We’re on a March to Nowhere:

Why the Gwdihw campaign will fail – and how it could succeed

The Save Gwdihw and Guildford Crescent campaign has featured in a parliamentary question at St. Stephen’s Palace, has gathered twenty thousand signatures on its petition, and has the backing of politicians from at least two parties. On the 19th it will climax in a bloody great march and a closing gig from a Welsh superstar.

Fantastic.

Then Guildford Crescent will be demolished – possibly after being derelict for some time – and be replaced with student flats and car parking spaces.

In decades to come Cardiffians will point proudly at where it used to be (though with declining accuracy) and tell their yawning children yet again about the day they marched to save it, and how wonderful Gruff Rhys et al were to come along and sing.

This is the most likely future. It can, however, be changed.

The Parliamentary Question

Kudos to Jo Stevens, Labour MP for Cardiff Central, for mentioning Gwdihw’s closure in Westminster. However, she didn’t refer to the developers by name, nor to the other businesses that are going to be knocked down. (Nor, as far as I can work out, has she yet brought it up with the committee that Andrea Leadsom, sliding around the question, suggested she refer it to. Feel free to check. My search term is here).

The way she sought to use the Guildford Crescent demolition was to seek a debate on new powers for local authorities to block unwanted developments. Hardly something the neoliberal Conservative ‘majority’ in the Commons is likely to go for at a time when every whisper of rebellion is an existential threat to the Government, and principles in that party are reserved for arguments over Brexit.

So, well done to her for trying, but this will make less than no difference.

The Other Parliamentary Question

… is whether action taken via the Welsh Assembly is capable of preventing the landlords from forcing the businesses in Guildford Crescent to close at the end of this month.

The answer is “no”.

Whilst Mark Drakeford has asked Cadw whether the buildings could be listed, and has made them aware of the urgency of the case, this doesn’t prevent the owners from getting rid of the tenants – as is made clear if you examine that big silence in his response to Jenny Rathbone during FM’s questions Tuesday 8th January 2019. The tenants have been given notice to quit at the end of this month.

If the buildings are successfully protected, but the businesses are not, there will simply be empty buildings there. When they fall into disrepair, there’ll be people – quite justifiably – calling them an eyesore and begging for them to be redeveloped. At which point, with a development plan somewhat upsized to take account of lost profits and mortgage interest forfeited during the waiting time, the Rapport family will be happy to oblige.

Update: Those last paragraphs were annoyingly prescient. The buildings have now been given a three-month stay of execution – timed just nicely to dent attendance at the march. But the leases on the buildings have not been extended; and the council leader Huw Thomas has explicitly stated that there is nothing the council can do about this. He’s wrong. He has the option of committing Cardiff Council to a policy of deliberate legal obstruction of the Rapport family’s businesses; of refusing to meet with any of their representatives except on camera, and of ordering strenuous health and safety audits of all premises in Cardiff that the Rapport’s businesses control.

The Petition

Petitions do not work as a strategy designed to apply political pressure. In fact, the larger the number of people who sign them, the less they work.

You can confirm this by quickly considering how many you personally have signed, and how few of those have been successful. But if you’d like a historical reference have a look at the Parliament for Wales campaign of the 1950s, with its half a million signatures. Whilst it was being collected, it made waves – but upon being handed in it became a huge nothing. Megan Lloyd George was promised faithfully that it would not, upon being delivered, be ‘left to rot behind the Speaker’s chair’. It would be a surprise if its fate was even that dignified.

This doesn’t mean petitions are simply useless. They can work as a political tactic to build organisation and commitment from the ground up; if those collecting names and signatures are not interested in total numbers – but in recruitment and activity. If you’ve ever wondered how all those tiny left-wing groups continue to exist, here’s the secret. The petition gives a contact for an individual, and also acts to remind them that they have publicly stated that they genuinely care about an issue.

Twenty thousand names is an impressive number. So impressive that it’s a pretty safe bet nobody is ringing any of those people up to give them campaigning jobs. After all … how would you select fairly? And we can be beyond certain that nobody has even thought of calling them up to ask them how to proceed or to make sure they’re coming to the demo.

