I had two invitations to join today’s March for An Alternative to the government’s austerity program. My comrades in the National Union of Journalists were marching in the Federation of Entertainment Unions, which seemed oddly appropriate. I also had an e-mail from my rabbi urging me to “think of my socialist bubbe” and inviting me to join an après-demo occupation of Top Shop, the British fashion chain whose owner, Philip Green, has been a target of UK Uncut for avoiding paying his taxes, with the unarguable admonition that “anyone who can afford to give their son a £4 million bar mitzvah clearly isn’t paying enough tax.”

But owing to the operations of a Tory-supporting cold virus which struck the other half of the bureau, and counter-revolutionary activity on the part of the office dog, who declined to sacrifice his walk in the name of solidarity, I missed both groups and ended up marching with the Musicians’ Union. For those of you who think of protest demonstrations as dour, somber affairs I can recommend the experience warmly. We had the usual chants: “Students and Workers, Unite and Fight!” and “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!” but we also had a brass band and some very enthusiastic dancers from Equity, the actors’ union, who were marching nearby.

The march, organized by the Trades Union Congress, saw between 400,000 and half a million people fill the streets from the Embankment to Trafalgar Square and then on to Hyde Park, where Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party (and former Nation intern™) told the crowd they stood in the tradition of the suffragettes, “who fought for votes for women and won. The civil rights movement in America that fought against racism and won. The antiapartheid movement that fought the horror of that system and won.”

The British, of course, have their own proud tradition of protest, from the Levellers and Diggers in the English Civil War to the Jarrow Crusaders in the 1930s and CND in the 1950s and 60s to the poll tax riots against Thatcher in 1990. Not too many victories there, though. Which may also be why I couldn’t help remembering the last time I’d walked this route, on February 15 2003, protesting against the Iraq War. The government then, a Labour government, managed to ignore a million people in the streets. So why should a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition pay attention to half that number?

Senior Labour Party figures seem to believe the public will turn against the government once the cuts start to really bite. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor and supposedly Labour’s hardest hitter against the Tories, joined the march today but argued only for a more gradual approach to reducing the deficit rather than a wholesale rejection of the austerity agenda. And in a way the whole day reflected this disconnection between parliamentary politicians, who still seem terrified of appearing “irresponsible,” and the teachers, nurses, librarians, social workers, train drivers and hospital workers who are terrified of losing their jobs and having to rely on a shredded social safety net.

It’s easy for us old veterans to heap scorn on the few hundred anarchist punks in their black hoodies who come to these demonstrations looking for trouble, and whose appetite for mixing it up with the police threatens to hijack the headlines, and the airtime, earned by the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters. But when the political system seems sclerotic and unresponsive dissent will find other avenues. The demonstrators chanting—and singing—“March Like an Egyptian” or carrying London street signs proclaiming “Tahrir Square, City of Westminster” were clearly engaging in wishful thinking. That has to be preferable, though, to the refrain (sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic) I heard as the crowd passed under Big Ben: “You can take your Parliament and shove it up your arse.”

As I write the police are still battling with protesters inside Fortnum and Mason, a favorite haunt for visiting Americans in need of a cup of Earl Grey. (Q: Why are the anarchists occupying Fortnum and Mason? A: Because proper tea is theft.) And UK Uncut, last month’s media darlings, are taking a lot of flack for not having the discipline to keep their high street protests uniformly peaceful.

But that is where we are: a government carrying out a determined, ideological assault on the welfare state; shell-shocked public sector workers demoralized after a decade of “New Labour” reforms; a Labour Party determined not to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, which resulted in a long winter of unelectability, but whose alternative to austerity so far lacks either conviction or inspiration. Although he’s already been taunted for it in the press, Ed Miliband was right about one thing. Looking out over the throngs in Hyde Park he said: “This is what the Big Society looks like.” At the risk of sounding antediluvian, he might have said it’s what the working class looks like. It’s also what class war looks like—when your side is losing.

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