Confessions of a demo cynic

Last week there was the big demo against austerity in London. Estimates of its size will vary, from the left groups who will claim ten million to the police who say five, one of whom was there by accident.

I may have mentioned before that I managed to duck out of it as I had the Birmingham Half Marathon the following day. Not that it would have made much of a difference if I had gone to London for a walk and a shout the day before as I bombed on my run. Poor Mambo.

But it was a good excuse. And to be honest I was looking for one as I didn’t want to go to London anyway.

I’ve fallen as badly out of love with demos as I have with Curb Your Enthusiasm. The more I go, the more disenchanting I find them. (I’ve also just read The Outsider by Albert Camus, which may go some way to explaining my cynical mood today.)

I suppose my disenchantment began at the huge anti-war demo in 2003. It was fucking huge. Seriously, if you weren’t there, I can’t begin to describe the scale of the whole thing. There was talk of the turnout being in seven figures and to be honest I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. It was a beast of a demo. The people were speaking and they were telling Tony Blair that they thought he and George Bush were warmongering wankers.

We still went to war though, you may have noticed. The biggest demo in British history, and it changed nothing. I had a nice vegetarian curry from some students and came away slightly dazed at quite how massive and historic the thing was, but the British and American governments went ahead anyway.

I remember sniggering to myself when some kids on the same coach as me were talking about the day being the beginning of a revolution on the way back. Christ knows why I was being so arch and derisive, as I was equally naïve at the time.

The thing is that demos can be fun and empowering, to a degree. They make you feel like part of something bigger. That there are other people out there who think the same way as you, talk the same language as you and want the same things as you. So in that sense they are nice.

And they can change things. It was way before my time, but it’s fair to say that the marches against the Poll Tax had an effect. But at times they were violent, and allied to a campaign across the country of people refusing to pay and people supporting people who were refusing to pay. That ultimately was what pushed the government into backtracking. The fact that the people stood against them meant business and had the numbers behind them to back it up. The government knew if they persisted with the Poll Tax the forces challenging them had the power to bring them down. So they capitulated. Unimaginable now, and it all seems like a very long time ago (although it’s a great example of the power ordinary people have if they would only realise it).

But the big national demos against austerity (which are probably bigger numbers-wise than the anti-Poll Tax marches were) haven’t been like that, largely because there is nothing to fight for, as such. There’s a general feeling that this government is doing a lot of awful things but in the absence of a political alternative (and right now Labour are a million miles away from being that) it’s difficult to know what the point of going to London is, apart from to let off some steam. With the Poll Tax, there was something specific to rail against. Austerity? It takes so many forms and means changes in so many areas of our lives that it is impossible to boil it down to one or two demands. Which is part of the reason that the Tories have got away with it. The opposition is divided, incoherent and fighting on so many different fronts, and going to London for the day isn’t going to solve any of those problems. Stopping this government will require something a little more radical.

Admittedly what I do, which basically involves going out leafleting for the local Labour Party every few weeks and blogging here, probably isn’t the answer either, but I still think the question needs to be asked.

NB: It won’t be answered with delusional statements like this, which I found in an article when I was looking for pictures for my little screed:

Coming just 2 weeks after the TUC march on the Tory conference in Birmingham it raises the prospect of 2 massive demonstrations.

The ConDems are driving through vicious policies. They are hated and despised. Massive demonstrations in October can help finish them off.

And yet the Tories are still here, oddly enough.

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