Does size matter?

There’s a big march in London tomorrow.  You may have heard about it.

How big will it be?  Some people are estimating 100,000.  Some say 300,000.  Some reckon it might be more than a million.

But the more relevant question is whether it matters how big it is?

No, say the pessimists.  A million marched in 2003. The war still happened. Yes, say the optimists. It’s different this time.

I tend cautiously to the latter view.  I, and many others, are marching for the first time in a while because there has been a surge in collective responsibility, as well as a genuine interest in what it will be like. 

In addition, the TUC and False Economy, amongst others, have done a very good job organising and advertising public transport:  600 (known) coaches with 50 people on each, plus 10 special trains means that we’re already talking 30,000 from the regions, and the knowledge that this is happening will have spurred on many more to make their own arrangements to get down.  Even many local Labour parties have got their act together.

But the fact that it might be big doesn’t make it matter more in itself.  It will only really matter if it really changes, or starts to change the rules about what marches mean.

As Mark Ferguson has noted, marches generally just make marchers feel better (though I suggest the exeception is direct counter marches), and the size is an irrelevance. 

But that’s in Britain.  In France, size matters because there is an acceptance on both sides of the marching argument that it does.  Take, for example, this mainstream media reporting of demonstrations in France about the increase in the retirement age being imposed by the Sarkozy regime:

Quelque 395.000 personnes ont manifesté en France pour la défense des retraites, dont 22.000 à Paris, selon le ministère de l’Intérieur, tandis que la CGT a fait état d’un million de manifestants…..

Ces taux sont moins importants que ceux de la journée d’action du 23 mars, date de la dernière journée de mobilisation, note le ministère dans son communiqué. La mobilisation avait été de 18,9% dans la Fonction publique d’Etat, 11,1% dans la Fonction publique territoriale, et 7,9% dans la Fonction publique hospitalière.

In France, both unions and the Interior Ministry measure the ‘strength of feeling’ by counting (and contesting) the number of demonstrators and associated strikers. 

This reflects the validity, rooted deeply in French political tradition, of the demonstration as proxy (even potent symbol) for what may come next.  It remains enough to have the ruling Parisian classes discussing the potential for working class foment over a soirée au 15ème, and to ensure that the appropriate ‘coups de téléphone’ are made the next morning.

The question is whether we can impose that validity in Britain, whether we can force the government to accept that size matters, especially by effective use of comparison with demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere; whatever the disimmilarities, we should not let the media forget about Cameron touring Tahrir Square in a cynical attempt at reflected glory in the achievement of the Egyptian people.

I don’t know whether we can change what marches mean in the UK, especially for a first big march; as in France, it may be the trend in numbers which matters more than absolutes.  

But at the very least we should be aware of this as an objective, and as part of the strategy for the day we should be ensuring that we do get a statistically reliable picture of the numbers on the march so that the inevitable understimates emerging from the police can be properly countered. 

(This might be done most easily by a number of people simply recording the march as it goes past, counting the numbers moving through the frame in a minute, and then mutiplying this by the number of minutes taken for the start and end of the march (there will be some fuzziness at the end), again properly recorded and timed.)

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  1. March 27, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    I thought the march yesterday was absolutely appalling.

    The number of people was good, as was the distribution of people across all ages and as many professions.

    But the agitation was almost perfunctory, there was no mood. And as for the speakers, I saw Dave Nellist’s speech at speaker’s corner and it was ten times better than anything from the main podium, a point confirmed by the lacklustre attendance at that podium.

    That’s without even mentioning the pisspoor organisation that saw half the march still back at Trafalgar whilst the key speeches were being made.

    I suspect the numbers were lowballed because people were leaving the march even while new people were arriving.

    But these weren’t the worst aspects; the worst aspect was Ed Miliband. I’m not neutral but seriously, what idiots elected this guy leader of the Labour Party? He’s such a wet fish – both in delivery and in content. His repetition of the phrase “mainstream majority” and association of it with the march just made me wonder who he was trying to convince. There were no tactics discussed, no avenues advocated. For him, it was clear, the march had no future.

    Tellingly, his speech made reference to the past achievements of Attlee and co (which is the usual fodder for New Labour, since they’ve got no crowd-pleasing achievements of their own, what with SureStart and the NMW having been worn a little threadbare by overuse). More revealing still was his positioning of the TUC march as standing at the front of historical movements – like civil rights – and nary a mention of the anti-war movement, which was four times the size and many times as vociferous.

    This guy is Kinnock number two, right down to the bumbling idiocy in his speech-making.

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