Sunday, 14 February 2010

We Need Something More Than The Gentle Stroll Of Despair

I know there are political junkies who are practically salivating at the prospect of a general election campaign's intoxicating fix, but I'm just not one of them. Democracy, it strikes me, is rather more complex and demanding than the opportunity to occasionally cast a vote, but at exactly the point when thirty years of free-market orthodoxy seems like so much snake-oil liniment, most people feel powerless to influence anything. The forthcoming election battle resembles a prime-time reality television show, presided over by political commentators sniping at the Westminster parties like even less attractive versions of Simon Cowell. Are you Team Dave or Team Gordon? Remember that voting closes at 10pm on 6 May!

If anything sums up the sense that our role is to provide the audience for a theatrical performance, it has to be the announcement of a demonstration in defence of the welfare state and public services on 10 April. It has been called by 28 national trade unions, who argue that "the idea that state pensions, health care, education and other public services are best provided by society as whole" is under threat and that "we will have a unique chance – just weeks before an expected general election – to make our voices heard".

It's all very laudable - who on the left would disagree with defending public services? But many people had the impression that their voices might finally been heard back in 1997, or 2001, or 2005. Instead, as the organisers acknowledge, "whoever wins the next general election will be looking at the welfare state and public services as a way of cutting public expenditure". That includes the party of government, which presumably must bear the lion's share of responsibility for "our public services... now facing massive cuts and further privatisation" and for the NHS being "privatised behind a smokescreen of choice and competition". No-one seems to want to mention that this also happens to be the political party that the majority of the unions behind April's demonstration will be bankrolling and campaigning for over the next seven weeks.

It may seem rather peculiar that the same unions that failed to demand the promotion of public ownership and an end to privatisation before Labour's 2005 election campaign are suddenly calling a march in protest against the actions of the party they continually prevent slipping into financial bankruptcy. But that's the theatrics of mainstream politics. It's a one-off gesture, rather like last year's pointless Put People First march, which I seem to recall Gordon Brown promised to meet the concerns of. Its demands included investment in and strengthening public provision of essential services and if Brown's promises ever had any semblance of truth about them, this April's march would have been unnecessary.

So once again, we'll take part in a pleasant, 'self-kettled' saunter through London's streets as a substitute for a wider, more dynamic campaign. The march seems designed primarily to convince trade unionists that they can 'make their voices heard' but that ultimately, no matter how terrible Labour may be, the Tories will probably be far worse. With all the chutzpah of the political class, Brown may even sent it a message of support, although I doubt he has quite so much that he'll actually attend, unlike that pair of hypocrites Ed Miliband and Peter Mandelson who popped up at the Wave demonstration in December.

Isolated gestures like a pre-election demonstration may be aimless but they are not the only option. I may have had limited expectations of the moderate liberal politician who was elected US president in 2008, but there are still lessons to learn from Obama's innovative campaign and the way it mobilised thousands of people in what Rolling Stone magazine called "the machinery of hope". There were echoes too of the effectiveness of decentralised grassroots activism, drawn together under a common banner, in the anti-war movement of 2002-2003, at least until the Stop the War Coalition lost its way completely.

Even if it was optimistic to believe that war really could be prevented, or that 'change we can believe in' was possible under an Obama presidency, these campaigns galvanised the belief and optimism of so many precisely because they no longer felt themselves powerless to influence the normally closed world of political decision-making. It really was what democracy looks like - far more than its muted expression in a polling booth on election day.

Never mind the arguments I read so often about whether a 'new workers' party' or a political realignment on the left might be possible - unless we can start to campaign in ways that recapture any sense of hope that change is not only necessary but possible, we are going nowhere. And sadly, yet another isolated, one-shot demonstration and rally in Trafalgar Square is hardly a promising first step.

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