Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour must be more than a protest movement

I love a good protest. I have attended loads in my time – I was even introduced to my husband on an anti-apartheid march, so I know much good can come from them. In the 1980s and early 1990s, I also marched for jobs, against student loans, for the miners, against poverty. I have attended marches and vigils to protect my local hospital and other public services. As a minister I have been protested against but this did not stop me working to ensure that the right to protest was protected while I was home secretary.

Shouting at the walls of parliament should remain a key right in our democratic country. It has played a part in my political life, but it was nowhere near as satisfying as being elected to get inside those walls and make some changes.

The job of opposition is that it should be the time to think, plan and develop your alternative programme for government. It should be the time when you reflect on why you lost and reach out to those whose support you need to win. The point of a political party is to be in – or to prepare for – government. I am also a member of a range of campaigns and protest groups. I give them money and my support to campaign for change and to protest too. I give the Labour party my money and my time to get into government and to wield power to make that change.

This is why I am dubious about whether the leader of the opposition should join a protest at the governing party’s conference. Presumably those people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn as our party leader did not do it so he could attend even more protests, they did it so that he could become prime minister. At least I sincerely hope so. I am not interested in Labour being a really good protest movement, I want us to be a future government.

One of the things which most determines the way that people vote is seeing the leader of the opposition as a potential prime minister. That was one of the problems for Ed Miliband in May. Most people never attend protests and they think of them as a minority and often extreme pursuits. It does not matter if we think they are wrong – that is what they think. A political leader who wants to be prime minister needs to consider the views of all those who he wants to vote for him, not just those who will cheer him as he joins them on a protest. Being a political leader brings different responsibilities to being an activist.

Corbyn has rightly condemned those preventing journalists from doing their job by spitting on them and abusing them. I think he should have gone one step further and condemned the abuse and worse thrown at people exercising their democratic right to attend a party political conference too. The right to protest is a vital part of British life, but so is order and respect.

Most people on Sunday’s No2Austerity protest were peaceful and had every right to be there and to protest. The hard left and anarchists who chose to spit on journalists and delegates destroyed the legitimacy of their protest and damaged the message for all. Corbyn is now in a leadership position. He should roundly condemn all their actions.


Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary, writes the Monday Politics column for Progress, and tweets @Jacqui_Smith1


Photo: RJ Doughty

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Jacqui Smith

is a former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress


  • Bit of an exaggeration there Jacqui, I’m open to being corrected if I’ve got it wrong but I’ve only read about one spitting incident and one egging, completely irrelevant in the scheme of 85,000 people protesting.

    Let’s talk about the more important issue of what labour SHOULD be about, which in my and many others opinion is an opposition (whilst in opposition), actually opposing this governments damaging policies, explaining to people why those policies are damaging and why there is an alternative to them. Instead of trying to find some non existent middle ground where you try to sound like you care about everybody whilst desperately trying to upset nobody.

    That is what labour are now finally doing, and people finally understand what they’re voting for (or against).

  • Hopefully if the combined good sense of half a million members is allowed to have a much bigger say in policy formation, we will in future not get the sort of ‘mistakes’ like invading Iraq, using PFI to fund capital schemes off the books and tax credit schemes to subsidise low wages. Many New Labour initiatives caused collateral damage. Others could be easily reversed. It will not be easy but a more open debate, early enough in the electoral cycle should allow people who may have to deliver Labour’s next programme to test the principles and shape the detail.

  • The leader of the opposition did not join the protest at the conference. As he said yesterday, he was upholding a previously made appointment prior to the labour leadership election. I no doubt he expected some criticism from his talk last night, but instead decided to not let people down the organisers on something that had likely taken months of planning. Maybe we should be asking what the public may see in this?

  • The responses here help to explain why Labour is in such trouble at the moment. The bad behaviour was more widespread I’m afraid than most of those commenting here have realised. The abuse of journalists has been well recorded by the HuffPost. Channel 4’s Michael Crick (who literally wrote the book on Militant), has tweeted pictures of the abuse he suffered. My partner, who has to attend the conference in a professional capacity, was subjected to cries of “Tory scum” even though she has been a member of the Labour Party for 30 years. We should welcome the fact, nonetheless, that Jeremy Corbyn and senior TUC officials have condemned the behaviour of a small minority – but the fact that this is taking place at all at an official TUC demonstration is more than a little worrying.

    Having lived through the 80s (and being slightly older than Jacqui), I have a terrible feeling of deja vu about all of this. Getting people onto the streets is no substitute for winning elections. Experience tells us that resolutionary socialism, cobbled together composites at Party conference, euro scepticism, hostility to all markets, unilateral disarmament (including a commitment of course never to press the red button) and a simple minded attitude to foreign affairs (supporting all supposed “liberation” movements, whatever their provenance) is a sure-fire recipe for losing.

