THERE were stories on the March for the Alternative of people taking to the streets for the first time in their life. They didn’t turn out for CND or the Poll Tax or the war in Iraq, but the scale of public spending cuts was something else. But here they were among the 250,000 (a figure which wavered generously as high as 500,000 among the guestimations on Saturday).
Yet, the mass of the march was made up of what organisers would hate to be called the usual suspects. People who marched against nuclear weapons and the decimation of Iraq, marching with their sons and daughters. Middle class lefties clasping Costa coffee lattes and union powered out-of-towners chanted their way down the embankment.
It was intriguing: There were clearly lots of Labour Party members who squirmed during the Blair years as one compromise after another was conceded and who are now seemingly happy to be back on the righteous side of the marchers. Red flag after red flag showed the different branches of the party on parade: presumably this means a Robin Hood tax will be in the party’s next manifesto. We’ll see. Many members, particularly from London branches, clearly felt better marching alongside the unions, like the good old days, than defending the part privatisation of schools and hospitals, and war.
Peculiarly however, all of this bonhomie spelt out the missed opportunity for these marchers last year. Friends together by the Thames now, it wasn’t that long ago that people who generally think the same thing about the way governments should interact with banks and big business were at each other’s throats, blaming each other. Still, anybody with even mild sympathy for Morning Star leaders is routinely called a ‘Trot’ by people in the Labour Party, even though they probably actually share much common ground. Especially now.
The success of march reinforced how the economic crisis and the general election result had left an appetite in London at least for left and left leaning voters to form their own coalition. Dithering and back biting, a bit of finger pointing, spiked that prospect and the horse has bolted, the landscape has shifted, the cuts they now march against together are mapped out for this year and next. The opposition is confused as it tries to grasp some unity.
As inspiring as Saturday’s march will have been for many people, not least the fire-bellied protests I saw organised by students from secondary schools and universities, the hour is growing late. These plans have been in train since day one of the coalition government, half of the months since were spent choosing a leader by the Labour Party. Debate time now is at a premium.
Missing too from the march on Saturday were almost whole communities, in large numbers at least, who will surely be affected by cuts to public services. That’s not to say there were no non-white protesters in the crowds: you could find me hundreds who were there in a second. But there are neighbourhoods who either don’t know what’s about to hit public services or aren’t engaged enough to care. The Bangladeshi community in the south of Camden were there, but not in huge, huge numbers – and yet the Surma Centre in Regent’s Park will be one of the big losers in the cutbacks. Same with the Somali populations of Camden Town and Tottenham. No big numbers. No big numbers either from the Turkish communities around Green Lanes and or the Eastern European clusters around Wood Green. They were only there in small numbers. You could go on, unless somebody can prove that they know about the cuts and agree to them.
You can argue out the old adage: If you don’t protest now, don’t moan later… but for many, what is happening now hasn’t been properly communicated, so they haven’t had the chance to approve or disapprove. There were, in contrast, plenty of white faces on the march from Dartmouth Park and Muswell Hill.