Yokel-radicals in London: the People’s Assembly demo, 16th April 2016

I think that civilisation is probably sunk – all-but-certainly doomed to destruction through its own colossal, maddening, earth-ravaging stupidity. It’s something which tends to give a sort of grey melancholic tint to everything.

So, in case I end up writing a bleak, stream of consciousness account of it that makes it sound like Apocalypse Now on a coach to London rather than a gunboat to Cambodia, let’s establish from the off – I went on the People’s Assembly march last weekend, and it was quite good. I liked it, there were lots of people there, and, most importantly, I think it achieved something of vague political use.

But as is so often the case in this life, the journey – a long coach ride there and back, full of brooding political-philosophical discussion (and a bouncy, high-spirited parade through central London) – was a lot more interesting than the actual destination – in this case, a damp Trafalgar Square, and some shouty speeches.

The day started early. A trade council-subsidised coach was leaving town at eight. At the pick-up point, I was surprised to find a gaggle of people I sort of knew – and when it turned out more than half the sizeable crowd waiting round the bus station was actually going on a completely unrelated daytrip and there were only 14 of us bound for London, I sat at the back with the one I knew and liked the most, and settled down for long trundle up the motorway.

She’s a veteran left-wing campaigner, and I know her well enough to know she’d hate the label. She’s 67 but looks about 50, and is an extremely energetic, ferociously dedicated anarcho-socialist type, who’s poured decades of her life into activism and trade unionism – and for three-and-a-bit hours, with the scenery rushing by, we talked politics over service station vegetable samosas.

I was interested to hear her view on the Corbyn phenomenon, despite having a good idea what she’d say already. She hates the Labour Party. She was in it for years, an elected Labour councillor for four – but stood down after a term, appalled by a local party establishment dominated by misogynistic old time-servers who did nothing for their constituents and looked baffled when you asked what their policies were. She’d left the party in disgust at its right-ward drift under Kinnock long before Blair came along.

Her response to the Corbyn question was largely as expected: very complimentary about the man himself – I think they’ve probably met dozens of times at demos over the years – but passionately against the Corbyn movement. She thinks it’s giving false hope to millions of people that the Labour Party, and the Westminster system, can deliver radical change. The problem is, as a reluctant and an as-yet completely useless Labour Party member myself, and only that because of Corbyn, I think she’s quite possibly right.

She spun some fairly fascinating yarns picked out from a life of activism and rebellion, too. She became a vegetarian at about eight or nine. Her school saw it as deviancy, and, at lunch time, wouldn’t let her leave the table until she’d cleared her plate of meat. She refused. Every day, she’s go into the lunch room, eat her veg, and sit there until the end of school. After two weeks, the school gave up. She went on to become a seasoned hunt saboteur, and a vegan.

Forty-odd years later, she decided to mark her 50th birthday by going to visit the Zapatistas, the left-wing revolutionary group fighting the Mexican government. Originally they tried to instigate country-wide revolution, but when that didn’t work, started setting up alternative communities in the territory they held. She snuck in pretending to be a tourist, and lived with them for a few weeks. She spoke admiringly of the system they’d introduced – villages governed by assemblies open to all over-12s, land parcelled up into equal-sized plots, and given out to family units to farm. She’s still got a big gash in her knee, after she tripped and fell running under fire from the Mexican army – she was trying to draw them away from the Zapatistas.

Eventually, though, we were dragged back to the there-and-then – torn away from lovely technicolour musings about ideas, equality, justice, and socialism in action, and dumped back on a big old coach, built for sixty-odd, occupied by just 14, ploughing eastwards at a rate of knots. Freakishly, it was snowing. Drizzle had turned to rain, had turned to hail, culminating in a bizarre mini-blizzard. And as we pressed on through the storm, talk turned to the uncomfortable elephant on the bus – why had only 14 people bothered to turn up?

Government of blood-sucking sociopaths immiserating the many, victimising the most vulnerable and enriching the already the already rich – and, from a town of nigh-on 80,000, 14 got the free coach to go and show they weren’t very happy about it. Of that 14, I was the youngest by two decades, and good third were 65 or over.

