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The state of the movement

The G20 protests have certainly left their mark, though not in a way anyone predicted - and the ensuing debate on policing was long overdue. But, Andy Bowman asks, did the protests manage to unite the left?

August 23, 2009
7 min read

Before the G20, the last time world leaders met on British soil was in 2005 for the G8 at Gleneagles. The counter-mobilisation was long and meticulously planned.

The G20, by contrast, arrived suddenly, and in the midst of a recession. It produced more confused head scratching than bold political strategies. With the world’s attention soon to be focused upon London, those seeking to steal the limelight with opposition and alternatives were scrambling to prepare.

Political meetings in the early months of this year – from liberal NGOs to anarchist forums and everything in between – were filled with a sense of panic, but also expectation. Would this be the turning point, the mass outpouring of popular discontent over the government’s handling of the recession? From this expectation emerged the Put People First coalition. It draws together a dazzling array of organisations. Usual suspects like War on Want, Greenpeace and the Jubilee Debt Campaign work alongside smaller groups ranging from Sudanese Women for Peace to Performers Without Borders. There are even several Christian groups – whoever expected to see the Salvation Army marching unto class war? This is all knitted together with the combined might of the Trade Union Congress’s six million members.

The coalition’s 28 March demonstration created much excitement. Organisers speculated that the turnout would be the highest of any demonstration since the peak of the anti-war movement in 2003.

Titled ‘Jobs, Justice and Climate’, the march aimed for the broadest possible appeal. Coach-loads of protesters from across the country converged on the capital. But in the end, it felt somewhat muted. With an estimated 35,000 out on the streets, it wasn’t even the biggest demonstration this year – the Gaza protests in January were far larger.

Solidarity – but not quite unity

There was certainly a diversity of attendees, but it seemed most had simply brought their own particular issue along. Anti-war activists had come about the war, environmentalists about climate change, trade unionists about jobs. There was a clear sense of solidarity, but not quite unity. What for instance, of the dispute between environmentalists and the Unite union over the third runway at Heathrow?

Possible tensions were smoothed over by the ambiguity of the demonstration’s purpose. Although an accompanying policy document compensated somewhat, policy documents don’t get feet on the street – the core message matters. Instead of bold, concrete demands such as for the public ownership of major banks, a bailout for the unemployed or a proper green stimulus package, Put People First offered only vague principles. Perhaps many stayed away confused or uninspired?

The TUC’s head of international relations, Owen Tudor, is more optimistic in his assessment. ‘Dealing with such broad issues can be difficult,’ he says, citing disagreements over priorities between climate activists and trade unionists as a key sticking point. The key question in retrospect, he asserts, is: ‘Were these three areas, “Jobs, Justice and Climate”, tacked together, or are they integrally bound up? The more radical outcomes of this alliance will depend on how far we see these things as integrated. People are now coming to a conclusion that they are.’

If it manages to stick together – Copenhagen will likely be make or break time – Put People First could create the grounds for a more forceful expression of progressive forces in society. It’s certainly unfair to judge an organisation too harshly on its first outing.

Nik Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, says: ‘We were actually pleased with numbers on the day, but even more pleased with some of the meetings that had gone on beforehand. We got trade unionists sitting down with development activists, and climate activists, discussing not just a Make Poverty History type agenda, but something central to all our interests. The structure of the world economy is affecting poverty in Zambia, but also people losing their jobs in this country. We need to bring that whole agenda together to tackle it.’

Those at the top of the participating organisations seem enthused, but is this shared throughout the ranks?

Derek Clarke of Tameside NUT feels Put People First’s ability to mobilise more people depends on orientating itself towards the grassroots. ‘It needs to start focusing on local campaigns and how to link them up, as opposed to just national campaigns and national demonstrations. We need to get people talking about it in the pubs and clubs and the only way you’ll do that is to energise local groups.’ Gary Hassell, of Brighton RMT, shares the sentiment. ‘One demo like this won’t be enough – we’ve got to take it back to the regions, back to the workplaces, and we’ve got to start making political demands. Hopefully this protest today will act as a catalyst.’

Similar hopes were attached to the more confrontational Financial Fools Day protests on 1 April. Two loosely anarchist-orientated groups, the Camp for Climate Action and the hastily assembled G20 Meltdown, planned to bring the financial district to a standstill for the day and spark off the feted ‘summer of rage’. A hungry media latched on. The Climate Camp and its slick PR machine took an unfamiliar place in the shadows for the week as ‘good protesters’, and attention focused on the more colourful characters of G20 Meltdown and their talk of insurrection.

As with Put People First, the hype didn’t quite match reality. But the difference was the electric atmosphere on the streets – a heady mixture of carnival and passionate dissent in the blazing sunshine at the Bank of England and Bishopsgate. It reflected the heritage of the protests (often physically embodied in the organising groups) in the 1990s Reclaim the Streets, anti-road and alter-globalisation movements. A friend who had seen the best of those years drew a good comparison: ‘The sound systems are smaller, the music’s not as good and people are taking less drugs. But people have a better idea of what they’re here for, there’s more politics. Maybe it’s better overall!’

What about the politics?

Like Put People First, G20 Meltdown tried to include everyone. Four marches, led by the red horse of war, the black horse of borders, the silver horse of financial crisis, and the green horse of climate chaos, converged on the Bank of England.

The crowd was wonderfully eclectic, but like Put People First there was a sense of confusion over what was being demanded. Climate Camp attempted to use the occasion to draw attention to the issue of carbon trading, drawing analogies between the reckless management of the economy and the handling of climate change. It seemed self-consciously aimed toward a distinct kind of protester – as style mag Grazia (don’t ask) put it, ‘smartly dressed … young professionals, many of whom have never demonstrated before.’ The organic food stalls set up in the middle of Bishopsgate under the slogan ‘farmers market, not carbon market’ seemed particularly apt.

The common thread uniting the week’s protests was the scapegoating of finance capital. Laying into greedy ‘bwankers’ is hard to resist given recent events, and even harder so when said creatures lean from their offices and wave banknotes at you (it really happened).

But it was a shame to see so much replication of mainstream views of the crisis being caused by recent financial mismanagement, rather than deeper, structural problems in the world economy. If things continue like this, it will be all too easy for mainstream parties to co-opt the anger into petty banking reforms.

In the short term, the broad public discussion on policing is the most tangible political result of the protests. Police behaviour at the protests was nothing new, but the subsequent media interest in it is. Much energy from campaigners has gone into making the most out of the furore – a more timid, better behaved police force will be welcome if protests are to grow.

The G20 demonstrations were always going to be, at best, a starting point. But even when big street mobilisations lack coherence, they can inspire participants and distant spectators alike.

As the dust settled in the financial district, workers quietly went into occupation in Enfield. Many protesters went straight to join them. Parents outraged by privatisation took over their school in Glasgow. This is where real pressure will come from. Maybe this really was just the beginning?

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