Yesterday was meant to see another big protest in London. The Rally Against Debt is a new protest group, supported by pressure group the Taxpayers' Alliance and UKIP, representing an interesting new fusion between parties and pressure groups. The aim of the enterprise was clear - to mobilise that vast reservoir of support that clearly exists for the government's proposed spending cuts. Except that, er, it apparently doesn't. Police estimates for the turnout were around 350. The admittedly biased New Statesman reporter Lisa Hamilton thought 200 was a 'generous' estimate for what was, in her view, really more of a long queue than an actual rally. Compare that with the protests against the cuts, organised by the trade unions and other groups on March 26th., and....well, they garnered something like a quarter of a million protestors, including the fragrant Fortnums sit-in organisers, UK Uncut.
So clearly a failure? Well, yes......AND no. The Rally Against Debt was not, for a start, actually pressuring anyone to change policy. They were there to support what is already government policy. Whether the presence of a few hundred apparently civilised citizens in Old Palace Yard is going to particularly stiffen the mettle of the government is hard to say. They are, after all, already committed to the cuts agenda so the actions of Rally Against Debt are not exactly transformative, however many people turn up. But of course, the aims of this particular day were not just to endorse government policy, but to mobilise opinion in favour of an even more drastic approach to cutting the debt. They wanted to be the beginning of a British Tea Party movement that successfully pressures for significantly reduced government and lower taxes. That after all is the aim of the main force behind the rally, the Taxpayers' Alliance. In that regard, the protest was indeed a complete failure. For all the interest on the right in the American Tea Party, the non-event of the Rally Against Debt appears to suggest that there will be no such successful project in Britain.
So what conclusions can we draw about the impact of pressure groups from the somewhat abortive Rally, and its hated polar opposite, the March For The Alternative of March 26th? First, while pressure groups who support government policy may be successful in getting some insider leverage in influencing the direction of policy, they are unlikely to get a huge number of people to join a public protest - after all, the government's already doing (largely) what they want, so most ordinary people (the necessary ingredient of mass protests) will question the value of going along. Conservative Home's Tim Montgomerie also suggested that right-wingers are simply less willing to protest than left-wingers - a rather dubious claim presumably designed to explain why a cause dear to his heart didn't attract much public support. Second, successful pressure groups need to chime in with a popular mood, and the popular mood remains on the side of public services. Cuts are accepted as, at best, a necessary evil, but they are not enthusiastically embraced.
Third, in this instance at any rate, the size and organisational capability of the relevant pressure group is significant. The March for the Alternative was organised in large part by the trade union movement, with all that implies for funding, publicity and the ability to bus in your supporters. The Rally Against Debt relied principally on social media to heighten its profile - sympathetic blogs, facebook and twitter were all used, supported by a few Telegraph newspaper columnists. They gained more publicity after the event - maybe because of the novelty of it being so small - than before. The organiser of the event, Jacob Patch, gave his explanation for the low turn-out on their website, giving this comment:
There were many factors that worked against us. The main bulk of the media coverage was on the day and the week leading up to it. We had the Royal Wedding and especially the ‘No to AV’ and ‘Local elections’ that diverted many peoples attentions away from the event. For many by the time this was all over it was too late to book trains buses, get time off of work etc. Not to mention the exams coming up for many young people.
An earlier blog entry on the website from Mr. Patch is also interesting in terms of trying to explain how to make the rally as media-friendly as possible - he puts out a call for placards and interesting slogans, and details various prominent speakers who will be attending, all part and parcel of getting a pressure group event noticed.
Of course, it should also be noted that for all its size and profile, the March 26th. event made not a jot of difference to the government's cutting agenda, and was considered by some to have backfired in view of the violent tactics used by a small number of protestors. Large or small, public protests might be seen to be amongst the least effective means of getting governments to change their minds, even if they are a necessary part of obtaining a public profile.
The Taxpayers' Alliance will presumably continue its campaigning work, but it has suffered a bloody nose with its Rally. One of the counter-organisations meanwhile, UK Uncut, are using the notoriety they gained from their Fortnums sit-in to arrange another day of action soon. On 28th. May they are aiming to transform banks into hospitals all over the country, as a protest against NHS changes. Now on that topic, they may well be chiming in with the prevailing public mood. We'll see how they do.
Finally, here is the BBC London report on the rally, with an explanation for its small size from key backer, blogger Guido Fawkes.