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The London crowd: from the People’s Vote marches to the Brexit rally

THE several thousand people who gathered in Parliament Square on the evening of Friday January 31 appeared from all the pictures that I saw to be mainly men of a certain age.

How can we characterise such a crowd? It was certainly not one of protest, since the object was to mark the departure of Britain from the EU, which was something achieved by the current Conservative government.

It may have had aspects of the mob to it, but reports suggest it simply dispersed fairly peacefully at the end of proceedings. 

A traditional London mob of reactionary intent might well have proceeded to try to sack the offices of the pro-EU Guardian at King’s Cross.

Less than four months before, on October 19 2019, the third and probably the smallest of marches for a “People’s Vote” took place, also ending up in Parliament Square.

Compared with the first two marches there was far more Labour Party involvement, with CLP banners, and Sadiq Khan was among those at the head of the march. 

This was only one part of Labour sentiment on the EU, primarily around the People’s Vote campaign. 

The party was far more centrally involved than before with shadow cabinet members speaking in Parliament Square. We found out how well that worked on December 12.

The question of the crowd and particularly that in London has long taken the interest of historians.

In the Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson, discussing the work of the crowd historian George Rude, looked at supporters of the late 18th-century radical London mayor John Wilkes.

Thompson wrote: “The London crowd of the 1760s and 1770s had scarcely begun to develop its own organisation or leaders; had little theory distinct from its ‘managers’; and there is a sense in which it was manipulated … to ‘operate on behalf of external interests’ — the interests of the wealthy tradesmen, merchants and manufacturers of the City who were Wilkes’s most influential supporters.”

Yet Thompson also noted of the mob that it was a “transitional mob, on its way to becoming a self-conscious Radical crowd.”

Could this transitional point be applied to at least some People’s Vote marchers and Brexit rally attenders? While both were made up primarily of “ordinary” people both were certainly manipulated at the top by those who had interests quite other than those declared. 

The People’s Vote campaign was in part more interested in undermining Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, underlined when a key component of it the Lib Dems suddenly abandoned it in favour of renouncing Article 50. That ultimately worked as well as the People’s Vote campaign itself.

With the Brexit rally the anti-working-class pro-exploitation agendas of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were in charge, not a celebration of breaking free from a neoliberal nexus.

Yet within the many thousands who marched for a People’s Vote were those who had protested against the Iraq war and are currently protesting about climate change. 

Far from all were on board with the full agenda of the organisers.

Likewise, at the Brexit rally, reports suggest that when a large image of anti-EU campaigner Tony Benn was flashed up on the big screen it was met with cheers. 

That doesn’t suggest there was a uniformly reactionary mood among the crowd, whatever Farage and his cronies were hoping for.

The London crowd is forever a political work in progress. Climate change protests by Extinction Rebellion and others in the next few months may suggest an agenda that is more challenging to the interests of capital. The police certainly think so.

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