Partly, it came down to the demographic realities of small(ish) town Britain, anarchic bus friend and I decided – intelligent, politically-informed young people don’t usually stay in places like these if they can help it, because there’s no jobs for them here. The young people that do stick around, often not out of choice, can be some of most stridently apolitical you’ll find anywhere.

But mostly it was down to capitalism, and bad old fashioned ideology. Reams and reams of the people who don’t like the status quo being too busy, too distracted, too tired, or too at work to turn up. And, of course, millions and millions who’ve been completely indoctrinated, either pacified and infantilised by decades of mindless entertainment and magpie materialism, or brainwashed into believing business is good, protests are bad, poor people are scroungers, immigrants are ruining the country, and austerity is just the clean-up after years of governmental over-indulgence – or a sorry mixture of the two.

When the bus finally deposited the hardy 14 on a curb-side in central London, the lingering fear that the march itself might be embarrassingly ill-attended was quickly appeased – there were people of all ages everywhere, already coalescing into bigger groups and converging on the Gower Street assembly point. The 14 quickly became about five – most vanished into crowd as soon as we alighted. But a few of us stuck together – coach comrade and myself, a splendiferously nice bloke in his 70s called Fred, a delightfully feisty man nearer 90 sporting a hoodie pin-cushioned with campaign badges, a walking stick and giant top hat emblazoned with ‘NOT DEAD YET’, a nice but strangely vacant Labour councillor and a severely autistic, largely apolitical amateur photographer I’ve known for years who just comes on these things to take millions of pictures. And, after a brief pause to get our bearings, our newly streamlined yokel-radical contingent set off in the same vague direction as everyone else.

Moving sluggishly through the morass of bodies and placards, we eventually came to the point where Gower Street is crossed by Torrington Place. The latter had been turned into a sort of impromptu street festival, with stalls and booming sound-systems and those giant ponderously wobbling inflatable bollocks the unions inexplicably like to bring to these sorts of events. Every five seconds, someone appeared out of the leftist scrummage proffering a sign or leaflet or a commemorative special issue of one of every obscure socialist journal under the sun (me the hard-core environmentalist inwardly weeps for the rainforest every time I come on one of these). Tragically, we ended up next to the catering wagons giving out Indian food. The best kind of socialism’s the kind that comes with free curry.

The mood was unsurprisingly upbeat. Being in the middle of a boisterous leftist jamboree took the edge off the long, confusing, leg-aching wait for the thing to actually begin. No-one seemed to know which way we’d be marching. Eventually, a young woman in a People’s Assembly T-shirt popped up and began repeatedly bellowing “please move further up Gower Street”, unhelpfully omitting exactly which way she wanted the thickening crowd to shift.

But then we were off, and it was great. Waddling through central London, accompanied by thousands and thousands of human beings united by their disgust for majority-trampling neoliberalism and the pig-fucking sociopaths who perpetrate it. Thousands of old people, thousands of young people, raggedy activist looking people, staid and respectable looking people, and one small strange man dressed as a leprechaun, performing a slow, eerily precise, inexplicably sinister jig while holding up a sign claiming the Bible says Liz Windsor will be the last British monarch – righteously worming their way through central London.

The most interesting bit came when we found far-left motor-mouth ‘Chunky’ Mark McGowan, aka Youtube celebrity The Artist Taxi Driver, walking the route while bellowing down a megaphone, backed by 80s pop starlet Jennie Bellestar and a dub reggae band operating out of the back of a drummer-and-drumkit carrying rickshaw. Guitarist and bassist walked and played, tethered to the rolling dub wagon by their amp cables, while a saxophonist had free roam, wandering in and out of earshot while noodling jazzily. Gut-rumbling basslines and skanking guitar make for lovely marching music, it turns out, and we cheerily bounced our way from Gower Street to Trafalgar Square with the socialist dub-mobile right behind. Londoners looked on bemused.

