Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Runway success

So to the Methodist Central Hall for a rally against the proposed third runway at Heathrow. What was I, practically a lynchpin of the apatheterati, doing there amongst the angry and strident? I can only plead fraternity: I was there because a friend was on the abundant list of speakers, and I was working nearby. I remember rallies from the old days, when there was a left-wing to speak of, but this was quite a revelation. The place was full, but it was more of a Methodist congregation than a rabble awaiting rousing – well-heeled, well behaved and predominantly old. I would have been unsurprised to see Saga leafleting outside alongside the Green party. I lost count of the number of full-length coats and fur-trimmed accessories floating about, not to mention the good number of craggy visages topped with gleaming pates (and that was just the women). I wondered if it wasn't just the same left-wing protesters as used to go to rallies all those years ago, older and better off, or whether it really was the new breed of Tory protester, of the kind we first saw marching – marching! - for hunting when Blair was just out the traps. In fact this issue has a cross-party consensus – which sounds good until you remember that the last cross party consensus was for the war on Iraq, but never mind – so we had Tories and lefties and, to judge from the speaker panel, a preponderance of Liberals. Lacking any obvious markers to try and gainsay the scope of the political spectrum represented in the packed hall, I divvied up the greys by counting ties against beards, and came up with a slight leaning to the right. This was somewhat confirmed by one of the early speakers who said of the government: “I don't know who they think they are, and really I don't think they know who we are!” giving the impression that this is all a gigantic mistake which will be put right as soon as the government cottons on to the plethora of Daily Mail readers it is aggravating.

Before the speakers we were treated to a band who played the sort of MOR tune that brought to mind driving out on the M4 listening to Magic FM, so I suppose was suitable. But the lyrics were relevant, if a little gauche. The chorus even included the line “stand up to the powers that be”, something I've not heard for quite a few years. After the band finished playing the song, they quickly reprised it and tried to get everyone standing up and singing along, which was not an overwhelming success.

A lot of MPs queued up to speak with varying degrees of competence, including the Lib Dem leader, who only reinforced the idea that nowadays politicians are geared towards telly, and flounder hopelessly when asked to work a room. Many of the politicians betrayed their lack of mastery, painfully repeating the same facts and lines that previous speakers had iterated, while the crowd grew less and less keen on clapping endlessly as the evening wore on. Susan Kramer did a short speech which was memorable because she said something along the lines of: “There's a lot of people who are not here because they think nothing can be done, well now we can tell them, yes it can.” This, I think, should be said before every public meeting about anything, anywhere.

Much later we had a video message from Boris, which gave the impression that he'd just worked out how to turn the video camera on. He leant into the camera alarmingly, so that his forehead was cut off by the top of the screen, and spoke into it in a haphazard way, from a dowdy looking office with the blinds all drawn, as though he'd been using the video for much more entertaining purposes moments before. The film resembled nothing so much as a poor webcam blog made by a complete idiot, which I suppose is what it was. Boris's act of being a chump seems to have rubbed off on the other Tories; the next one to speak could hardly help himself fluffing his lines in that buffon-charm way that tries to give the idea that “hey, i'm a bit of clown, a fun guy, what possible harm can it do to give me loads of power!”

Despite most people leaving long before the epic list of speakers had been trawled through, the speakers did (generally) get better as things went on, John McDonnell particularly good and Geraldine Nicholson showing the rest what passion, humour and commitment actually look like packaged in a speech.

Speaking personally, I'm not too keen on rallies. Being a contrary type, I tend to find that if I listen to two hours of people stating one point of view, I tend to end up thinking that there must be something pretty good about the opposing view, or they wouldn't be hiding it. That's not to say that the campaign is wrong: the government have undoubtably cheated and lied their way to get this runway which only a tiny group of corporate power players want or stand to gain from. And rallies are also useful for a few other things, one being that you can tell a lot about what is going on by what people clap the loudest. What they clapped the loudest tonight was the statement that the Department of Transport are in bed with the aviation industry.

Afterwards I met a few of the campaigners I knew. Chatting to them was an middle-aged guy, the sort they used to call soap-dodgers, who looked like he'd just come from a tree camp. He made the blue-blazered security nervous. “He's not one of them activists, is he?” one asked.