This article was first published on The London Economic on 27 June 2014
Last weekend’s anti-austerity march in central London organised by The People’s Assembly Against Austerity highlighted the anger of thousands and a lack of leadership on Britain’s disparate left wing.
If you were one of the estimated 50,000 people who marched peacefully through London or simply attended the demonstration at Parliament Square last weekend you may be somewhat surprised to see the ensuing lack of coverage of the anti-austerity event organised by the relatively new pressure group ‘The People’s Assembly Against Austerity’ in the media.
The march brought parts of central London to a standstill and there was a collection of well-chosen, passionate and eloquent speakers including journalist Owen Jones, MPs Caroline Lucas, Diane Abbot and Jeremy Corbyn, Unite Leader Len McCluskey, and comedians Francesca Martinez and Russell Brand. It certainly wasn’t the case that the event lacked stature.
Why, then, do peaceful demonstrations attracting thousands of people command so little attention in Britain? One answer to the question, I suspect, lies in that word ‘peaceful’. If mega-media outlets do not predict a riot, the chances of receiving anything other than passing coverage for a large-scale demonstration are slim. If there isn’t an opportunity to showcase possible cases of police heavy-handedness or a youth lobbing fire extinguishers out of the window of a tall building then it just isn’t a good sell. But that answer on its own won’t do. The main reason that yesterday’s anti-austerity demonstration didn’t make the six o’clock news headlines or the front pages of today’s newspapers was simple: it won’t achieve anything, There, I said it. Its collective sense of fury at Britain’s continuing social justice failures had a distinct air of impotence.
As much as the long line of intelligent, powerful and angry speakers were inspiring and chimed well with the current themes of social injustice – protecting the NHS, low pay and poor conditions in the private sector, and lack of affordable and social housing were all recurrent topics throughout the afternoon – the disparate, fractured and disorganised state of Britain’s left wing was painfully obvious. Three different people handed me three different fliers proclaiming that they were the party (in their varying states of newness) that offered me an alternative to the Established Three. Incidentally, none of them were the Green Party (who were present at the event, but not, as far as I could see, canvassing much beyond seating a man under a gazebo with a handful of wee flags).
Britain’s (dis)organised left wing constitutes an extraordinary number of different groups, factions and denominations with little differences here and tiny differences there: be it their interpretation of Marxism, the importance they place on ecology or their ultimate end goal. Apart from two of their most lefty MPs, the Labour party was absent and denigrated in equal measure at the demonstration (by the crowd, if not by the speakers on the platform).
That the demonstration was a celebration of pluralism is not something to bemoan, however, I am struck by the sense that – despite the excellent work of The People’s Assembly over the past year or so to bring people together under the anti-austerity umbrella – there is still little agreement on the left in Britain about what is to be done and how. The people who attended yesterday’s demonstration know that they are against the privatisation of the NHS, for a living wage and deeply uncomfortable with their government bailing out bankers whilst shitting on poor people. For many in the crowd yesterday, it was very easy to associate with the messages, but much harder to establish who was going to capture the politics and run for home.
I lost count of the number of references I heard to ‘that lot over there’ (gesturing towards the Houses of Parliament), exposing a deeply disturbing disconnect between people and their government. There is a great quote from US political drama The West Wing where strategist Josh Lyman, frustrated with the lack of a coherent message from his Presidential candidate, says: ‘we seem to be for us winning, and against somebody else winning’, and that brings us back to Labour. While the stalwart of the centre-left stands on a hill so far away from the borders of its natural constituency, the left in Britain is truly rudderless.