The bigger the turnout the better, as people who may otherwise feel disillusioned and powerless suddenly feel significant – they have agency
"Regardless of how many people march against austerity it's clear that the Conservatives aren't going to have a sudden crisis of conscience, abandon their manifesto and reverse all cuts... On a more fundamental level, the protests symbolise a vocal progressive movement that refuses to back down, even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds."
Since the Conservative victory a number of anti-austerity protests have broken out across the country, with bigger national demonstrations yet to come. In response there have been 2 common lines of argument aimed at protesters. One tends to come from the right-wing:
“Stop whingeing, the public voted Conservative – protesters are being undemocratic."
The most obvious flaw in this argument is the fact that 63% of voters didn’t vote Conservative; however since this has already been covered to death it is not the focus of this article.
The second response comes from across the political spectrum, and it is this argument that I hope to address:
“Why bother protesting, it won’t change anything."
This holds an element of truth. Regardless of how many people march against austerity it's clear that the Conservatives aren't going to have a sudden crisis of conscience, abandon their manifesto and reverse all cuts - they have a plan and they intend to stick to it. The Conservatives have earned their reputation as the nasty party – their disregard for the increasing number of people relying on food banks, the people with disabilities losing their benefits and struggling to cope, the firemen forced to work through chronic pain into their old age, those with mental health issues committing suicide due to mental health service cuts, the number of elderly people dying as they can’t afford to heat their homes. The argument is right in that the Tories couldn’t care less how loud we shout, or how many of us are shouting; they will continue to line their own and their mates’ pockets while the rest of us are left to suffer. No, protests and marches won’t put an end to austerity measures in the next 5 years.
But that’s why these protests are about much more than changing the minds of a bunch of heartless money-grabbing bastards.
I’m sure many progressives were left disappointed by Labour’s commitment to continued austerity measures, despite austerity being ideological and completely unnecessary. And so firstly, a strong anti-austerity message shows discontent with the current policies of the Labour party. The fact that Labour are now debating whether to pull to the left or the right is telling – it shows that Labour don’t actually know exactly what they stand for. It’s nice to dream of a day when the Labour party simply stands for what it believes in (perhaps they would under a different electoral system…) however let’s be honest, when all’s said and done what Labour believes in is winning votes. We have 5 years before the next election, and it is these first few years that are crucial in laying the groundwork for the 2020 party campaigns. The more people on the streets the better, as these protests are opportunities to show Labour that ending austerity is a vote winner.
Similarly, the more we express our discontent with austerity measures, the harder it will be for the Conservatives to rally support in 2020. In the 2015 election the effects of austerity were unfortunately overlooked – welfare cuts, bedroom tax and food banks mostly ignored in favour of immigration, the EU and Labour’s economic incompetency. However come 2020 the Tories won’t be able to scapegoat immigrants, the “mess Labour left behind" or blame the Lib Dems – they have to face the consequences. Consistent and growing anti-austerity protests will show the damage the Tories have done, and make sure that they are held to account in the next election campaign (hopefully a newly anti-austerity Labour party will help in this, alongside the Greens and the SNP).
Another argument is that we were still taken into a war with Iraq despite the millions of people who took to the streets to protest it. Though this may be true, it’s not like the protests were for nothing. As Owen Jones articulated so well at the York People’s Assembly meeting, the protests didn’t go unheard. The backlash that the Iraq war received clearly affected future foreign policy, exemplified by the decision not to start a fresh war in Syria.
It’s also particularly important to exercise our right to protest in light of potential restrictions on human rights, limitations on union strikes, and the suppression of political dissent through draconian counter-terrorism measures. On a more fundamental level, the protests symbolise a vocal progressive movement that refuses to back down, even when facing seemingly insurmountable odds.
If every dissatisfied member of the public got out onto the streets and demanded change, we’d live in a very different Britain. Because of this, the sense of community that grows from protests and marches is invaluable. The bigger the turnout the better, as people who may otherwise feel disillusioned and powerless suddenly feel significant – they have agency. They may then be more likely to join The People’s Assembly, Unite, Keep our NHS Public or a whole range of campaign groups. If someone who didn’t attend a particular march sees the sheer number of people on the streets, or knows a protester who came back feeling positively fired up, they may be more inclined to join the next protest. The more this feeling spreads the stronger the progressive movement will become, and the closer we are to real progressive change. Even if it doesn’t change the minds of the Conservatives and current policies remain intact, the sense that there can and will be change is crucial. To quote the late great Hetty Bower, “We may not win by protesting. But if we don’t protest, we will lose."
Check the Protest page for all the latest anti-austerity events & more, and join the June 20th People’s Assembly march against austerity: