Sunday, 21 June 2015

Anti-Austerity Signage: My Favourite Banners of the Protest

I went on the London Anti-Austerity march on Saturday the 20th of June and, I have to say, it was one of the most inspiring events of my life. To see a quarter of a million people, 95% of whom wanted nothing but a peaceful protest, gather under one cause to show solidarity and unity, was truly moving and heart-warming. 

This was my first protest, and it certainly won’t be my last, because, in my view, the importance of protesting is undeniable. The Peasants’ Revolt; the English Revolution, with the Levellers and Diggers; the Chartists; the trade unionists; the suffragettes; the anti-racist, feminist and LGBT movements; the postwar Labour government; the peace movements; the anti-poll-tax movement. These groups were protesting against elected governments because they disagreed with their policies – it is because of protest that we have the welfare state, we have gay rights, we have racial equality, and so many more excellent aspects of this country that make me proud (to an extent) to be one of its citizens. Not, as Charlotte Church rightly said in her anti-austerity speech, because of a flag. 

Protest is an intrinsic part of democracy, and so on the 20th, in the words of Newton and Owen Jones (an unlikely pairing, perhaps), I stood on the shoulders of giants (though I do not seek to suggest that, because of this, I see further than those with whom I disagree). These are my post-protest thoughts, presented to you through signage. Please reflect, comment and criticize. Don’t despise me: debate me (or perhaps quoting Ed isn’t the best idea?)  

Neo-liberalism is dead, Long Live Owen Jones.

You’ve gotta love Owen Jones. The left-wing, progressive columnist for the Guardian, and previously the Independent, must have some really strange power of going into my mind, finding out what I think, and then championing my views in the public sphere.

His appearances on Question Time always cause some good old controversy, always beneficial in a democracy – I loved his challenging of Iain Duncan Smith on welfare, and his passionate tribute to the Palestinian people was truly inspiring. He actually spoke at the march (although, frustratingly, I didn’t get to hear his speech on the day, but I watched the YouTube video) and then joined the thousands of protesters that flooded through Central London. So yes, long live Owen (@OwenJones84). 

This sign would be funnier if they weren’t cutting student support grants.

My favourite banners tended to be the funnier ones – but this one was instantly unforgettable. It was upsetting, in fact, and showing a real concern for the damage these policies are going to bring about over the next five or, unless Labour gets its act together quick, even ten years.  

Please don’t tazer me, I’m teaching on Monday.

I can’t really explain why I liked this banner – humour, honesty, sarcasm, I don’t know. But I do think that the best thing about this protest was its irrefutably peaceful intentions. To take the violent or menacing actions of the few, Class War for example, and pretend that this represents the protest as a whole is just wrong.

I wanted to ensure that the people with me took as many photos as possible, not, as you may think, and as I have been accused of already, so that I can show off about being subversive and going against my public school crowd, but so that the peaceful nature of these protests is properly demonstrated on social media. I guess this banner shows that those on this protest were just normal people concerned about the happiness and livelihoods of others, whilst also reminding us of the essential job that teachers have and always will carry out. 

David Cameron can kiss my Ass-terity.

You have to love this. A pun that shows that, while this was a serious occasion, the left haven't lost all of their humour, even after the election (Labour suffered the worst defeat since Michael Foot this May).

Dear Tories, Read a book. Regards, Socialism.

I disagreed completely with the sentiment of this banner. This sort of generalising, emotive, and clichéd politics gets us nowhere. It’s like doing a Nick Clegg and saying that all lefties need a brain, which is just nonsense considering a significant number of economists have argued against austerity and believe it has a detrimental effect. And yet, I couldn’t help giggling to myself (hypocritical, I know)!

£12 billion cuts vs. £119 billion in tax avoidance.

I probably shouldn’t have put this on here – it was, after all, my own banner. But I was pleased to have it read out on the loudspeaker, so evidently it had some effect and people agreed with it. In fact, one lovely American lady came up to me and said how excellent she thought it was and that she wished more people were pointing out the inherent hypocrisy and failures of austerity. Austerity is, by no means, the only option. There are other solutions.

