Bring back Russell Brand, all is forgiven.
The comedian turned author was actually present at Saturday’s “Britain Needs A Pay Rise” demonstration in central London, showing his solidarity by marching with a contingent from the Royal College of Nursing and posing for pictures with the crowd at the rally in Hyde Park.
But good old RustyRockets appeared in a strictly unofficial capacity – in sharp contrast to his star billing at the People’s Assembly “March For The Alternative” anti-austerity protest in June, where he was rashly installed as the ceremonial figurehead of the socialist movement. And by the end of the day’s proceedings it was clear that the ideal quantity of Russell Brand to spice up your mass demonstration lies somewhere between these two extremes.
The TUC march drew up to 90,000 people onto the streets of London in support of their calls for a higher and more rigorously enforced minimum wage, and in opposition to various coalition government policies. This was almost twice as many as the People’s Assembly march back in June. And yet somehow it felt rather flat and underwhelming by comparison.
The weather didn’t help – a blustery October day couldn’t rival the sunny summer atmosphere of the June rally. But it was more than that. The protesters themselves seemed like a less interesting, diverse crowd than the one which answered Russell Brand’s call for a peaceful, joyful revolution.
This was partly down to the narrower focus and composition of the TUC march. The People’s Assembly summer demonstration was a broad-based protest against coalition spending cuts and austerity in general, and so attracted a younger, more quirky group of people, including many who wouldn’t think of attending a trade union rally.
The TUC march, by contrast, was very much of the unions, by the unions and for the unions. Aside from the People’s Assembly contingent, many of the protesters that this blogger spoke with had not attended that organisation’s rally in June, and some were not even aware that it had taken place.
Of course, there was the usual smattering of “Scrap Trident To Save X” placards, and the endlessly inventive variations on “Tory Scum”. But there are only so many times you can riff about the Tories putting the N in “cuts” or make fun of Eric Pickle’s girth and consequent inability to tighten his belt before it all starts to get a bit same-ish.
The TUC held a press photo-op at the starting point of the march, where Frances O’Grady, their general secretary, posed in front of a double decker bus, accompanied by a lady on stilts and three people holding giant numbers reading 1, 7 and 5. Only after poring over the press release was it revealed that the odd display was supposed to highlight the fact that British chief executives now earn 175 times the average wage; presumably the tall, lean lady haughtily staring down at us was supposed to be one of these fat cats.
But if the organisers were simply going through the motions, who can blame them? Last month, Ed Miliband addressed the Labour Party conference in Manchester and unveiled his sweepingly ambitious plan to raise the minimum wage to £8 per hour – by the year 2020.
The people who turned out to march in London, Glasgow and Belfast aren’t stupid. They know that this “radical” policy announcement from the rootless, directionless Labour Party means another six long, bitter years of real-terms wage stagnation.
And all this from the supposedly progressive party, the one which was specifically founded to put their interests front and centre and whose leader never wastes an opportunity to claim the mantle of Defender of the Poor. With UKIP making inroads and the Tories remaining stubbornly close in the polls, what is the best case outcome of the 2015 general election for the minimum wage fast food worker, the domestic cleaner or the nursing home care assistant for whom £6.50 an hour means a grey life of working poverty, devoid of both joy and opportunity?
It must take incredible fortitude to know that today’s Labour Party – with it’s heartland and power base in Islington, not the industrial north – no longer cares about you, and yet still muster the enthusiasm to get on a coach from Durham to London, to march and breathe defiance.
And yet these people do have something in their favour: Ed Miliband still needs their vote. Sitting at home or flirting with UKIP in sufficient numbers will hole Ed Miliband’s core vote 35% strategy below the water line and ensure his defeat. More than anything else, Miliband urgently needs to find a way of doing what should automatically come naturally to any Labour leader – relating to the type of people who marched from Embankment to Hyde Park this weekend, people whose life experiences are so utterly different from his privileged existence but on whose behalf he still dares to speak.
Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite union, laboured this point at his speech to the crowd:
And it needs a Labour Party that offers a clear socialist alternative at the next election. So I say yes to Labour. Stop being scared of your own shadow. Don’t shrink what you offer to the British people. The time for timid is passed. Be brave. Be inspired by this march today. Believe that people power and working class movements can change our country for the better.
But the wishful thinking was palpable even as he uttered the words. The Labour Party is committed to its present course, and will either be vindicated or forced to rediscover itself depending on the outcome of the election. Which made Len McCluskey’s speech, and all of the others, rather redundant. The Labour party knows it – aside from Sadiq Khan, there was no senior party representation present. The march organisers knew it. And the protesters themselves certainly knew it – they were streaming out of Hyde Park in search of the nearest pub while the speakers were still warming up.
This is where someone with a bit of star power would have come in handy. Not Russell Brand again, with all his talk of Revolutiony-Wution. Though in his absence, the job fell to fellow comedian Andy Parsons, whose celebrity was insufficient to keep people in the middle of Hyde Park while they were told what they already knew by dozens of identikit trade union leaders.
Perhaps Owen Jones could have been drafted and saved for last, the billing he should have been given at the June protest. Or in an alternate universe, where Labour was not pursuing a core vote strategy while simultaneously keeping their most ardent activists firmly at arms length, even a shadow cabinet member might have worked. One of the few with gravitas. But as it was, the half-hearted union leaders spoke to their downhearted comrades, and then everyone went for a beer.
Recharging at a local coffee shop after the event reached its drizzly conclusion, Semi-Partisan Sam spoke with a couple of earnest-looking activists from UK Uncut and asked them about the rally, only to learn that they had finished the march but left before the rally started. “It’s just another rally; you’ve heard one speech you’ve heard them all” one of them remarked, indifferently.
Struggling for anything positive to say, I asked them if they had heard of the concept of universal basic income. Oh yes, they said, and proceeded to have an animated debate together about how best to stop firms from factoring in a person’s basic income when setting wages in the same way that Gordon Brown’s tax credits subsidise today’s low paid jobs.
There’s still enthusiasm and radicalism out there on the British left. There’s even openness to new ideas rather than the same old socialist dogma. But you won’t find it in the corridors of Westminster or anywhere in the TUC. Genuinely radical left-wing thought was long ago purged from those places.
And yet 90,000 people came to London this weekend, despite knowing that their party takes them for granted and that their union leaders aren’t able to do anything about it.
90,000 people came, waiting for their marching orders. Waiting for a leader.