Limited, moderate, ineffectual — we must do better than London's little uprising on Saturday 20 October.
Television’s account of the TUC March and Rally is distinctly different from the actuality. You do of course get a flavour of the occasion as the March trundles through central London, the bustle and bright colours, bands playing, horns braying, drums beating, placards jostling — some witty, like one woman’s photo of Cameron behind the words, “The Real Eton Mess”, people chanting not so wittily.
But you get no sense of the unspoken shared purpose, epitomised for me by marchers around me as we passed the imposing Royal Air Force Club building on Piccadilly. Almost as one, they turned their placards sideways-on to display to three men, in suits and ties, who from a large window regarded stony-faced the passing throng of – I will use the hackneyed, over-used word – ‘plebs’.
It is however the Rally that television wholly misrepresents. Its focus on the crowd and the speakers, the crisp images and the clarity of sound that the speeches command, are entirely at odds with the reality. Even a crowd of perhaps 100,000 people – but I think actually much fewer — is utterly diminished and isolated in the vast expanse of a water-logged Hyde Park; and the speeches, so clear on the box, are made insignificant in the even vaster open-air amphitheatre. It is something of a downer, and cold.
Prior to Saturday’s demonstration, Anthony Barnett questioned its value, arguing that the TUC should sponsor a “learning experience”. This was anything but. Speakers and protesters shared the same themes of outrage, against greedy bankers, spivs, speculators and tax dodgers, without any systemic exposure and analysis of the corporate power that diminishes our politics and renders Labour and Eton-led Tory politicians alike powerless. There was also, naturally enough – this was after all a union-led demo – a prevailing insistence on the impact of austerity on workers and their immediate services, especially on the NHS and police; and much less on the severity of the welfare and benefit cuts.
What could have been said? Perhaps that the government’s cuts to the public sector workforce are having a far wider and dangerous impact on the economy as a whole, as the recent Work Foundation report, Public Loss, Private Gain? argues; and that it is also on course to shrink the state substantially, with all the damaging and unimaginable economic and social consequences that would come to pass for all of us in Hyde Park and the whole population. We ain’t seen nothing yet.
Why not take up the themes that Ian Brinkley, the Work Foundation director, explored in presenting the research organisation’s report – for example, that the government had some “major blind spots” about the impact its rapid contraction of the public sector labour force was having on the rest of the economy.
"Claims of a previously ‘bloated’ public sector and unsustainable job growth have been greatly exaggerated."
The report found that many redundant public sector workers were becoming inactive; vital public sector skills were being lost. It questioned the notion that cutting public sector pay in the regions would help private sector employment levels to recover. Brinkley added: “We would also like to see the public debate move on from some of the unhelpful rhetoric. Our analysis shows that claims of a previously ‘bloated’ public sector and unsustainable job growth have been greatly exaggerated. Neither is there compelling evidence that a small public sector is essential for economic growth.”
Indeed, the Labour government's expansion of the public sector was not “excessively large” compared to similar periods of public sector growth in other developed countries.
This was a limited, moderate and ineffectual uprising. But the real message on Saturday was contained in the medium. Television did its work. Here was a powerful trade union mobilisation that brought London to a halt, and could bring about coordinated strikes and perhaps a general strike. Ed Miliband proved his loyalty to the workers that the trade unions represent and at the same time provoked enough boos and catcalls to demonstrate his independence from his ‘pay masters’ to stifle the inevitable Tory reaction. In the real world, the success of the event is best summarised in the terms of Claud Cockburn’s apocryphal headline in The Times, “Small Earthquake in Chile. Not many Dead”. The trouble is, many more people will be dead and plunged into misery soon enough.