I wrote that last paragraph before checking out the petition site. It’s on change.org here. You’ll notice that this doesn’t easily permit the kind of information collection necessary to really use the petition for anything more than impressing people with total numbers.

The Politicians

Cross-party campaigns, within a party system, work less well than one-party campaigns. Whereas when one party makes an issue their own and identifies with it totally, they have no short-term reason – or possibility – for essential backtracking or compromise. This gives their support for their chosen cause an extra effectiveness which would otherwise be lacking.

This has been the basis of UKIP’s success. Whilst as individuals they are as liable to stupidity, corruptibility and bad decisions as any other politicians, there’s never been any ambiguity about them wanting out of the EU – and they do not suffer from the dilemmas facing other parties who seek to gain or retain votes (and members) who voted Leave. Even winning votes and seats is a side issue for them. Because of this they’ve been successful far beyond their real support.

Somewhat similarly, a focus on independence brought the SNP into government in Scotland – and came close to winning Indyref 1. It has been a generation since the SNP was essentially about anything but independence; whilst the Labour Party shifted to the right in a misguided and unnecessary attempt to gain English votes, and then failed to read the new Scottish political landscape following devolution. Had Labour in Scotland been a Scottish party, a working-class party or a socialist party – rather than an uncomfortable blend of all three in thrall to a British Unionist media – it would not have collapsed so spectacularly.

In the case of Guildford Crescent, politicians from both Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party have – quite sincerely – shown that they wish to save it. This means that the issue is not the exclusive preserve of either party. Either (or both) could gain in voting or organisational competition as a result of the campaign losing.

When the Crescent is knocked down, each will be able to blame the other. Labour politicians will complain – correctly – that Plaid and associated supporters of Welsh independence used the episode to attack Labour. Plaid politicians (and most other commentators outside the Labour Party) will complain – also perfectly correctly – that Labour was substantially at fault because it controls Cardiff Council and has followed a stupid, ugly and exploitative pro-developer agenda for a generation.

The right within Welsh Labour (as usual) will be silent or vaguely but uselessly supportive until somebody wanting the save the Crescent makes an unguarded and angry comment about the developers, and will then persecute that person for that comment with the aim of landing a blow on Corbyn via either Jenny Rathbone or Mark Drakeford.

As a result of all these factors together, the support of these politicians will come in the form of sincere words – but not words that will grab widespread publicity or decisively shape governmental or commercial action with sufficient urgency to stop the closure of the businesses of Guildford Crescent.

The March

Marches do not work as a strategy designed to apply political pressure. The bigger and more genuinely popular they are, the less they work.

Yes, this is exactly what I said about petitions. This is because it’s true. The march against Blair and Bush’s war in Iraq brought at least a million people onto the streets of London in an astonishing display of peaceful unity and solidarity. With a gig at the end of it, btw.

Did it stop the war? No. Did it delay it? Did it fuck.

It was more like a green light to a Grand Prix driver.

More recently, the Great March of Return has not been achieving much – in the short term – for the people of Palestine. They are bravely and uselessly dying by the hundreds. Admittedly, in proving to the world who the aggressors are, the marchers have finally destroyed the moral authority the State of Israel used to hold. Because of their heroism, they may even have dramatically reversed the tide of history.

But in the case of Guildford Crescent we are not talking about a people driven out and oppressed for seventy years, harassed daily by checkpoints and fanatic settlers, being shot by snipers whilst armed with nothing more than stones and flags. We’re talking a gentle walk, a nice day out, treats for the kids and a gig at the end of it. The head office of the landlords, M.A.Rapport, from which you can see Guildford Crescent, is closed on Saturdays.

There won’t even be anyone there to shame.

Political marches really only work in achieving their stated objectives when they ‘go wrong’. The exceptions – if there really are exceptions – occur either as a result of marchers causing perceptions to shift over years, or because the extant political power depends upon myths of consent that are suddenly unmasked. The Crescent has days, not years.

And, let’s be blunt, in this Disunited Kingdom there is no myth of consent left to destroy.

