Yesterday saw the second of the nationwide Take Back Parliament rallies to demand fair votes. I hosted the London event which took place in Old Palace Yard next to Westminster but there were also rallies, all of them self-organised, in Edinburgh, Glasgow, York, Cardiff, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and even Penzance amongst other places. It was Billy Bragg’s idea to adopt purple for the movement in the tradition of the suffragettes and its proven an inspired choice lending our gatherings a powerful, unifying feeling as well as being good fun and a nice photo op.
The green enclosed area adjacent to Parliament Square was a vibrant sea of purple with purple flags, placards and home-made banners waving high in the air. Our first demo last Saturday, when we interrupted Nick Clegg's meeting and demanded he come out and address us, had an impressive turnout, but with the new government formed and a deal done on an AV referendum there had been concerns we’d get less people and that the atmosphere would be one of disillusionment and anger. Not a bit of it! This was one of the most positive and uplifting demos I’ve ever taken part in. At my estimate around 2,500 people crammed into the open space to hear speeches and chant our central message of “fair choice, on fair votes”.The mood was light-hearted but determined. It wasn’t knee-jerk or lazy in the "Clegg has sold us out” sense. Most who gathered agreed that a referendum on AV is a small step in the right direction, but we wanted to make clear our displeasure at the demeaning and cynical way in which our choice is being restricted to the two ugly sisters amongst voting systems, without the option of a fair proportional system. Clegg may have been forced by circumstances to strike this deal with Cameron but we, the public, remain free to demand a fair choice on fair votes.
One of the best things about organising these demos – and this was the fourth we’ve put on in just over a week, having done two flashmobs aimed at the Lib Dems and Tories during the negotiations – is the large numbers of young people who turn up. Aged 25, I felt positively middle-aged at times. Two young voters gave testimony at the rally – they spoke on behalf of millions of our generation who feel disenfranchised by our current system and want to see change. We also heard some fantastic speeches. It was a great pleasure to be able to introduce political heroes of mine such as former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris and comedian Mark Thomas who brought his usual mix of humour and righteous anger to the occasion.
On Newsnight last week Michael Crick joked that our protest was “Monty Pythonesque” since it was the first mob he’d seen led by bar charts. Well, this is something we’re more than happy to embrace and yesterday I gave a very short presentation to the crowd on the discrepancy in votes needed per seat amongst the parties with the aid of a large canvas bar chart and two helpers dressed in purple morph suits (above). After more speeches from Anthony Barnet, George Monbiot, Jean Lambert, Martin Linton and members of the Take Back Parliament coalition, George Gabriel put out the call to turn Parliament purple and march up to Whitehall to hand in our 55,000 strong petition to No 10 Downing Street.
Despite us openly flouting the preposterous and soon-to-be-repealed "SOCPA" regulations, designed to restrict protest around Parliament, the police were fair and reasonable. The scenes of hundreds of pieces of purple ribbon and flags being tied to the railings of Westminster were a joy to behold and when George and 19-year old Mevan Babakar delivered our petition to Number 10 to the sound of the cheering crowd it was a fantastic climax to a hugely inspiring day.
In the short week since its birth Take Back Parliament has had some fantastic successes with 55,000 people signing a petition for fair votes and thousands taking part in rallies across the country. The challenge now is for the campaign to build on this wonderful release of energy and grow the movement for electoral reform towards a referendum and beyond.
Update: A nice video medley of the day set to music has been shared on YouTube