done?

Blair would never have gone along on the march even if he had supported it 100%.

Leaders lead. They don't follow.

In the end it has turned out even worse for Ed M than it might have done. His speech at Hyde Park was abominable. In EVERY way. If he'd kept his mouth shut he might have just got away with this misjudgement.

History shows that the Labour party will not in the long run get away with the misjudgements they've been making over recent years.

Martin said...

Can't see Ed ever asking himself that question, sadly. Indeed, his whole strategy seems to be, What would Tony NOT have done? Beyond being 'not Blair' and 'no longer New Labour', I'm really not sure what Ed stands for yet...

Rob Marchant said...

Indeed. I would really like us to see us defining what we are for, rather than what we are not for.

BlairSupporter said...

Martin - because Ed would never have asked what Tony would have done, we know exactly what's wrong with New Old Labour.

They are led by a loser. As they usually are.

Sorry, but it's just a historical fact. Click my link.

100+ years and only 4 winning leaders + 2 who took over. Callaghan honourably, Brown dishonourably.