There have been two seemingly unrelated events that happened to me recently that have crystallised a feeling I have had for years about how the left makes demands for change.
The first is that I went into hospital with a suspected slipped disc on the day of the junior doctors three day strike.
The second is that a few days before, I had listened to the now famous interview with Man City manager, Pep Guardiola, who, after some indifferent performances from City, said that due to City’s recent success he didn’t recognise his current ‘happy flowers’ team, warning that happy flowers don’t win. By this he meant that a happy team is a contented team and contentment produces bad results because it lacks the fight to win.
Whilst in hospital it turned out that I had a trapped nerve in my back. Though it has left no lasting damage, the pain I experienced felt like being stabbed in the lower back with a dagger, whilst simultaneously being struck by lightning, over and over again. I waited for an ambulance for about six hours and by the time I got to hospital, I would have gladly shot myself if it meant that the pain would stop.
When I got to A&E, though I was slipping in and out of consciousness by then, one memory that is really clear to me is that I passed about 12 junior doctors with homemade placards chanting and singing one of the protest songs that people on protests have been singing in the UK for the past 60 years. I also remember the big smiles on their faces, all while North Manchester’s walking wounded were slowly limping around them trying to get wherever they needed to go. It was merely a moment, a snapshot, and once in hospital the treatment I received instilled in me the belief that we need to fight for the NHS forever and always. Nonetheless, it got me thinking.
Without wanting to single out the junior doctors, I believe that for far too long left-wing protests have been a blueprint of learned behaviour that holds the belief that the best way forward – to quote Pep – is to look like a ‘happy flowers team’ in order to gain empathy with the general public and get them on side. However, I honestly don’t believe that this happy-clappy routine works; what it actually does is give off the perception that actually, things aren’t really that bad.
For me, this is most stark in the climate movement where the rhetoric is (quite rightly) apocalyptic: mass climate migration due to sea level rise, famine, disease, crop failure and a world too hot for human survival. But the physical expression of this rhetoric is more often than not peaceful protests, non-violent actions, singing, dancing, workshops, and even play areas so people can bring their kids.
In the many years that I have been to protests, I have rarely experienced that scene that you often see in political movies where you could cut the tension with a knife; when all involved aren’t sure how events are going to unfold. Though uncomfortable, this feeling is the essence of what we should be trying to create. The only times I have felt this tension is at anti-fascist marches and, outside of politics, in face offs between rival football fans.
It is clear that for the past 50 years, the arc of protests and strikes in the UK have tended to become more civilised and conciliatory, with no major protest reaching the fervour of conflict outside of a few notable exceptions such as the miners’ strike and poll tax riots. The most rational reason for this is the rise in the living standards of the working class who once rose up so regularly and with such force that protesting must have felt like an inherited rifle; use it often or it will become rusty and your aim will falter.
I believe it is also a product of the atomisation of liberal consumer capitalism that has frayed the fabric of working class communities by selling the ideology that we are all unconnected individuals that can find meaning through consumer goods. Though the increase in living standards has come directly from the working class protests of the past, there is still so much work yet to be done and the decrease in working class participation could not have come at a worse time when faced with the climate crisis.
So, why is it so important to engage the working class? Fundamentally, the working class is by far the largest class. It is also the most fearless when it comes to state oppression and the most destructive when it feels that it is not being listened to. These are not trivial things and any movement that thinks they are, in my opinion, really doesn’t understand what a protest is supposed to be. Protests are not a performance or a jolly. They are an action taken by those who have had enough and who are done talking.
First, forget the songs of yester-year. Forget who has the cleverest and quirkiest placards. And forget the smiles and laughter. Angry people don’t laugh. Angry people come for a single issue. In fact, the more issues people turn up for, the more diluted the message. I recently went to a teachers strike and there must have been placards for ten different issues. The issue was the teachers strike and that is what the whole protest should have been about. One voice, one set of demands, no compromises. Personally, I wouldn’t bring placards at all, but if you feel compelled to then keep it on point.
Second, if the protest is going to affect working class communities, then those communities need to be told why and how. Everything needs to be done to not only get them on board but to get them to lead it. This is the hardest part and it will no doubt require trial and error, but also having working class communities on board is the biggest driver of success. I would even go so far as to say that if the protest is not overwhelmingly working class then don’t bother.
Third, leave the kids at home. Protests are a fight for the future that we want for our kids. They are done on behalf of our kids and sometimes it involves language and actions that they don’t need to see.
And finally, don’t ask for permission. I have no idea when people first started applying to councils for marching routes and time slots, but that is a protest’s death knell. Protests should be the final straw and if that is the case then it means that all other methods have been tried and failed. So set a date, set a time, set a place, and leave when you as a group decide to call it a day, not when you have been told to leave.
If any of this seems shocking to you, then I urge you to go and look at protests of the past, say as far back as the English Revolution. In that context, it is the modern happy flower protests that are the outlier of what protests should be. Incidentally, after Pep’s happy flowers interview City’s new angry team went on to win a historic treble… maybe he was on to something after all.
Adam Williams co-founded GND Media and co-hosts the Green New Deal podcast.
Feature image: Dan Weegmann.
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