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Saturday, 22 November 2014

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Do mass marches have any effect?

Some estimates put last weekend’s march against Government cuts at around 500,000 people.

Union members, non-union members, public and private sector workers and their families took to the streets of London for a mass demonstration and then rally in Hyde Park.

Back in the 1980s there seemed to be a march every week.

Or at least, every other week.

Against Nuclear Power, Coal Not Dole, Anti-Nazi, the Poll Tax, Free the Birmingham Six, Anti-Apartheid, Support the Sandinistas...

In recent years, mass demonstrations have become less popular, with huge numbers of people only turning out for marches against the Iraq war and the ban on hunting.

Those events could be deemed a success in that huge numbers of people turned out in support and organisers managed to show the strength and depth of feeling held on the subject.

But the marches did not achieve their aims. The hunting ban was still introduced and the war on Iraq went ahead as scheduled.

So, is it an unpleasant truth that only violence and damage causes people to think twice?

Some say the violent anti-poll tax demonstrations forced Margaret Thatcher’s government to review thinking on the tax and eventually led to her downfall.

Before that, the anger of the Grosvenor Square demonstration in 1968 forced the UK government to rethink its policy on Vietnam.

Alan Marsden of Penrith was one of the hundreds of thousands who took part in the London rally at the weekend.

“I think a statement had to be made. We hoped there would be a good turn out for the statement to have any validity,” he said.

Alan, 62, also went on the anti-Iraq war march in February 2003 and took part in many marches in his youth.

“Tony Blair ignored the anti-Iraq war march which was nationwide and bigger, but the alternative is to sit back and do nothing,” added Alan.

“If you look at it objectively, the actions that achieved anything were the poll tax riots which eventually got rid of Maggie Thatcher and the Grosvenor Square riot which woke everyone up to the effect of the Vietnam war. The recent student riots woke everyone up to the problems of tuition fees for students.”

The freelance cameraman reckons that taking part in a march is worthwhile because it shows the strength and depth of feeling on a certain subject. It may not cause an instant reaction but it may well have a longer term effect.

“If you are willing to go to Penrith at 2am, sit on a bus for six hours, walk for six hours along the hard streets of London, and get back on a bus for six hours – for every one person willing to do that, there are 20 others thinking they would do it.

“It allows politicians to say to the coalition that 400,000 people marched through London against what they are doing, which equates to 4m people being actively against what they are doing and provides an argument against it.”

Tom Underwood is community officer with the University of Cumbria Students’ Union, and one of those who took part in the demonstration against tuition fee increases in November.

He believes that peaceful marches can achieve things – provided the marchers know exactly what they are marching for – and the action can form part of a wider campaign.

“Before you even think about marching you need to be 100 per cent clear what you want to achieve,” Tom says. “You need to have a clear message, such as opposition to tuition fees or funding for health care. That’s when it is most effective.

“Take tuition fees. There were 50,000 people putting across a clear message that students weren’t happy.”

But a march can only be one element, he adds.

“We were lobbying politicians in the House of Commons as well, and student union presidents were speaking to their local MPs.

“Those are two parts of the same campaign. The march was the ‘broad band’ part of it, lobbying MPs was the ‘narrow band’ part.”

Resorting to violence, Tom argues, is not only illegal but is counter-productive.

“Violence is unacceptable – and it undermines the message of the demo. Organisers of a march can have the best of intentions but they can be hijacked by groups of people who are out to cause trouble.”

Carlisle Conservative MP John Stevenson defends the right to march, but doubts if it makes much difference.

“We live in a democracy and so the right to demonstrate has to be supported,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for people to express an opinion. But if it turns violent I completely and utterly condemn that.

“What happened on Saturday was terrible.”

He feels the effectiveness of a demo depends on the issue.

“They can have a certain impact, but only when they are on the right side of the argument – and I would argue that they weren’t last weekend.

“People accept that the Government has a huge deficit to deal with and whether we like it or not there have to be cuts.”

Peaceful demos against the Iraq War or the ban on fox-hunting didn’t change policies, but Mr Stevenson points out: “The one thing the Countryside Alliance march achieved was to bring to the fore issues about rural life.

“And the Countryside Alliance has continued to exist and campaign on those. So it had a limited impact.”

And he rejects the argument that only a violent protest – such as those against the poll tax – can change things.

“The violence didn’t bring the end of the poll tax. There were wider issues with the government at the time.”

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