The Alternative March for the Alternative

On Sunday, we stopped at some services just off the M1 where I bought a bottle of Sprite. Whilst paying for this overpriced but - due to a rather bad hangover - much needed fizzy liquid I took a quick glance at the shop's rack of Sunday papers.

Unsurprisingly, most of the front pages were covering the 'March for the Alternative', the anti-cuts protest which saw 250,000 or 500,000 people (depending on whether you believe the Police or the protest's organisers) march through Central London in protest against the very deep cuts to public services.

I was one of those protestors, and although I have a large beard at the moment, it is more by accident than design, so before you ask I am not a hippy, a trade union member, a communist, an anarchist or even in Red Ed's Labour Party. I will possibly own up to being a beardy weirdy, circa 1969-71, but that's probably more to do with taste in music than politics and the look I'm going for with my next record. Mainly I was there because like a lot of dudes, bearded or no, I'm quite fond of British public services.

Anyway, enough of the beard stuff. Where was I? Oh yes, in a service station, bottle of Sprite in hand, hungover and looking at examples of fine British journalism. I was expecting the papers to cover the march in a negative light - but I really wasn't expecting there to be quite such a disparity between what actually happened on Saturday and what was being reported. I and the other 249,999 or so peaceful protestors might as well have been on another march, on another planet; certainly not at the event that was being written about on the front pages of virtually every one of the respectable British newspapers I was looking at (if that's a correct way of describing them; last time I looked most British newspapers seemed to be owned by foreign, rich, eccentric tycoons, but that's another day's moan).

The event that the press was portraying was one of anarchy; violence; chaos; war. Yes, there was some violence, for which 149 people were charged. That is, on the Police figures, 0.06% of the total turnout, or, based on the organisers' figures, 0.03%. Either way it would appear that 99.94% to 99.97% of those protesting were not charged with any wrong-doing or violence. It was an overwhelmingly peaceful protest, and all of us aforementioned peaceful people were angry  - in a peaceful way of course - that some idiots had disturbed our, well, peacefulness.

Maybe it was too much to expect that a paper of record, The Sunday Times, might make more of the fact that hundreds of thousands of British people from all walks of life came out to protest against their own government than that a profoundly small minority caused violence. Or that so-called 'quality broadsheets' would focus exclusively on 'carnage', 'battles', 'chaos', 'violence' and accompany these lurid descriptions with pictures of an unruly but entirely unrepresentative mob. What was being reported was not the 'March for the Alternative', but some weird 'Alternative March for the Alternative', completely at odds with reality.

But whilst I was irritated by most of the coverage, one front page actually made me feel genuinely sad. The Sunday Telegraph had a huge picture of a policeman being attacked by some guy with a stick, accompanied by the headline 'Britain's Face of Hatred'.  

This picture and headline instantly and deeply undermined up to half a million people, from all sections of British society, from all age groups and from all backgrounds, who had come together and marched not out of hatred but in support of an idea that is arguably the polar opposite of hatred: the idea that we are, to coin a phrase, 'all in this together'; that public services matter; that they transform lives for the better; and that they should not be slated, sacrificed and privatised because of the huge greed of the banking sector. Even if we who were marching in support of public services are profoundly misguided, and the controversial austerity measures are going to eventually solve all of Britain's economic problems, we were not remotely marching out of hate; we genuinely believe that public services are a force for good that make lives better for millions - and that every step should be taken to protect them and fund them properly. Idealistic, perhaps, but not hateful.  

The Sunday Telegraph's front page will have been seen by countless other hungover guys in motorway services all across Britain. Or people popping to the corner shop for a pint of milk. And for millions this in-your-face, out-of-context image will give a lasting impression that the March for the Alternative was a march for hatred. But it's not how the event was, or what it was about. 

I took another snap of the 'March for the Alternative'. It's unlikely to be seen on the front page of a newspaper; it will probably go no further than the little band of devoted and perhaps unfortunate readers who read my scribblings. But it's a picture which tells the story of the day in a much more honest way, and shows what it was about. You can take a look below.

Why I'm not betting on a Tory win

For quite a while now the media has been doing a good job of convincing us all that the Tories are on their way back to power. Be it in The Guardian or The Daily Mail, David Cameron has for the past year or so been consistently portrayed as the next PM, and the assumption that the Conservatives will win the next election is now firmly embedded in political journalism.

It’s easy to understand why political commentators are taking a ‘Tories-will-win’ line: Brown is a jaded, unpopular prime minister who presides over an uninspiring administration – an administration which has been finding it hard to appeal to Labour supporters, never mind floating voters. And the Tories have been ahead in the polls for ages.

In strictly democratic terms, the Tories will not win the next election. They will get around 36% to 42% of the vote, with the majority of the country voting the way it always does – for centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems). But under the UK’s antiquated and grossly unfair electoral system, first-past-the-post – which rewards parties that win a minority of the vote with a majority of seats in parliament – a 40% chunk of the vote could still result in the Tories getting back into power.

However, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the Tories may not win a majority in parliament. Instead, I think that a lot of indicators are increasingly pointing to a hung parliament (where no party has overall control).

There are four main reasons why I think the Tories are unlikely to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons at the next election:

1) The Tories have a seriously big hill to climb to reach a majority

The Conservatives need to win 117 seats in the next election to gain an overall majority of one, and 140 seats to win a 'working majority'. This will require at least a swing of 6.9% to the Tories – the biggest swing in 60 years, according to BBC journalist Michael Crick. And I’m not sure that Cameron (a multi-millionaire ex-member of the Bullingdon Club) has sufficient populist appeal to pull that kind of swing off.

2) It’s harder than ever before to secure an overall majority in the House of Commons

As Michael Crick also points out, the number of MPs elected who are not Tory or Labour but “others” (Lib Dems, Democratic Unionists, Respect etc.) has grown massively over the years – from 7 MPs in 1959 to 100 MPs in 2005. The main effect of this has been to create a ‘balance of power’ block in parliament and make it harder for any party (and particularly for the Tories) to win an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons.

3) Constituency boundaries favour Labour over the Tories

According to the UK Polling Report, the way that constituency boundaries are currently defined means that there is an “in-built bias” for Labour in the electoral system that will frustrate the Tories’ attempts to secure a majority in the House of Commons. A combination of out-of-date boundaries, over-representation of Wales and other oddities means that Labour will automatically win “more seats per votes cast” than the Conservatives.

4) The polls are narrowing, and the economy may be improving

Largely because of the above factors, in order to win an overall majority, the Tories need to poll significantly higher than Labour in an election – 12% more, according to Professor Michael Thrasher from Plymouth University. Six months ago, opinion polls suggested that this was not an implausible scenario – many polls had Labour 20% behind the Tories. But today’s Observer poll has Labour on 31% and the Tories only 6 points ahead at 37%. And Labour’s decent bye-election win in Glasgow North East also points to a possible shoring up of their support.

This improvement in Labour's electoral fortunes and its standing in the polls may be to do with perceived improvements in economic circumstances; and if the state of the economy does improve significantly before the election (as many are now suggesting will happen), it may give Brown a boost which further narrows the Tories' lead to a point where they cannot achieve an overall majority.

The next election could be the most fascinating in years. But what happens after it could be even more interesting: a hung parliament might finally lead to the introduction of a fair voting system - Proportional Representation - if the Lib Dems end up being kingmakers and demand it as part of a deal for propping up Labour or the Tories.

My betting career only goes as far as putting £2 on a horse that didn't win the Grand National - but next May or June I might throw a few bob after a hung parliament. And I'll definitely be staying up all night to watch the election.

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