Sunday afternoon in Manchester, October 2017, the sky an eternal slate of grey, the streets a sea of glorious scarlet red. Inexplicably, the Tories had decided to hold their annual conference in a city which greeted their arrival with the draping of hang the Tories banner from a bridge over the river Irwell. Their previous visits had been met with volleys of eggs and had made necessary the erection round the conference venue of huge metal ‘peace lines’ to protect the anxious conference delegates from the locals.
This year 30,000 anti-austerity protesters took to the streets. In pride of place in the middle of it all, was the Red Bloc, a hundred strong mass of militant youthful energy. Bearing red flags, flares, a soundsystem blaring a mixture of Mancunian classics and 90’s house and a contingent from FC United of Manchester with a street wide banner reading, ‘forward reds.’ The sight of this noisy brigade clearly captured the imaginations of the nations paparazzi as their exploits filled the pages of Monday’s papers including the Mirror, the M.E.N and even the Daily Heil. Various news sources called the Red Bloc anarchists, stalinists and, libellously, anti-brexit campaigners. Never one to let slanders pass I’d like to set the record straight on what the Red Bloc actually is.
The Red Bloc was an idea borne out of a desire to address a perennial image problem on the left. Sick of protests which were simply a dirge, a dutiful meander, an exercise in paper seller avoidance, the organisers of the first red bloc decided that they wanted something more eye catching, inspiring and fun. It would seek to do away with the petty divisions on the left which led to protesters chanting competing Trotskyist slogans calling on the Trades Union Congress to do something it was patently never going to contemplate. It would unite communists, anarchists, anti-fascists and left Labour folk into one bloc whose only proviso would be that you must be a socialist and willing to carry the red flag.
This simple idea opened up the bloc to many who would have balked at the prospect of making such a visible show of one’s politics. The distinctive bolshiness with which the bloc wore it’s heart on it’s sleeve turned on its head the usual dynamic of protesters looking like they are almost ashamed to be there. Instead it inspired sing-alongs of indie standards like, “rip it up and start again,” outside Downing Street, or, “there is a light that never goes out,” while tens of flares blazed away outside Manchester’s GMEX, the symbolism and poignancy of each moment lost on no one who was there.
The experience of marching in the Red Bloc has a galvanising effect for those involved. Not only has it strengthened ties of friendship but has forged real working relationships across diverse sections of the left who would rarely come into contact without it. It walks that fine line between respectability and mobbish militancy, a toxic mix that can give the impression of being on the precipice of taking over while avoiding the hassle of arrest. These relationships have spawned other blocs in other cities as well as working class self-defence clubs in London and Greater Manchester.
That some of these projects intersect holds real promise for the future too. The organic link between sports clubs, anti-fascist brawlers, football fans and those involved in the murky world of fighting for socialism in the Labour Party is a concrete expression of what many commentators have called building the social movement. A real mass base for socialism that is self-assured, ambitious and proudly proletarian.
I’d urge everyone who believes such a mass base to be necessary to contribute to either the next UK Red Bloc or starting their own. All you need is some drive and the cheek to ask every socialist you know to chip in a few quid for flags and flares, a few folk who are handy with a sewing machine also don’t go amiss. If you need a hand don’t hesitate to get in touch with us in Manchester as we’re hopeful the Red Bloc will bear bountiful fruit. So don’t wait around, do your bit for the cause and as the old anthem goes, “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.” – JR