Down to Trafalgar Square this afternoon to join the demo organised by Take Back Parliament: a coalition (!) of campaigning organisations committed to pushing for electoral reform in the UK.
I parked my bike at the end of Pall Mall and headed into the square, where a fair group of people were gathered around the base of Nelson’s column waving purple flags and brandishing placards. There had been some sort of megaphone malfunction, so the organisers were doing their best to get us excited shouting over the noise of the fountains and the noise of a group of morris dancers who were vying with us for space in the square.
The megaphone fixed, Billie Bragg came to the plinth and argued against the excuse that a proportional voting system would bring in all manner of fringe parties by reminding us how conclusively the BNP have just been wiped out in Barking, just one term after entering the council. His argument, which seems to me to have much truth in it, was that once extreme groups’ views are given a public airing, and they are given a chance to prove their competence, the public will reject them, and that we have nothing to fear. It was also good to get some good liberal values (freedom of speech &c) aired at this meeting, without interruptions from no-platformers.
Ken Ritchie then addressed us, but for all his talents he doesn’t know how to handle a megaphone, and I only caught one word in seven. I saw him on the news later today, changed from his yellow anorak into a suit, and he made some good coherent points; perhaps next time we can have a better sound system!
Finally, we had a speaker who I did not recognise: a middle-aged black man who called to us “Is this the start?” — Yes! cried the crowd — ”Is this the beginning?” — Yes! — “Of our Obama moment?” — Errm…. Then when he exhorted us to celebrate the fact that more black and minority ethnic candidates had been elected this time than ever before (a women near me called out “What about more women?”), it became evident that he had rather misjudged the occasion: surely you don’t celebrate the achievements of a system you have gathered to decry!
We then had a sing-song from Bragg (I suppose this was inevitable, although his choice of an old revolutionary folk song may have gone down well with the morris dancers), after which he announced that Nick Clegg was in camera in Smith Square, and proposed we take a stroll down there to meet him.
We were a noisy but considerate caravan snaking our way down Whitehall: mauve flags waving and slogans chanted as we studiously stuck to the pavement, and everyone dropping their voices as we passed the ponies at horseguards. At Parliament Square a little rivalry became evident between us and a small group of anti-capitalists protesting against the situation in Greece, but for all their efforts our numbers were greater and they were drowned out until we passed.
And then to Smith Square, a charming, leafy location for a cheery, high-spirited protest. Journalists and onlookers crowded onto the steps of St John’s as we took up our place outside Transport House. This was the purpose of the demonstration: the confront Nick Clegg with the popular support for electoral reform, and exhort him not to compromise in his commitment to changing our political system. After some time, calls morphing from “Make votes fair” to “We want to see Nick” in patterns that were at times Ivesian in their rhythms, something began to happen at the front: several additional police officers climbed the stairs of Transport House and started the encouraging the people on the steps to move away. The cry went round: “Press move back”, as the principle occupants of these steps were camera crews; after a while the call changed to ”Just move Sky”: perhaps someone had seen Kay Burney’s reaction to us as we walked past College Green.
And finally Clegg appeared, to great cheers. He took the megaphone, which was still not loud enough, and made a short speech, interrupted at times by cheers and cries of ”Don’t sell out”, and then he went back into the building. It felt a great achievement not only to have seized such a critical moment for this demonstration, but to have come face to face with the person best placed to set the wheels of electoral reform in motion, although Clegg’s address was a typically political speech and, whilst acknowledging that we were coming from the same starting point, he did nothing to assure us that we were heading for the same goal.
But, whatever the outcome of this weekend’s negotiations, this was a great occasion: noisy, somewhat disorganised, but good natured and positive and, if not the direct catalyst for the change we so need, the beginning of a process that can take us there.
Now, go to the Take Back Parliament website and sign the petition: the work goes on!