The Gig (and the campaign name)

I am a musician. Please bear that in mind over the next few paragraphs as I say nasty things about my chosen ‘career’.

Music is not that important. It never was as important as musicians and DJs make it out to be, but during the era when buying recorded music meant buying a physical product, it was far more central to life in western societies than it now is. Because of the value and relative scarcity of the product – and the decisive role of the musician in making the product – musicians were culturally powerful. Their sounds and words (and less often, their actions) impacted far beyond their own sphere, touching a majority of the population

That era lasted from, at a generous estimate, the late 1940s to the late 1990s.

The Super Furry Animals hit at the end of that period – but not quite big enough for half the band to have name recognition amongst the general public. Indeed, even Gruff Rhys, consistently interesting and worthwhile though his subsequent output has been, is closer to being a Welsh cult figure than an international A-lister.

In itself, therefore, this gig will achieve nothing. If it were headlined by Tom Jones or Charlotte Church, there’s a slim chance that the threat of major traffic disruption and a vast unruly crowd could achieve what the march will fail to do. As it is, the crowd at the end is unlikely even to spill out onto the road and feature on the traffic news.

Worse than achieving nothing, though, it will serve to dissipate the righteous anger driving people to go and protest in the first place. It is as if they are to be rewarded for going on a protest and sent home feeling good about themselves – instead of being hassled, harried, cajoled, pushed and seduced into taking action that might actually be effective.

Worse again, Gwdihw are now in a process of “open dialogue” with Cardiff Council, are busy looking for new space and are seeking to become a community business. Most people, understandably, will see these things as unambiguously good. After all, what could be wrong with a community owned music venue emerging from this?

Firstly, this means that they are no longer committed to keeping the existing buildings open. If the campaign is to ‘save Gwdihw’, then it is already well on the way to succeeding. Although what results is likely to be a version of Gwdihw where the central people will not have to turn a profit in order to keep their jobs, and where ‘community commitments’ and funding targets will come ahead of the quality of either the music or the promotion.

More importantly, this means that those seeking to save Gwdihw have no reason to campaign hard to save Guildford Crescent, or the other businesses based there. Given that their futures now depend upon good relationships with Cardiff Council, they will not be rocking the boat. The extent of their solidarity with the Thai House and Madeira restaurants will be sharing social media recollections of great meals of the past.

We can already see the compromises coming in the name of the campaign: “Save Gwdihw and Guildford Crescent”. Three businesses are to be affected, but only one of them is specifically named in the title of the campaign. The campaign’s twitter account does not yet tell us more about what’s going to happen to the Thai House, Madeira, or why we are supposed to have stopped caring about the shape of Cardiff itself. The campaign has secured the approval of BBC Radio DJs because another music venue is closing – not because rapacious landlords are trying to squeeze the last blessed drops of character out of our capital city.

You may think I’m being overly cynical in that last paragraph. The sell-out, however, is already here. The death of Guildford Crescent has been accepted as virtually inevitable by those who think they’re campaigning against it, and that’s being stated without even a mention of the fate of the other businesses or the buildings themselves:

In the words of the Save Gwdihw and Guildford Crescent Campaign

I’m – genuinely – not blaming these people. They’re looking to make the best of a bad situation for their city and their musical communities. They are putting huge amounts of effort into doing that, by methods they are fairly expert in. And Minty of Minty’s Gig Guide has been putting up a great fight, with a determined and powerful case against a rude interviewer on BBC Radio Wales this morning. But ranged against them, inter alia, are the combined powers of international capital, a local politics dominated from planning officials to councillors by the placepeople and mindset of Blairism, and a Welsh devolution settlement that turns big political issues into dull and arcane points of legal procedure. Like most people who are prominent in a given community, they have been given no reason to question whether what is good for them personally is good for their cause.

Besides, until now, nobody has come up with a better plan.

Well, What Would You Do?

Anyone whose political beliefs lie outside the mainstream is used to being shut down with this formulaic and brainless response:

Well, what would you do?

The intention is asking this is rarely to arrive at a plan of action for doing things better. It is to render criticism of existing habits, power structures and powerful people invalid, and to make the person doing the criticising furnish details that can be picked at, and rejected, piece by (grindingly tedious, legalistic, uninformed, and conventional) fatalistic piece.

