It was fascinating to observe the British media try to deal with the scale and breadth of the TUC March for the Alternative on 26 March. For the first time I can remember there was a good deal of reasonably fair and accurate reporting.
Two papers who had openly supported the demonstration, the Mirror and Observer/Guardian, set aside at least four pages of their Sunday editions to pictures and comments. The more dramatic photos of smashed windows and hooded anarchists were there but prominence was given to interviews with marchers and scenes which confirmed the all-inclusive make-up and the sheer size of the main event.
Even in much of the right-wing press a distinction was made between the violence and the main march. Estimates of numbers varied between over 250,000 and at least 500,000 but there was no obvious political relationship between the high and low estimates. In general the coverage was much more sensitive and discriminating than during the student protests last year.
Those bits of the press prepared to consider the real significance of this event identified questions not so far off those asked within the labour movement and the socialist left.
What did this march tell us about the ability of the British labour movement to mobilise its members? Was it essentially a mobilisation of the public sector, and how relevant is that? What is the relationship between the many-thousand strong peaceful march and the various forms of direct action, from UK Uncut’s occupation of Fortnum & Mason to the more incoherent lashing-out at banks and posh hotels?
And the biggest question of all, of course, what next? Is this the start of a co-ordinated campaign of action involving millions or an impressive but futile gesture of protest?
So, for example, the Observer editorial declared “Protest fine. Now for a proper debate” and argued that the movement against cuts has a duty to spell out what the alternative is. The same piece made clear that the paper’s alternative would mean accepting some of the cuts and “the need for a radical approach to delivering public services when the Exchequer is cash-starved” (code for “privatisation”).
The Mirror, whose placards decorated the rally route more than all the left groups combined, was more celebratory and uncritical. They described it as “a massively uplifting day — it made you proud to be part of something so huge and positive”, and ended their main report with the exhortation “Remember the date — Saturday March 26th, 2011 — the day Britain found its voice.”
Even on their best behaviour, however, the right-wing press cannot repress their peculiar and familiar obsessions.
In its lead story, the Sunday Express said what the bosses should worry about next is not a general strike or mass walkouts across the country. No — what the march has done most has been to “raise fears for the security of the Royal wedding”.
The Express claim that anti-royal protesters plan to occupy five separate locations on the wedding day “to represent a five-pointed star or pentacle”, adding, in case you didn’t know, “a symbol revered by Satanists”.
The Sun and the Star focused almost exclusively on the violence, dusting off the terms “angry mob” and “masked thugs” for fresh use.
Of the serious Tory press the worst was the Telegraph, who played the very old trick of linking Ed Miliband with anarchist violence. “The violence began”, they told us, “as Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, addressed a TUC rally.”
And in case the connection might have escaped the confused reader they pointed out that “as he spoke, an apparently co-ordinated attack began on shops and police in Oxford Street as a mob tried to storm into shops including Topshop, BHS and John Lewis.” Do they mean co-ordinated with his speech? Co-ordinated by him?
Maybe, just maybe, Miliband is a modern-day British Manchurian candidate. Behind that geekish, mild-mannered and, let’s admit it, robotic surface is a scheming anti-royal and, worst of all, Satanic anarchist of the most dangerous sort. Cecil? Fetch the birch!