Monday, 2 January 2012

Why the left should be making demands

I recall Mark Steel telling a story about something Tony Benn said - at Glastonbury, I think - several years ago. "I've given up protesting - and taken up demanding instead", said Benn. Huge cheers from the crowd.

There are good reasons for those cheers. Similarly, it's easy to understand why 'The People Demand the Fall of the Regime' is one of the most resonant slogans of our age.

Most demands are less wildly ambitious than that great rallying cry of the Arab revolutions, but they all suggest action. A demand has to be implemented in action to mean anything, and it requires an active movement to fight for it. It is assertive, strong, and insistent.

Demands are the basis of political mobilisation. They unite people and rally them to a cause. They say: this is what we want, and we'll fight for it.

Demanding is, in this sense, the opposite of begging. Picture the former and you see someone standing tall; picture the latter and you see someone on their knees.

And, as Benn implied, they have a positive quality to them. They aren't simply reacting to a problem, but demanding positive change. They aren't about deferring to the future: there's no 'go slow' gradualism of the kind mocked by Nina Simone in Mississippi Goddam. They are about now.

Time magazine declared 2011 the year of the protester. Following Tony Benn, our challenge is to make 2012 a year of demanding - and let's at least start to win some of those demands. We continue a great tradition: in the history of the working class movement, demands go right back to the Chartists. Their list of clear demands - ambitious but winnable - was the basis for agitation.

Chris Dillow, however, thinks the Left is wrong to talk about demands. He suggests - without any evidence - that 'people who make demands are tiresome – demanding! – and unreasonable. The very use of the word is therefore a turn-off.'

He instead suggests a number of alternatives: making offers, an assertion of rights, stressing the benefits of policies, and using the language of inevitability and necessity. There are circumstances where these can be helpful rhetorical devices, but none of them negate the need for the expression of demands.

It is odd, for example, to juxtapose 'stressing the benefits' to 'making demands'. Er, can't we have both? Don't we already do both all the time?

What seems to underpin this argument is an appeal to conciliation. This is the language of negotiation and compromise: not really aimed at winning public opinion, but geared towards appealing to government and employers.

But the government won't, for example, give concessions on pensions because we on the left have shrewdly re-framed our arguments with fresh rhetoric. They will do so because we force them to through mass strikes and demonstrations.

For the anti-cuts movement, the key challenge now is precisely to articulate a list of demands and use them as a basis for agitation and mobilisation. They are concrete means of moving us from here to there. In the process of organising around them, we also re-shape political debate - a million miles from Ed Miliband's vacillations and polite bartering over 'offers'.



  1. The choice of words that we use is always a good issue for discussion, but let’s not starts an old fashioned "war of words" in this day and this age. My worry is with both approaches: 'demands' are made by the workforce... the miners' demanded... they were greeted by the police on horseback beating them up with truncheons, and on their knees.

    More recently we marched holding banners with our 'demands' and we are greeted with the police kettling us like herds of cows ... soon we will be drenched and fired at with rubber bullets, no doubt.

    I do think that the way the working class is portrayed (or portrays itself) in the media needs to avoid giving convenient sound bites to the opposition. This is what I understood from Chris Dillow's blog. We need to modernise our language, which is true, even if his examples, we perhaps did not like, the point he made was very much a valid point.
    In this sense, we have a lot to learn from the OccupyLSX writers... their style is so appropriate for 2012. In this sense Tony Benn is quite right to tell us what he thinks, that street protests no longer work because our democracy is broken.

  2. golookgoread - The problem is this: who is the audience Chris Dillow has in mind? After all, any suggested change to political language will be linked to the issue of audience. Language is a form of communication and it's necessary to consider how any act of communication will be received or interpreted.

    If the audience is the millions of people around us - who we live and work with - or what might be called 'public opinion', then where on earth is the evidence that these people find 'demands' off-putting? In nearly two decades of political activism I've never once heard (or heard of) someone being put off by 'demands'. If this is what Chris Dillow is suggesting, he'll need at least a little anecdotal evidence to be taken seriously!

    So, we're left with the distinct impression that a very different audience is being considered here, i.e. the politicans or other social groups who might respond to the demands we make. It is therefore being suggested that we would win our demands if only we re-framed the arguments: if only we could get those employers to see the 'benefits' in a pay rise for workers, or persuade the police NOT to stop and search black people because of human rights.

    This reflects a view that our enemies can be benevolent, but need things pitched in a way that will appeal to them. Our problem is apparently that we use language which is too confrontational. That almost inevitably leads on to the idea that we ARE too confrontational, so need to alter our methods (more 'negotiation', polite lobbying etc).

    These arguments are actually very old. As ever, we shouldn't trust those who argue for 'modernising' ourselves - the 'modern' approach they argue for is really as old as the approach they criticise.

  3. I went back and re-read the blogs, and thought about what you have said. Thank you for taking the time.

    This is the language that a partisan such as me generally likes: it using the word demand(s) one time:

    The audience Chris Dillow has in mind is likely to be academic and highbrow... he can be difficult to read, and I risk misunderstanding him sometimes. The blog Chris Dillow was commenting on is this one:
    What he had to say about “The left should relearn this trick. Rather than “demand” change, it should point out that things can’t go on as they are, and so change is necessary.”

    My preference is for scriptonitedaily’s voice – less rhetoric, fewer demands and it strikes a very partisan chord with me. Simultaneously polite and punchy. This is a change in communication tactic which I like.

  4. Yes, I think you're probably right about there being a more academic dimension to what Chris Dillow is writing, and who the audience is. The thing about academic writing, of course, is that it tends to be separated from political practice, so the language of 'demands' is less likely to feature. There's also a tendency in academic circles to overestimate the importance of language choices altogether, thinking that altering these can be a substitute for increased (or more effective) political activity.

    The question of tone is interesting and important - a number of different tones can potentially be adopted when raising demands. James Bloodworth's original post was certainly polite, reasonable and persuasive. So I think that when Chris Dillow raises criticisms, he isn't really complaining about the tone.

    It's more to do with this question: should we be confronting our political enemies outright (and using language which expresses that) or trying to gently persuade them to be reasonable? And I think that anyone opting for the latter is grossly mis-judging what we're up against!

    One final point: I was especially irritated by the bizarre way he asserted that 'demanding' is an off-putting word without a scrap of evidence. This is definitely NOT some sort of 'common sense' or widespread perception, so the need for substantiating it should be obvious. It's a dubious ideological sleight-of-hand when people present something contentious (and unsubstantiated) as common sense.