If that’s not your intention; I have three answers for the question.

Firstly: let’s not take that detour. If you found yourself feeling depressed and powerless because of the case I just made – but also find yourself rejecting the suggestions I give below – then it’s on you to come up with ideas that could work.

Secondly: I’m doing it. By writing this piece. Nobody’s paying me. It’s not going to make me any friends, and it will lose me some. Given the size of Wales, and the fact that I’m offering a harsh critique of music scene figures who are big players in it, it’s also likely to affect my future. If you want to condemn me for writing this instead of ‘taking action’, feel free to spend a full working work on whatever action you think would be more appropriate.

Thirdly: here’s some ideas. Together with yours, there’s a chance.

How Guildford Crescent could be saved

Publicity – Online

Currently the Save Gwdihw and Guildford Crescent Campaign has a Facebook page, a Twitter handle (@SaveGwdihw), a digital petition. An open letter to the Rapport family on the same page has half the number of signatures; and has brought no response. There are also some relevant, short and virtually unwatched videos on youtube (here and here). And there have been sympathetic longer pieces by walesonline and Harry Harris.

That’s it.

A fully-featured, real, website is needed. With links to all of those. Amongst the thousands who want to keep the Crescent there is at least one webdesigner – or company – with the skills and facilities to put it online within hours. There are also people with the skills and commitment to keep it updated. There are also organisations and individuals with spare webhosting or the money / publicity power to make it happen fast.

The most obvious organisations are the businesses affected. If it is indeed the case (as the campaign states) that they have been “thriving” in Guildford Crescent for years, there is no good reason to rely on doing internet campaigning on the cheap. Other organisations that could viably and quickly offer help are the Music Venue Trust and the Musicians Union, who are already involved.

Individual action from people with clout could also be a good, quick step to getting a site up and running. These obviously include the four Cardiff MPs (Kevin Brennan, Stephen Doughty, Jo Stevens & Anna McMorrin), the four Cardiff constituency AMs (Jenny Rathbone, Mark Drakeford, Vaughan Gething and Julie Morgan), and the sole non-Tory and non-UKIP list AM (Neil McEvoy). Useful action could be as simple as a suggestion from any of them that a dedicated site is necessary. They know themselves what other action they could take in this direction.

However, there is no reason that a dedicated website should not be set up independently of the existing campaign, and independently of politicians. This would be ideal. I’m hoping that one of the small number of people who read this decides that it’s their job to make it happen.

Similarly, there is a clear and obvious possibility for youtube, vimeo, instagram etc users to engage a wider audience by filming and uploading clips relating to (amongst other things) the Crescent’s history, proposed demolition, the politics and culture of development in Cardiff, and the growing global anti-gentrification movement.

Likewise, there is not currently a single podcast dealing with the Guildford Crescent demolition and the associated political and cultural issues.

In the case of video material (as for social media) standard does not matter that much. Tagging, sharing and fast repetition do. But in particular – we’ll look more at this now – establishing links far beyond the obviously relevant will be necessary for anything to succeed this late in the day.

Action – online

Whilst we’re on the theme of video and social media, lets consider other possibilities for online action, as distinct from simply publicity. All these ideas are inspired by the Rapport company website:

https://www.rapportlondon.com

Most to some extent operate on the presumption that large companies are dependent on their brand identity, and that the Rapport brand is heavily tied into associations with “luxury”.

Part of Rapport’s luxury identity is about history – a peculiarly “British” version of history. That’s why, despite being headquartered in Cardiff, their pricey watch business has a logo and address designed to make you think they’re from London. It’s also why this eminently memeable video doesn’t mention Cardiff, despite picturing the company HQ and workers in Cardiff.

Rapport’s Story of Time

So, action point 1 is … make a meme featuring Rapport’s own advertising and subvert it.

