On October 20 2012 I took part in an anti-austerity march through central London. I trudged down police-lined streets with comrades from my student days under a gunmetal grey sky, every now and then belting out the lung-busting chant: “David Cameron! Get out! We know what you’re all about! Cuts, job losses, more money for the bosses!”
On June 20 2015 another anti-austerity march took place. This one I did not take part in. Instead, I loitered outside the gates of Downing Street and watched as wave after wave of people passed by. Time might have moved on, but the chants were the same.
“David Cameron, shame on you!”
“Tories out! Tories out! Tories out!”
To be fair, much has stayed the same since 2012. The Tories are still in government. We are still mired in an age of austerity. The rich are still getting richer and the poor are still getting poorer. The only noticeable difference is that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are absent from the government benches.
So why didn’t I march? Why didn’t I walk in solidarity with my comrades once again, when the future is even bleaker now than it seemed three years ago?
Simple. Because it is not how change happens. Not on its own. Not on the scale needed to roll back the tide of reaction that threatens to drown democratic socialism in this country once and for all.
Marching through London screaming at David Cameron’s front door is a palliative, not a cure. I did not march because I knew my energies could be better directed elsewhere. What was I doing instead? Phone banking for the Labour leadership candidate I believe can navigate the party to electoral victory in 2020.
Why? Because we on the left have three choices.
We can seek revolution. Yet far from being the “right solution” some protestors claim this method to be, it will always always be attended with blood and ruin.
We can scream and shout, march and occupy, blockade streets and drop banners, as many on the left (including myself, on occasion) have chosen to do over the past five years. Yet this will just poison our agenda in the hearts and minds of the general public, and prevent any of the vital changes this country sorely needs from being enacted.
That leaves a third choice. Parliamentary democracy. No bloodshed, no marching, but assiduous, continuous, and pragmatic campaigning to win power through the ballot box. It’s not a glamorous or very exciting way of doing politics. A lot of it involves tiresome meetings in neon-lit offices and hours and hours and hours of knocking on strangers’ doors. A lot of it is also out of the hands of the grassroots activists and in the hands of leaders and their advisors who sometimes get it right, and sometimes get it wrong. You can’t turn up in the morning, march all day, and check out by six o’clock. It can be a damn slog.
But when it has worked, it has worked wonders. A National Health Service, a welfare state, equal rights for men and women of all races and sexualities, a minimum wage, child poverty slashed, enhanced rights for workers and progressive taxation. No single anti-austerity march can claim to have achieved a fraction of what 33 years of Labour governments have.
That’s why I’m putting my faith in parliamentary democracy and the Labour party. It’s why I’m putting my time into campaigning for a Labour leader (and deputy leader) who I believe can lead the party into power in five years’ time.
I may march in the future, and I may not. If I do, it will be for the feeling of solidarity and the festival atmosphere that comes with it, not because I think by doing so I am going to usher in real change.
Working for a future Labour government, though, I just might.