Big demo against the cuts in London today! Takes me back, that does. Maggie, maggie, maggie, OUT OUT OUT!
Simon Jenkins says British demonstrations scarcely ever achieve their aims. I think they often do. Not always quickly, not always directly, and the aims achieved are not always good, but the clue to the effectiveness of demonstrations is in the name. The demonstration demonstrates that there are enough people who care enough about some issue to fill up in Trafalgar Square. They vote, thinks the politician. Not that he panics; he knows that there are other voters shouting or yawning at their televisions as they show pictures of the Trafalgar Square lot, but the highly visible existence of this big shouty bundle of single-issue votiness seeps into his mind and affects his decisions, irrespective of whether he likes them or loathes them.
On the other hand, sometimes the demonstration demonstrates that there are not enough people who care about your issue to fill up Trafalgar Square. (There will be today; I speak in general terms.) If the mainstream media like your cause they will do their very best to help by means of what I think of as the squat shot. That’s when the cameraman squats on the ground and points the camera upwards so that the shot shows only bodies and not the tell-tale large areas of empty pavement between and around the marching feet. (Added later: however eventually, the use of this low-angle crowd-shot becomes a signal to alert observers that attendance was low, and the subject of ridicule. The BBC have wised up and reined back on its use in the last few years.)
And sometimes – in fact ofttimes – the demonstration demonstrates that quite a lot of your supporters are not very nice. The blogger Zombietime went to many anti-war demonstrations in the US while G W Bush was president and quietly snapped away. One of the results was this record of the signs calling for Bush to be assassinated. Here in Britain the student demonstrators against tuition fees did not endear themselves to the public by the fact that one or two of their number were photographed hurling fire extinguishers from the top of buildings or hanging from the flag commemorating the war dead at the Cenotaph. I sympathise with the demonstration organisers in these cases: they did not condone these actions – but like the scorpion in the fable who could not help but sting even at the cost of his own life, demonstrations cannot help but demonstrate something. You asked the public to watch and judge your cause by the people you assembled, and they will.
As will your own people. The demonstrations I went to in the 70s and 80s have merged in memory. Was it at the CND one, or the anti-NF one, or one against changes to the immigration laws where I saw the collection bucket being passed round for the IRA? The bucket filled up slowly, I’ll say that much for my fellow demonstrators, but it was not empty. At all of them I picked up piles of mimeographed leaflets that I now wish I had kept. They were revealing. They were insane. I realised that Searchlight, for instance, who I had thought of as just an anti-fascist group were very left wing indeed. Most of all I remember the posters. Three quarters of the posters, and almost all of the printed ones, were produced by the Socialist Workers Party. Busy little bees, they were. They still are: it is an astonishing fact that this tiny and fissiparous Trotskyist sect has twice dominated massive popular protest movements in my lifetime; the Anti-Nazi League / Rock against Racism movement of the 80s and the Stop The War Coalition of 2001-2008. Sorry, 2001-present, only they stop wars much more quietly now that Mr Obama is president. They were also big in CND.
Most demonstrators back then avoided carrying SWP posters. But it was difficult to refuse if someone asked nicely, so ordinary non-SWP people did end up walking for miles with an embarrassing commie placard thinking, how the hell did I end up doing this and I’m not doing it again. I suspect this will happen today as it did in the 80s.
The problem with demonstrators being turned off by weird extremist literature and weird extremist fellow attendees is not confined to causes that I dislike – even if part of the reason I now dislike them is that I was turned off by the weird literature and people. I sympathised with, although I did not attend, the big demonstration in 2002 against the hunting ban. My husband picked up a BNP leaflet for me while he was there because he had heard earlier verbal versions of the reminiscences about extremists at demonstrations that form much of this post. It depressed me that the originators of the leaflet were probably right in seeing that demonstration as a good opportunity to shift their stuff. One good thing, the leaflet had a picture of a squirrel on it. The good here is not the squirrel per se, fond as I am of the tree-rats, but at least they felt the need to hide behind cuddly things.
Oh yeah, another thing to avoid is having the same demo at regular intervals. Lie all you like about numbers, the media will help you if you are left wing, but when like for like comparisons can be made, decline will out. A left wing writer said in 2003:
The SWP’s main priority is recruitment. Why else did it continually call demonstrations week after week during the Iraq conflict? This was a big tactical error for the anti-war movement. When the bombing started, many people felt dispirited and tired, but were organising and carrying out further actions and protests. More importantly, the SWP had not realised that many people on the enormous demonstration in February were there because they felt they had been denied a democratic voice. These demonstrations were bound to result in diminishing numbers – and many were bound to judge that as the collapse of the anti-war movement.
Innovative forms of demonstration like Earth Hour (today, apparently) replace the crowd in Trafalgar square with the crowd at home doing something that shows up somehow. This avoids the “embarrassing supporter” problem and the “clashes with the other big demo” problem. However having a metric for your demonstration that is easier to count than crowd size, and having it as a regular event, makes this type of demonstration particularly vulnerable to the cold wind of comparison to last year. The better they do one year, and the more their success is hyped up, the tougher the target for next year.