In 2007, satirical news site The Onion reported on the 30th annual Modesto County Ninja Parade, where the townspeople turn out faithfully every year in the futile hope of spotting the stealthy, invisible ninjas as they furtively slip through town.
A similar event took place in London today: the “No More Austerity: Demand The Alternative” protests organised by The People’s Assembly, in which as many as fifty thousand noisy protesters in central London managed to make themselves almost completely invisible. Invisible, at least, to the news media, the general public and the politicians whom they had presumably hoped to persuade.
Even if the resulting headlines were along the lines of “Wealthy Shoppers And Tourists Inconvenienced On Regent Street”, the presence of such a large number of people in central London should have won some attention from the national media, but at this time only the Guardian and Huffington Post UK have carried anything about the event.
This is not a good return on investment on the part of The People’s Assembly, coming in the same week as the ideologically opposite Centre for Policy Studies’ Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, which generated multiple news stories and a strong wake on social media. Something, somewhere is going wrong for the opponents of austerity, and the most convincing explanation involves a fault in both the message and the messenger(s).
First, the message.
Keynote speaker and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas kindly agreed to be interviewed shortly before she took to the main stage to address the crowd in Parliament Square at the end of the demonstration route. As always, she spoke with great empathy about the plight of people living on or beneath the poverty line, but her policy prescriptions seemed inadequate to the change that she wanted to effect:
Calling for higher taxes, a crackdown on avoidance and the scrapping of Britain’s nuclear deterrent – even if you ignore the many side effects resulting from such actions – would only serve to perpetuate an unreformed system of subsidising people who ultimately need (for their sake and the nation’s) to be lifted into self-sufficiency.
When posed with this same question, and the fact that the demonstrators face an up-hill battle in the face of near political consensus from the two main parties (in substance if not in rhetoric), event headliner and spokesperson Russell Brand was only able to repeat his sunny prediction of a joyful, non-violent revolution that would somehow make everything okay:
And this is perhaps the main reason that the anti-austerity protests went almost unnoticed today – the messengers were simply too conflicting, and unable to consistently articulate their cause in a way that could win agreement from sympathisers and respect from opponents.
Owen Jones led the way with his excellent, impassioned speech to the assembled crowds. It was fiercely partisan and occasionally played fast-and-loose with the truth about the origins of Britain’s economic problems, but it was also a persuasive and well delivered speech by a very thoughtful, intelligent, charismatic person.
Shockingly, though, event stewards were tugging at Owen Jones’ sleeves to get him to stop talking and make way for the next speaker almost as soon as he had taken the stage, forcing Jones to bring his remarks to an early conclusion:
By contrast, comedian Russell Brand, given the honour of closing the entire event (save a couple of musical acts to play everyone out), was permitted to speak at length and say whatever he wanted. Consequently, Brand delivered a meandering (if charmingly self-deprecating) address that made little sense when placed under close scrutiny:
“I’ve given you even my vanity”, said Brand after baring his chest as he donned a Fire Brigades Union anti-austerity T-shirt handed to him on stage. But it wasn’t his vanity that The People’s Assembly needed. What they needed was a telegenic intellectual heavyweight with strong ties to the types of people that the demonstrators claimed to represent – the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable and the sick.
The crowd needed someone to tie together the threads of everything that had taken place during the march and rally, drawing together all of the disparate arguments in order to successfully argue that more government spending would actually be a good thing right now (a tough sell when faced with public sentiment and the attitudes of the main political parties).
The speakers at the “No More Austerity” demonstration were well-intentioned (though misguided, in the view of this blog), but a social or political movement that chooses Russell Brand rather than Owen Jones as its figurehead has little ground to complain when their message is met with confusion or indifference on the part of the media and the public.
When celebrities take it upon themselves to become figureheads for a political cause, they have a duty to get to know their topic inside out. To be a good, credible ambassador they must read up not just on the main issues but all of the tangential and second-order considerations so that they are able to engage with politicians and experts as peers and equals.