The only human both pictured and named on the front page of the site in Max Chilton. He drives fast cars for a living. Naturally, on the Rapport site, he’s not driving. But they are seeking to place themselves as a luxury retailer by the use of his name and image. This would be undone if he was to withdraw from his publicity arrangement with them, or express discomfort – however mildly – with their actions regarding Guildford Crescent.

Why would he do that? Maybe he’s just a nice guy who likes old-fashioned buildings and Thai food as well as fast cars. It might be worth asking him about that (action point 2). Also:

  • He races in the IndyCar series. It would cause serious embarrassment to him at work if even a single Welsh betting shop stopped taking bets on those races, and told their customers why.
  • His most recent car is sponsored by Shredded Wheat. That’s not the kind of product that really wants drivers tainted by toxic associations with heartless developers.
  • The team he races for have a slew of partner companies, several on this side of the Atlantic.
  • On the Rapport website, he extols Rapport’s “attention to detail” and says that, like him, they “put a lot of time and effort into what they do”. If he doesn’t yet know he’s working for a Cardiff property developer, rather than a London watchmaker, he should – in the interests of detail – be told.

Perhaps this seems unduly personal for your tastes. Fair enough. Let’s get structural. If you head to the bottom of the “RapportLondon” front page you get to an almost hidden “links” bit. The bottom one of the links on that page is https://www.thewalpole.co.uk/ If you’ve not heard of Walpole, and you have an egalitarian bone anywhere in your body, you’ll be both fascinated and appalled.  

So here’s action point 3: take contact details for any company that is a member of Walpole and ask them to dissociate themselves from the Rapport company’s approach to development in Cardiff. If they don’t reply, write again praising them for their tact. If they reply saying they have no connection with Rapport pass that on too. If you get lucky enough to be told they’ve never heard of Rapport watches, especially, pass that on. Luxury, after all, is about fame – not obscurity.

There also several member organisations that really should not be members at all, given the worldview and lobbying policies of the Walpole. If, once you’ve done the research, you find yourself agreeing, then use your social media addiction and publicly tell them why. But… action point 4: make sure to let them know how you found out about them, and pass on your information to other campaigns with the request that they also mention how that research started.


Publicity – offline

The story of Gwdihw and Guildford Crescent, mostly in that order, has been essentially absent from other media – bar the Western Mail and South Wales Echo versions of the walesonline stories noted above, and some (very nice) placards that have been made for the march on the 19th.

Despite (and because of) thousands of people signing the petition, there has been no mass leafleting – whether that’s through doors, in the city centre, at other music venues, outside Cardiff City FC’s ground or to the rugby crowds.

Nobody has taken out a paid advert. Anywhere.

There has not (to the best of my knowledge) been a single piece of graffiti. Anywhere. Not even in places where it would be legal.

So… action point 5 Make leaflets, or flyers.

action point 6 Do a leaflet drop or handout. There’s going to be a lot of people on your side, so you shouldn’t have to do it alone.

action point 7 Take out an advert.

Other offline action

Action point 8 Shift your bank account (or don’t). Rapport’s holdings in Cardiff are largely mortgaged by Lloyds, as you’ll see with a quick survey of their info at Companies House. Walesonline give a very broad hint about this in the picture accompanying the article. If you bank with Lloyds, consider switching. Soon. If you don’t, spend a little of their time talking to them about switching, before turning them down.

Action point 9 Call them. The office number for Rapport watchmakers is proudly displayed on their website. Don’t be rude – you’re unlikely to get through to anyone with decision-making power. But do feel free to take up a great deal of their time. After all, their employer has decided to demolish a part of your community.

Finally

Action point 10 Meet with other people you know who want to safeguard the businesses and buildings in Guildford Crescent; few enough people that you can have a proper conversation. Go somewhere quiet and private. Switch off your phones and your computers.

Focus.

Talk to each other honestly about why you care about this, and how much you care. Talk about the time and effort you’re willing and able to spend on it, and how to make that time and effort effective. Are the things the existing campaign is doing enough? Are the ideas suggested here useful, or just nuts? Are there better ideas for action? Is there, in fact, anything to be done?

Then, if you are going to act, talk over the help you can give each other with whatever you decide. Make commitments to each other to take the action you’ve agreed. Then stick to it.