Why drag yourself out of bed early on a Saturday morning and trudge into a steamy central London to march against a vote you lost two years before? Because democracy is a culture, and a continuous process, irreducible to a single, one-off vote. And because, more pointedly, Brexit is, as the banner politely put it, Bonkers.
There is no longer any point in making the argument against Brexit. Even its most ardent fans don’t bother to say how good it’s going to be. They are busy inventing their excuses, which mainly seem to consist of blaming the other side for their epic failure. The march, ostensibly for a vote on the final ‘deal’ (a negotiated breaking of a set of treaties can hardly be called a deal), is more accurately described as a response to a political vacuum.
At least 100,000 people marched because it was all we could do. We’ve emailed our MPs, and got insolent standard letters on House of Commons headed paper in reply. We’ve Tweeted our MPs and been blocked. Politicians take a lot of abuse on social media, I know that, but not from us. It wasn’t our side who assassinated an MP, and made death threats to others. We marched as a cry of anguish, and as a demand for action. And neither the government, nor the opposition, is listening.
It was right that people on the march came from all parties. The reason why is clear from looking at this week’s Turkish elections. When the culture of democracy is strained, even though its formal institutions remain, opponents of the government must work together on the things on which they agree.
This is not the same thing as diluting one’s own political beliefs, as Caroline Lucas made clear in a powerful speech in Parliament Square. She spoke fully aware of her status as co-leader of a small party, and its only Parliamentarian; but she also spoke as a true Leader of the Opposition ought to have spoken at the rally. She emphasised the need for an uncompromising radicalism, and projected a vision of something more than merely stopping the UK from going through with a pointless, divisive and damaging Brexit. She spoke with honesty and friendship to the people who were not of her party or her political persuasion, whilst also holding true to her own egalitarian, feminist and internationalist beliefs.
‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ sang the crowd. His absence was bitterly resented by the many Labour voters and party members in the streets on Saturday. The biggest march for jobs and social and workplace rights seen in the last more than 30 years, and no official Labour Party representatives or banners visible? That is shameful.
Labour’s official absence was pitched on social media, by its cheerleaders, in sectarian terms. ‘Socialists’, it was said, can’t be contaminated by contact with the likes of other Labour MPs and members, let alone other parties. Don’t they understand that sects are little, inward-looking things, ever concerned for their own ideological purity, and doomed to irrelevance? Confident, outward-facing socialism is unafraid, ever willing to take the argument to others. The practical socialism of Labour at its best has always been a wider vision, taking good ideas from wherever they originated. That’s what created the settlement of 1945.
Moreover, it’s not 1945! The Five Giants then were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness. That was resonant language for the time, but today we need a new way of characterising what is wrong with our society and our world, and a new vision of what to do about it.
This is an Age of Insecurity. Insecure jobs, insecure housing tenure, uncertain access to health and social care, underfunded schools, private debt, and then the huge giants, which know no boundaries, looming ahead – like climate change, population movement, the end of the era of fossil fuels, and the automation of much work.
Insecurity is corrosive. It makes us fearful and mean. The Brexit against which we marched, the US President against whom we will next march, and much else in our politics which is ugly and amoral, even immoral, is fuelled by insecurity.
The march for a People’s Vote made a minimum demand for a constitutional concession, but for many of us, stopping Brexit is merely a way of removing a huge roadblock in the way of addressing the really big issues of unfairness and insecurity in the world. Today’s problems, even the vast ones requiring international cooperation, are capable of resolution, if we choose to do things differently.
This is a rich and inventive planet. We are clever people, and each of us in our own ways, through our own lived experience knows some of the things that would make our lives more secure, and fairer. Politics, a true radical politics, is about turning all that into practical plans.
That is where Labour should be. On the march, and looking way beyond it, brimming with ideas, communicating them with vigour and optimism, and running rings around a failed and exhausted government.
We’re waiting. But we haven’t got much time, or patience left.