When Angelina Jolie attended and opened the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London last week, there was no doubt among anyone present that she knew exactly what she was talking about and was more than qualified to speak on the issue. And so when Jolie stood side by side with William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, it did not seem the least bit odd or inappropriate (though Hague certainly benefited disproportionately from the Hollywood magic).
Russell Brand, on the other hand, seemed unable to articulate the “alternative” that he and the fifty thousand other demonstrators are demanding. What’s more, he also ignored or trivialised the various political and organisational hurdles that stand in the way of implementing their favoured policies, falling back instead on the denialist notion that a “peaceful, effortless, joyful revolution” will come along and somehow make everything okay. This would be bad coming from a spokesperson, but from one of the supposed leaders of the movement it is completely untenable.
The fact that the alternative was alternately so weakly and idealistically expressed in different ways throughout the day also increases the level of doubt among the public and sceptics (such as this blog) who perhaps believe that the state did expand too far and do too much before the financial crisis, and that some kind of a correction is needed.
By deploying a self-destructive combination of mixed messages and poorly chosen messengers, the people who answered the call to protest today – various trades union, local organisations and interest groups – managed to sabotage their own efforts, becoming virtual ninjas in their own secret parade.
But the sad truth is that many more than 50,000 people in Britain creep meekly through their entire lives, without their struggles, priorities or concerns ever being noticed by the government or others in more fortunate circumstances.
The anti-austerity demonstrators envision a world where a larger, more redistributive and active state perpetually watches over and cares for these people, ensuring their welfare. Others, including this blog, take a different view – that people should be liberated and empowered to the maximum extent possible to flourish on their own, rather than being condemned to an entire lifetime as a “client”, “service user” or “benefit recipient”.
This is an important national debate for Britain to have, one that our elected politicians are poorly placed to lead, occupying the narrow ideological centre ground as they nearly all do. So it is left to the likes of The People’s Assembly and the IPPR on the left, and think tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies and insurgent parties like UKIP on the right, to have the proxy debate that would otherwise not take place.
Those on the right might be tempted to rejoice that the “No More Austerity: Demand The Alternative” march received so little attention, and that both message and messenger seem confused and contradictory. But in the long run, it’s not a good thing. The political right cannot test and sharpen their own arguments and ideas when their left-wing sparring partner is struggling even to express itself clearly.
The disorganisation and lack of media awareness shown by The People’s Assembly could well help to ensure that David Cameron’s Conservative Party sneak back across the finish line in the 2015 general election and form another government. But without being held properly to account by the left, the Conservatives will continue to overlook or ignore the needs of some of the weakest and poorest people in Britain (often people who were led down the path of government dependency and then left high and dry by an arrogant Labour government), and fail to help them as best they can with Conservative policies.
Even if the resultant human suffering is not a cause for their concern, the fact that such unaddressed dissatisfaction will eventually bubble up and lead to the Conservatives being punished at the ballot box should make the alarm bells sound.
It was hard, if not impossible, to dislike the people who so stealthily marched through central London today. Setting aside the rightness or wrongness of their policy ideas, it was clear that they genuinely, passionately want the best for the poor, the weak, the dispossessed and for each other.
Laughing, joking or talking earnestly amongst themselves, the only vitriol you were likely to hear from the “No More Austerity” demonstrators was reserved for the usual bogeymen of the left – the bankers, the city fat cats, the multinational corporations and sometimes the inevitable “Tory scum”.
But perhaps the invisible 50,000 should reserve some of their anger for the comrades who organise them, and who craft and articulate their common message. This demonstration, though not huge, should have generated more media coverage, more comment, and more positive action than it did. At present, some of their leaders are badly letting the side down.
And the 50,000 austerity protesters – not to mention the suffering people for whom they claim to speak – cannot afford to have another invisible demonstration.
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