It has become fashionable in some quarters to dismiss mass demonstrations in favour of small direct actions. Lindsey German argues that mass protests are now a part of British political life – and we need more of them.

There’s been a lot of dissing of demonstrations lately. It probably reached its low point last Friday, when Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins attacked pretty much every protest in Britain over the past 200 years. The Chartists had got nowhere, the suffragettes only won the vote because of the work women did in the First World War, the poll tax riot changed nothing, and millions on the streets didn’t stop the Iraq war. The message was that Saturday’s great march would change nothing either.

As I pointed out in a letter to the Guardian the following day, no one now justifies refusing women or the poor the vote. Few would now regard the wars in Vietnam or Iraq as right. The poll tax riot did get rid of Thatcher. The uprisings of blacks on the streets of Brixton and Toxteth signified they would no longer accept the worst elements of racism. In all these and thousands of other instances, government, media and ‘respectable opinion’ was well behind the views of those demonstrating and was eventually forced to change.

But it is not just Tories like Jenkins who attack these demos. On the left recently, there has been an insistent criticism particularly of the anti-war marches, dismissed as boringly going from A to B (what’s the alternative… going round in circles?) and not actually stopping the war in Iraq. Small direct actions have been privileged over mass demonstrations as really making a difference.

This approach suffers from many problems, not least an ignorance of what big demos do and what they are for. Saturday’s demo surely gave the lie to the idea that big demos are boring. Everyone on it looked exhilarated, confident and determined, talking to new and old friends, marveling at the diversity of the march, spotting homemade banners and placards. By the end of the day the overwhelming feeling was of size, solidarity and a growing confidence among the demonstrators that together we really can take on the government and defeat them.

That’s what demos are about: they are about publicising our cause, making politicians and the public know we’re there, but also and as important, about organising our side into a fighting army. We began that task on Saturday and while we still have a long way to go, we now know it’s a big army. It’s an army which is learning very fast, and learning from each other how we argue successfully against all the cuts, not the Miliband lite version that Labour would give us.

The sense of solidarity and organisation is one reason for demos as opposed to letter writing, online activity or shouting at the television (all of which have their place but are no substitute for being there). Another is that demos do change public opinion because people see that there is an opposition. It may take years to do so, as with the century-long battle for universal suffrage, but there is no short cut to doing it.

The anti-war demos didn’t stop the Iraq war, but they have created an anti-war and anti-imperialist movement and opinion in Britain – no mean feat in one of the major imperialist powers. They also led to Blair’s early demise (after the Lebanon anti-war demo) and to the pulling out of British troops in Iraq (there are still 50,000 US troops there).

The counterposing of big demos to other actions also misses the point. Any mass mobilisation is comprised of many small actions which lead into it and is a culmination of those actions. The anti-war movement was also school student strikes on a mass scale, some industrial action when war broke out, and the blocking of roads and city centres across the country. None of these stopped the war. Should we really be saying, what was the point of last Saturday, it didn’t stop the cuts; or, should we be building on its success? Really a no brainer.

It is perhaps understandable that many of those involved in the student movement last year regard those demos as more effective. They were great demos but they never achieved the size of some of the other mobilisations – and the fees are still there. So they haven’t yet succeeded either. In this situation, let’s encourage every sort of protest that people feel is appropriate – including occupations of Fortnum and Mason’s (the UK Uncut demonstrators must be the largest number of socially aware and thinking people ever to have graced the Fortnum’s food hall).

But let’s also celebrate the power of big demos which are now a part of British political life, partly as a result of the anti-war movement. We need more of them.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.