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.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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