Saturday, 1 May 2010

The battle of the banners

Political conversations are everywhere.

Not all elections are like this. The last election was marked by apathy and the sense that, when it was over, the New Labour regime would continue. I heard discussions of how to vote that were marked by a sense of guilt and despair – we hadn't stopped the war in Iraq and the war-mongers were about to claim their electoral victory as popular endorsement. Thatcher's dreadful phrase “There is no alternative” hung over us.

I assumed this election would be similarly despairing. After the chancellors' debate on TV, when Darling. Osborne and Cable agreed that, whoever got in, the cuts would be deeper and more painful than under Thatcher, I settled into the gloomy certainty that the next five years would mean the rapid unravelling of everything I value in the hard-won welfare state. Worries about my parents and my children broke into my sleep and woke me in the middle of the night.

I'm still worried. But there's a new thrill in the air. Many young people who never voted before seem to have infected the public debate with their excitement and conviction that change and hope are possible. They aren't agreeing with one another and many are still uncertain how to vote, but they want to listen to the arguments and join in the debates. The power of a single vote makes them feel like citizens.

I was in Leicester yesterday when Nick Clegg visited. I've seen visiting politicians before and remember how, when Tony Blair came to Leicester in 1997, everything was stage-managed and spun to ensure good camera angles. Blair's campaign team provided the crowds with flags to wave, played music (D-ream) interminably and swept dissenters aside.

Nick Clegg's visit wasn't like that. Students, enjoying the sunshine and their last day of term, came to join the crowds and see what Clegg had to say. Most banners were home-made though a couple of Labour supporters brought their own banners to wave. Plainly Clegg's team was taken aback by the hundreds of people. I heard them on mobile phones: “Yes, there really are that many.” Then the battle bus arrived.

A narrow pathway meant that Clegg could get through the crowd, preceded by photographers and cameramen who found it hard to get the pictures they wanted. Clegg stopped as he walked to answer questions – a socialist friend of mine who came at my suggestion managed to ask him about students and bankers. She got an answer though I couldn't hear it.

There was a speech with questions and applause but I was too far away to hear. Instead of trying to break into the crowds I started taking photographs of the posters. The pair produced by the Politics and Pints society cheered me, though Clegg didn't accept their invitation to the pub.

There were more banners today at Nottingham's all-purpose, leftish-to-revolutionary May Day march. The organisers couldn't afford the marches usual base near the castle so had booked Victoria Park instead, to remind locals of the recent closure of the Victoria Baths nearby. The weather forecast threatened rain and gloom and I packed a waterproof jacket. I didn't need it.

There were fewer people than in previous years. With only five days till the election, some of the regulars may have been out campaigning. But there was still a good range of stalls including one celebrating Nottingham's radical history in which a loaf on a stick, decorated with a black ribbon, had served as an incitement to riot. Of course, someone was carrying a loaf on a stick. I couldn't resist a badge with the words “TO THE CASTLE”, recalling the burning of Nottingham Castle in the 1831 riot in support of the Great Reform Bill. I hope no-one arrests me for incitement to violence. I'm still a Quaker and a pacifist – but I can't help wanting to celebrate Britain's radical past and the workers who demanded that their voice be heard.

Women dancers, energetic and costumed as if for an extravagantly-pagan Morris, led the march. Various factions of the left chanted their competing slogans without getting further than detailed debates. Home-made banners greeted the shoppers of Nottingham, mostly with thoughtful, witty and challenging slogans that might make people think. (I was a little uncertain about the demand for “revolutionary praxis now” - the word“praxis” is underused in most conversations I have.) A gorilla danced and handed out leaflets for Greenpeace. I wondered where to fit into the march and found a place with CND and near Friends of the Earth.

Behind me two socialists had a lengthy discussion about how to vote. One argued that a Labour defeat was the only hope for radical elements in the Labour Party. I didn't catch the response.
I wondered whether competing groups urging people not to vote, on the grounds that direct action is needed, were debating the best way not to put a ballot paper in the ballot box.

We walked, sang, chanted and danced past the derelict wreck of a business which still proclaimed in large, wrought-iron letters "PALMER & SON LTD. BYRON WORKS." I thought we made a cheerful display and was pleased to see answering smiles from some of the shoppers. There were cheerful displays everywhere. Outside the glossy new pawnbrokers with its shiny blue fascia, smiling young women handed out white and blue balloons.

It wasn't a long walk to Nottingham's speaker's corner, by the Brian Clough statue. The Clarion Choir were there to greet us. So was Robin Hood in a home-made and decorated banner-gown. I stayed for a while to listen to the songs and speeches, marvelling at how harmonious and tolerant Nottingham radicals can be on such occasions. I'd have liked to go back to Victoria Park with the march but my back was hurting. I slipped away and decided to blog about the march instead.

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