The size of the crowd: a note
The Guardian published a piece in the summer of 2016 suggesting that there is a sociological formula for working out the size of crowds. Unfortunately crowds are comprised not of statistics but real people who come and go and do all manner of things to frustrate an understanding of numbers attending
It is often taken that the police underplay numbers on protests [which just occasionally has caused the left to slightly overplay them in response] unless they were seeking to justify a particularly high overtime bill in which case they exaggerated how many were there.
That said the police did have an official way of estimating numbers which they used for example on the Stop the War demonstration in London on 15th February 2003. This involved counting the number of people passing a certain point in a set amount of time and then extrapolating the size of the protest from that.
Government cuts in expenditure on the police seem to have ended the practice.
It was one way of judging numbers but a moment’s thought suggests issues with it. How is it known if the count is taken when the demonstration is at peak numbers for example? How is account taken for the fact that people join and leave demonstrations throughout their duration?
The argument about the size of demonstrations goes right the way back to the start of the modern movement.
On Monday 10th April 1848 the Chartists gathered on Kennington Common to protest for the vote. It was the first protest ever to be photographed and the photo survives.
The problem is, what does it show in terms of size? It is taken from outside the Common and it is thought that it was taken well before the numbers at the protest peaked. Further in those pre-amplification days there was not one platform but several so people could hear speakers around the Common making estimates of numbers even more difficult.
The press the following day played down numbers at the demonstration with the exception of the Chartist Northern Star, which was the largest circulation paper of the day.
Subsequent analysis of how many demonstrators could be in Kennington Common for each square foot of grass has suggested 100,000 attended- a huge protest for 1848.
That is one way of working out the size at a particular moment of a demonstration. If for example Trafalgar Square is filled with a protest- as it was for the Women’s March on 21st January- as it arrives a rough idea of numbers can be gained because it is a fixed space.
Hyde Park is much more complicated because while it is a fixed space it is very much bigger.
Recent decades have seen some very large demonstrations, primarily in central London because there are so many people already in the area who can attend with little travel needed. CND and Stop the War have held huge protests as has the TUC.
Perhaps another criteria we might think about though is not just size but impact. The Women’s Marches around the world on 21st January had far more impact than the 250,000 or so who appear to have shown for Trump’s Inauguration.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the Morning Star on 23rd August 2016.