After all that, the eventual speeches in Trafalgar Square bit felt like a going-through-motions affair. I’ve never been a huge fan of the hammering podium rhetoric side of things anyway, so it was a bit like someone who doesn’t really like opera sitting and watching all 15 hours of the Wagner’s the Ring Cycle – but I think there were too many speakers, particularly since most of them gave basically the same speech (“it’s great to see you all here, ooh aren’t the Tories bad, let’s try and get rid of them”). Billy Hayes of the CWU and Len McCluskey from Unite did a turn. They were alright. I’d like it if they displayed the same level of balls-to-the-wall radicalism when they’re not on a protest podium (as a Unite member myself, I also continue to be pretty disgusted Red Len gets paid £100k a year, and don’t think it “plays into the hands of the Tories” to say so).

Understandably, there was a lot of focus on the plight of the Port Talbot steelworks, which, if it’s allowed to close, will essentially destroy a sizeable chunk of South Wales – but as a fan and passionate supporter of his for over ten years, a particular lowlight was hearing John McDonnell say Labour would “even” consider nationalising the company “for a short time”. I could just feel it confirming everything coach comrade had ever thought about Labour and the principles-shedding perils of electoralism.

The best speakers were the non-standard ones – ones not from the slightly dubious class of left-wing ‘notables’ that get to march at the front of the parade, but a trainee nurse talking about the insanity of cutting NHS bursaries, and, probably most poignantly of all, a blazingly erudite junior doctor who ended by reading from the leaflet distributed to every household in Britain when the NHS first began. If you’ve never read it, look it up – the language is beautifully clear and simple, almost child-like, and I don’t mind admitting that a combination of that, and the nobility of what it was trying to achieve, had me fairly close to choking up at one stage.

To be brutally honest, we left the rally bit before the end because we got bored. I wanted to at least wait to hear NUS Welfare VP Shelly Asquith, of whom I’m unapologetically a fan, but got outvoted by the others who’d had enough (I watched it later on YouTube).

On the bus home, it was political-philosophical brooding/oral history time again. I talked to seventy-something Fred about his hair-raising life as a left-wing troublemaker. Small and unassuming to look at, lovely to chat to, it turns out he’s been in just about every far-left grouplet going at one stage or another, and told stories about the Communist League, and the SWP and being forcibly prevented from leaving a Worker’s Revolutionary Party meeting to get a bite to eat because they thought he was from Special Branch. Amazingly, he was on a Labour council in the 70s that took the then-hugely controversial decision to start offering women free contraception, and vividly described the resulting backlash from vicars and priests and every flavour of Little England prude.

Coach comrade and our local TUC chair sparked off the Labour debate again – she castigating him for selling out and re-joining, him arguing that if socialism is every going to come about, it’ll at least need some parliamentary cover, some back-up within the Westminster system (which happens to be my view, too). Fred and Photo Man argued about votes for 16 year-olds. Fairly whacked out after the day’s travails, I zoned out and thought about the 14-people-on-the-coach thing again.

At one particularly euphoric moment in one of the Trafalgar Square speeches, it was claimed that 150,000 people had turned up to the demo. When you’re on the ground, you’ve got no idea – there could be a thousand, there could be a million, so we were all very impressed. But after a thoroughly enjoyable day, it suddenly struck me that colossal-sounding figure was actually pretty rubbish. 150,000 people out of a nation of 60-odd million wasn’t much better than a bus of 14 out of a town of 80,000.

So had there been any point? I sat and chewed that one over. It occurred to be that a really effective protest probably wouldn’t have been thoroughly enjoyable, and in fact involved a lot more tear gas and getting beaten up by police. I’ve said it myself in the past – as successive governments have cracked down on dissent, it often seems that for a protest to be deemed legal these days it has to have no chance whatsoever of changing anything. It’s fun and feels powerful to be part of a galumphing great crowd, wiggling through the arteries of central London, feeling all righteous and fierce – deceptively powerful. I’m not sure that it actually does much.

But that, of course, assumes that you judge a demo’s effectiveness by the extent to which it helps overthrow David Cameron, snuff out neoliberalism and ferment the downfall of capitalism – which, taken together, is quite a big ask. Instead, I think these sorts of events specialise in doing something much less grand, but still very important. Keeping left-wing people going. Giving them a boost, reminding them they’re not alone in a society where the media, the government, and the corporate elite all present the same skewed picture of reality – and, for want of a less cheesy term, keeping the flame alive, so that if a more opportune moment for radical change ever comes about, there are still right-thinking people around to try and take advantage of it.