    This does not mean of course that I supported the Iraq war, embraced PFI with unqualified enthusiasm or believed that the minimum wage plus tax credits was an adequate response to low pay. Elements of Labour’s record in government deserve criticism, but others deserve praise – we did reduce child poverty, get more people into work and recapitalise health and education services. My concern is that if you have any good words to say about the 1997-2010 Labour government you get branded as a Tory or at best as a “neoliberal”. Far from promoting debate, this is stifling discussion in the Party and taking us even further away from an honest and unsparing assessment of what happened in May. There is plenty of material out there – IPPR’s analysis, Jon Cruddas’s polling, Diamond and Radice’s Southern Discomfort Revisited, the Smith Institute’s account of Labour’s suburban woes and Lewis Baston’s work for Progress. This is where the Party needs to focus its attention. I fear however, that there is very little appetite for confronting the hard realities – at least based on the reactions in this thread.

  • It is important for a leader to be seen to lead. The rally in Manchester for the CWU which is what he was actually doing in Manchester, was an invitation of long standing, long before he became leader, and it would have been wrong to send apologies at the last moment.
    ear in mind that it is also his calming influence that meant the Greater Manchester Police actually complimented protesters on their good behaviour. Of course the one or two spitting incidents were deplorable and have rightly been deplored but who is to say they were Labour people who did that. It was a TUC rally which drew anti-austerity campaigners from all walks. As for the egging of Colm I think most people have now dismissed this as a propaganda stunt by the Tories. The failed candidate from the GE took one for the team.
    The most important job for Labour is to propose alternative policies which would benefit the country and the people as opposed to the current austerity belt tightening of the Tories which really only hits those who have been hot the hardest already. To do this we need the support of the people and that is coming to us based around the open policy campaign surrounding our Labour leader and future PM Jeremy Corbyn with his #newpolitics.
    This is not a time to be criticising a leader who gets out there with the people. It is a time to rally round the flag and take Labour back to the government benches.

  • ” Getting people onto the streets is no substitute for winning elections.”
    No except of course when there is no election and you want the people to know you are there and what you are doing. Labour wins elections when it gets out on the streets and meets the people.
    One reason that Labour does get a bad press is also down to people like yourself who immediately blame Labour if a protester shouts Tory Scum. It was not even a Labour rally. It was organised by the TUC and drew people from all sorts of anti-austerity [protesters and the more extreme of those would probably have called your partner that even if she had a big red rosette on saying I AM A LABOUR PARTY MEMBER.

    I too lived through the 80s, and the 70s and the 60s as well as having my childhood in the 50s so I have seen governments come and go and know how they affected me at different times.I was in a union in my teens and in the Labour party in my early 20s. I was a socialist then and I am a socialist now. I put up with the Blair years (and don’t really count the Brown Premiership as he always was better as Chancellor) and I saw a glimmer of hope when Ed not Dave got the union backing. The one good thing Red (really dark pink) Ed did was to change the rukles so that we, the members, got to decide on our new leader and we did, with a vengeance.
    So now that he has been elected, and more and more people are supporting the so-called unelectable policies he has suggested be put out for consultation, it is time to forget the internecine squabbles and get together to get Labour elected to the Government benches.

  • I’m afraid you have just proved my point. Either we want a debate in the Party or we don’t. You seem to be suggesting that either I should endorse the policies of London Labour Briefing/Campaign for Labour Party Democracy circa 1981 or shut up. If this isn’t stifling debate I don’t know what is.

    You say you “put up” with the Blair years. Would you have preferred a Conservative government? Do you give the Blair government any credit at all? What about the minimum wage, the New Deal for young people, big spending increases on health and education, Sure Start, the regeneration of Manchester, Leeds and other Northern cities, devolution to Wales and Scotland, peace in Northern Ireland, rejoining the mainstream of European social policy? Does this count for nothing?

    Just to make things clear: we lost the 2015 election badly, we have not engaged in any kind of analysis of the reasons for defeat and we have run headlong in the direction of a comfort blanket labelled “anti-austerity”. Proclaiming one’s commitment to socialism is very noble, but professions of faith alone never win elections

  • David Coats at no point have I said I want to stifle debate. I have said forget the squabbles and I say that because squabbles stifle debate. Forget the squabbles and get down to the debating.
    During those Blair years I would have preferred a proper Labour government which is why I put up with them as the only other choice was a Conservative government. Of course there were advances and good things happened but better things were left to one side. I would not say that no Conservative has ever done done anything good.
    Of course professions of faith or even hailing a “new Messiah” as many Corbyn supporters have been accused of, is not going to win elections. What will win is dedication to promoting the policies that are agreed on by the Labour Party, not the PLP, or the NEC, or the CLP executives, or the TUC or any of the other alphabetti spaghetti of the cliques but by the people of the Party together. That means debate but it does not necessarily mean slagging each other off in public while the hyenas circle waiting for us to be so weakened that we cannot defend ourselves.
    No accepting the ideas of the past but discussing and approving the policies formulated in the past and refined for the future.
    Time to get on board and help us make our way to the place we all want to be, the government benches.

  • Real pity you didn’t join the 100,000 trades unionists, students, and Labour Party members to oppose the government’s two main strategies to attack the working class. You should be very ashamed, rather that taking every opportunity to turn the clock back to the 90s!

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