Monday, 2 January 2012
Why the left should be making demands
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'.