An Enemy of the Britain!

So yesterday I did something political that didn't just involve shouting on the internet, for the first time in nearly two years, by going to the May Day festivities in Manchester. I've not been politically active due to a combination of (over)work, disillusionment and psychological difficulties, which makes me feel guilty. Plus I wanted to get out of the house and avoid revising myself to death.

(The title refers to someone on facebook spitting blood at the thought of Labourites for being too left-wing and labelling them "an enemy of the Britain [sic]". I like laughing at vitriol making native English speakers forget their own language and I like laughing at people who are so frightened of anyone having opinions that differ from their own that they have to label dissenters as traitors. Plus if even relatively inoffensive concepts like "xenophobia is bad" make me an enemy of Britain, well, I'd hate to be an ally...)

At first I was sceptical; TUSC on twitter has a rather unglorious history of palling around with the kind of hateful, tinfoil-hatted weirdos who think Jews control everything (I actually kind of liked them at first as far as you can like any political party, until I found out about that). I actually left the last rally I went to in tears because people were attacking me for my nationality (I'm Israeli and British and questions of identity are complicated) and to this day I habitually lie about where I'm from. I sometimes think about changing my name to something more English so people stop bugging me about where I'm really from. This brings me onto fear: apart from the aforementioned incident, I've had anxiety attacks on marches, been sexually harassed by leftists, and had other general unpleasant stuff happen to me that made me reluctant to plunge myself into a similar environment. Plus...well...I'm not in a union. I'm a wanky student swanning around pretending to do a degree and I have mental health problems that interfere with my ability to function. I don't like encroaching on other people's spaces.

So I did what any weirdo worth their salt does and checked who was going to the event on facebook. I counted at least three students from my university. Worth a shot! (I didn't see any of them in the end...)

...I actually very nearly didn't go. My anxiety has been getting worse in the run-up to exams and this morning I felt a sickening tightness in my chest at the thought of encroaching on someone else's space and potentially having another awful experience.

I managed to push through it. I'm glad I did.

First Impressions
Well, having to go on my phone halfway walking up Princess Street to look at a map was kind of embarrassing...Oh well. I found the Mechanics Institute and the weird little side entrance that you're supposed to use that looks nearly unusable due to roadworks and managed to screw up enough courage to ask people where I was going. It helped that I saw people in "no TTIP" shirts - to be honest I was expecting more angry, noisy protesters from the march.

I was actually expecting a lot more anger in general, to be honest; I've grown used to hanging around people who are perpetually angry at everything and that was part of my aversion to doing politics. I hate the performative aspect of it and I hate feeling on edge and judged. Instead, everyone seemed quite friendly and mellow.

Well, you do mellow out with age I guess - most of the people there were middle-aged, as befits unionised workers I suppose. I've always associated activism with something people my age do, though I'm used to being one of the youngest at rallies and occupations and things. Don't get me wrong, people my age are politically active, but they're probably far more radical and steeped in theory than I am...I am a confused person with a pitiful theoretical background that I really need to improve upon, just trying to make sense of the world around me with the tools I have at my disposal. Everyone also seemed to know each other, which I wasn't expecting.

Stop TTIP!
I stayed behind for the Stop TTIP talk. I find TTIP itself quite difficult to understand due to its secrecy and the fact that I suck at economics and so haven't been involved in the anti-TTIP movements. This is probably the main stumbling block to people voicing opposition to TTIP, to be frankly honest - well, that and the fact that most of TTIP is secret. Considering that as a US-EU free trade deal millions of people will be affected, that's hardly a good sign.

Frankly, it sounds like a capitalist's wet dream: it hands a lot of power to big businesses at the expense of governments. Now, I don't believe governments are benevolent, but I don't think businesses have the best interests of anything but their balance sheets at heart (I mean, come on, companies like Philip Morris are not really working in the interests of public health). People sounded positive about the fightback but governments seem to be listening to themselves and to money above all. Getting more economic clout than multinationals is going to be...difficult, to say the least.

Great Big Balls of Steel
I popped out for a lunch break because I was shaking with hunger by this point. Afterwards, I went to a protest songwriting session - the thing that had made me want to come along in the first place. I absolutely love to sing and if I can turn what I'm good at doing into something vaguely useful, then I will.

I knew we were writing for a choir and actors, but given that we were doing a pop-up performance of sorts, I had no idea whether the choir and actors were decided on the day. Nobody knew. So I asked the choir director and I don't think I should have been able to join, but she might have been too flummoxed by my request to refuse.

Lesson learned - ask and ye shall receive!

We Shall Overcome!
We spent the next 2 hours struggling to write a protest song. After grumpily agreeing that economic inequality sucks, trying to think of solutions sort of hit a dead end...

...Everyone agreed to wanting the Tories out. Taxing the rich more and cutting benefit sanctions also had widespread support, albeit with reservations about how to make sure those taxes would be spent well. More radical solutions hung heavy over my head, although discussing fundamental systemic change is the kind of thing that makes most people (OK, my parents) think you're crazy.

Every group contributed a verse to our song and when we put it together with the scenes the result was rough around the edges, but great fun to perform. It was even better when we fed off the audience's reactions and left me feeling tired but hopeful.

Final Thoughts
Although I felt really happy to be there and to get back into doing something vaguely political, I still have some final loose ends to tie up.

Firstly, not all politically active people are wankers! Okay, lots of them are, but lots of them are not. Secondly, politically active people are not unicorns. A charge that often gets levelled against anyone right-wingers consider "socialist" (so basically not them) is that they live in a bubble or are divorced from the ordinary world. The people I met were not feckless students (not that students are feckless, but people say that about us a lot) or clueless rich folk: they were ordinary people. I would like to stress that the vast majority of politically active people, no matter their position on the spectrum or the compass or whatever metric you like to use, are pretty ordinary. This is at once inspiring and scary.

Thirdly, we all need to be talking to each other more. I bang on about this with humans and with machines because lack of communication impairs the functioning of any system. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge and it is only by working together that we can fill in those gaps.

However, there are a hell of a lot of problems in trying to talk to each other more. Firstly, while most people left of centre agree that things like poverty, inequality and bigotry are bad things, we disagree about what to do about them. There is a real risk of only being able to agree on the most inoffensive solutions - which are usually likely to be reformist stopgaps. For some people that is enough. Some people want deeper structural change. I am one of the "get rid of everything and start anew" group. And we need some reasonably objective way to work out who is right, otherwise we'll always have people arguing about whether systemic change is necessary or not and we'll never be able to agree on anything other than the least controversial proposals. This is without going into creating an atmosphere that welcomes radical ideas and without trying to solve the problem of everyone left of centre seeing everyone else as the enemy.

Secondly, in building any broad coalition, which itself is controversial because everyone fundamentally disagrees with everyone's worldview and methods (this is more than a little simplistic, but my eyes desperately want to shut), you're going to get weird bigots. The first question to ask is: do we want weird bigots working with us? They provide added numbers and influence, but is it really worth it to be giving a free pass to prejudice and hate under the banner of fairness? I don't think it is, but that's a question for everyone to make their own minds up on.

The third problem is time pressure. In less than a week we will have a new government and the process of sorting out who's going to join forces with who to rule the country is going to be a mess of politicians going back and forth on everything they've said during election season. Quite a lot of things could happen, not all of them necessarily conducive to long, leisurely conferences. So as much as I want to get everyone talking to each other, I also recognise that we need people to be acting quickly now. I trust that they are doing so.

There is every hope and possibility of trying to unite people instead of having several different groups all fighting each other. But there are a hell of a lot of challenges to overcome in doing so and we face great pressure.