In fact, I really wasn’t a fan of the “Defy Tory Rule” banners (sadly, in my opinion, given out by the People’s Assembly) and those that said, amongst other things, that the Tories are all bastards and crooks. Firstly, it’s entirely untrue – I know just as many Conservative voters who are intelligent, kind, and compassionate as I know left wing people with the same qualities. As I said earlier, this emotive rhetoric gets us nowhere – it alienates people, in fact.

I’m willing to bet that hundreds of anti-austerity Conservatives (or at least, people who voted Conservative whilst still believing that £12 billions of cuts is unnecessary and extortionate) would have been willing to come on this march if it weren’t for the anti-Tory vibes. The march should have been anti-austerity, not necessarily anti-Cameron – that’s why I wanted my banner to focus on the cuts, not the government making them. Divisive politics is failing this nation – the obsession with people rather than policies (so excellently defied by Jeremy Corbyn) really isn't helping. Rhetoric is good – I’m full of it. But pointless and empty rhetoric isn’t. 

Is this the queue for the food bank?

Again, this banner excellently combines comedy and seriousness. Over 900,000 adults and children have received three days’ emergency food and support from Trussell Trust foodbanks in the last 12 months, a shocking 163 percent rise on numbers helped in the previous financial year. 

Poverty and inequality are rising fast under the Tories (the same would perhaps have happened under Labour), and I can say wholeheartedly that I do not want to live in a society governed by a culture of blame and in which the trials and sufferings of the poorest are to some extent belittled or even apparently ignored, by the richest few. 

Homelessness has seen a 55% rise since the coalition was formed in 2010. This is a genuine crisis, and this crisis has a name: systemic injustice that is only getting worse and worse. We’re amongst the top ten of the world’s richest countries – so why are there children living in such terrible circumstances?

People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.  

This quotation from John F. Kennedy is interesting: to some extent, it perhaps sent a negative message of violence and anarchism to other marchers. I chose to interpret it differently, as nothing more than a celebration of democracy and our power to democratically overthrow the Conservatives, if we want to do so, in five years time.

Now, there will inevitably be those who see these protests as childish, perhaps even undemocratic, considering the Tories have just won an election with a significant majority in the Commons. But consider these statistics: the party for whom only 24% of the people in the country voted, and who only persuaded 37% of the electorate, now have 100% of the power. Blair got in in 2005 with only 35.2% of the vote - again, this system is failing all of us, no matter what you believe. This May, UKIP won 3.8m votes, the Greens 1.1m; but they won only one MP each. The Tories had the smallest percentage of overall votes per MP. 

And yes, you may say, “Tom, we had a vote on electoral reform in 2011, and it was rejected.” Very true: but why would someone vote for AV when it isn’t a truly proportional system? The people deserve better. Give us a vote on PR or STV, so we can unlock real democracy. It is the fact that the SNP stand by their policy of electoral reform, despite undeniably benefitting from FPTP, that I have so much respect for them. The injustice of the electoral system is another legitimizer for these protests. 

I’d also like to point out that Labour went into the election as a pro-austerity party – so don’t tell me we have no right to protest when we had no real alternative (considering a Green Party success was so unlikely under FPTP). If Ed was in Downing Street, I would have protested just the same. Despite what the Telegraph might tell us, these protests are not about winning and losing they are about people - another excellent banner read, simply, “People over profit”.

We stand together for a better world.

This banner speaks for itself – unity, solidarity and compassion are always the way forward. It’s down to us, the people, to stand up for those who cannot necessarily stand up for themselves, to stand up for the likes of Paul Reekie, the Scottish poet who, amongst many, many others, killed himself after finding out that his benefits might be taken away.

It is these real-life and heart-wrenching stories that will mean I will continue to argue, to stimulate debate through my blog and through conversation, and finally, this is why I will continue to protest until my feet are blistered from marching, my arms are aching from waving my banner, and my voice is croaky from chanting for what I believe is right.

4 comments:

  1. Fabulous, Tom, and a great idea to comment on your favourite banners as your theme. It's really important to get across the message that this demo was about people, as you say, from all walks of life, but all united by this one cause. Don't let's allow the media to interpret it any differently. I'm definitely sharing this!

    BTW, I can see you in Owen Jones's job in 10 years' time...

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  2. An excellent blog post - says all the things I thought, and a lot more besides.

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