Today I marched on the Liberal Democrats. Then they came out and said hello. It’s not the weirdest demo I’ve been on, but it was up there. It was also one of the most polite. The BBC said there were about a thousand people there. Apparently the police said two thousand. It’s always hard to tell these things, but I’d say somewhere between the two is probably accurate.
It was, I think, sometime on Wednesday evening that I saw a tweet linking to a facebook group for a demonstration on electoral reform sometime. I clicked the “maybe attending” box, mainly as a note to myself that the event was happening. I’ve been aware of electoral reform for years, I appreciate the ways in which I get to vote in the London Mayor elections, or how my cousins vote in Scotland, things like that. But it’s been this general election that has really made me really want it. By midnight on Thursday it was clear we were heading to hung parliament, and “Take it Back” had launched a website. There was a bit of media coverage on Friday and a fair bit of tweeting. I went to sleep on election night frustrated by the political process I’d been asked to take part in, and swapped my RSVP to a simple “attending”. Polls suggest, I’m not the only one to feel at least a little like this. Today, Saturday, we marched. It wasn’t just London, even though we got the press, there were demos all over the country.
We started in Trafalgar Square. “Could everyone please move to huddle in the middle” one of the stewards asked. Huddle in the middle: people at a demo for propositional representation. Oh the irony. “I’m quite happy hanging back here on the left” my companion grumped (with a grin, I should add).
Billy Bragg spoke. I think he sung, though we couldn’t hear much as the PA was a bit rubbish. I ranted about the election to my friend, and heard many similar rants around me. I think the best over-heard was this: (to small child) “no we’re not queuing dear, we’re here to ask for democracy”. This was said with a slightly clipped tone, she was clearly well aware of the role of queuing in this election. There was someone dressed as a dragon with a sign saying “News Corpse” hanging round their neck. The Dragon got up on stage and another protester (I assume as St George, I couldn’t really see) slayed it.
Because of the hung parliament, the Lib Dems have some power (perversely, partly because they have so few seats). This allows them to force the point of improving our democracy. Annoyingly, all this is being decided in hidden rooms. The news is full of talking heads outside of closed doors. The protest’s organisers quite sensible decided to take our call for democracy out of Trafalgar Square and right up to one of those closed doors: Transport House in Smith Square, where it was reported the Lib Dems were discussing whether to take the Tory deal.
We walked calmly down Whitehall, chanting “fair votes” as we went. Some people started adding please after each chant: “fair votes [beat] please”. As I said, a polite demo. A protest organised at very short notice, no one was closing roads for us, so we simply clogged up the pavement. Some policemen helped stop the traffic briefly so a load of us could cross the road at the same time. We all said thank you.
We had been asked to wear purple, the colour of suffrage (about time that colour got reclaimed from the UKIP). There were lots of purple flags, tshirts and marker-pens. I had a purple raincoat. There were also a fair number of purple umbrellas, it was a slightly rainy day. I keep thinking what a contrast this is from all the sunshine that followed the 1997 election. Purple umbrellas seemed very apt. Plus, brollies are always so very British, so I was pleased to get a shot of one as we passed Downing Street. I also caught it a little further down, as we marched alongside Parliament Square, this time next to a red hoodie and a “controlled zone” sign (photo here).
We arrived at Smith Square, huddled in front of Transport House and started to shouted for fair votes (“please”). We people tried to come up with clever chants on electoral reform (try as you might though, “proportional representation” just isn’t a phrase with rhythm). We soon started shouting directly at Nick Clegg. First “don’t do it Nick” and “does Nick agree with us?”, then “come out at see us” (“please”). We chanted that he should come out from behind that door (and the thick layer of press in front of it), that we had a right to be told what is going on. We must have made quite a racket, because it disrupted Sky News (leading to twitter calling to “sack Kay Burley”, good writeups of this here and here).
We were asked to move back a bit. Several shouted “just move Sky”. There was lots of shhh-ing from the crowd to quieten each other down so the organisers could be heard through the slightly dodgy PA. This was very polite shhh-ing. It reminded me of being at school. There was a lot of joking, and photos taken. I spotted a couple of people I know, and a few more I sort of know or at least recognised. I wasn’t online, but I got the impression there was a lot of tweeting going on. Overheard: “This revolution won’t so much be televised as tweeted”, “It’s kind of strange chanting without a hashtag” and “When they called this election, I never thought I’d end up marching on the Lib Dems”. I also saw other people over-hear these points, then tap them into their phone’s twitter client.
Then, in a move that genuinely surprised me, Clegg came out. We couldn’t see or hear much because of the press in the way (and a helicopter, which I assumed was press, made a lot of noise) but he seemed to make some nice points about how proportional representation used to be something academics talked about, so it was wonderful hundreds of us had turned up to demand it. He refused to talk about the discussions going on inside, but assured us that reforming politics was one of the reasons he had gone into politics in the first place. I caught up with the full speech on BBC when I got back. Watch it yourself. Say what you like about Clegg, the guy is a good speaker. Plus you can hear the shhhh-ing from the crowd, which is funny.
Before Clegg came out there was a bit of “this is what democracy looks/ feels/ sounds/ is like” chanting. I wasn’t so sure. To me, a load of largely middle-class, largely London-based people giggling about twitter isn’t democracy. It’s part of democracy, but only part. It wasn’t, to me, what democracy feels like. But then neither was last Thursday, which is why I went on this demo.
As I type this, I am reading reports of secret memos and late-night phone calls. On the most part, the news is still reporting on closed doors. I’m also reading, hearing and watching a load of reports of the demonstration too, so at least our call for reform is part of the public debate (not always good). Arguably, we provided a bit of good publicity for Clegg, the picture of him addressing us has cropped up all over the media this evening. Maybe he can use it to help a call for electoral reform. Still, as Adam Blenkov says in his writeup of the event, “for all the cheers he received, he [Clegg] made no new commitment”. We’ll just have to wait and see.
At the very least, I left the demo feeling a bit happier about the political community I’m part of. It’s not the sunny hope I felt as a teenager in 1997, but it’s not nearly as grey as it felt on Friday morning.