Saturday saw around 150,000 people join a march through central London in protest against the swingeing cuts of the coalition government. Replete with vuvuzelas, megaphones and placards the marchers laid down a very clear, and very noisy, statement to the government – austerity isn’t working.
This was a protest by normal people – of all ages, classes and colours – that feel victimised by a government that prioritises market confidence over the wellbeing of workers. When I asked him his reasons for participating, Nick Jackman replied ‘I’m marching for jobs for young people, employees’ rights, a good education for young people.’ This sums up the attitude of most people that I spoke to on Saturday. As the march passed the Houses of Parliament, and the noise was jacked up even more, the contrast between the public and the people elected to represent them couldn’t have been more clear. There is a frightening disconnect between the voiceless citizens of our society and those elected to voice their needs. Until our politicians begin to reverse this trend, or they are replaced by people who will, extra-parliamentary activity will continue.
After passing along Victoria Embankment and past Parliament, the march passed through Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly on its way to a rally at Hyde Park. The police presence was consistent throughout, but was most evident around Parliament, Downing Street and some of the more up-market establishments in Piccadilly (such as Fortnum and Mason and the Ritz). The march was almost completely good natured, with the anger of the protesters expressed lawfully and with some humour. Members of the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts were arrested near Park Lane after chaining their wheelchairs together and stopping traffic – in a direct attempt to gain recognition for the devastating effects that welfare cuts are having on Britain’s disabled community. ‘The needy paying for the sins of the greedy’ – to add voice to the words of one protester’s placard.
The rally at Hyde Park has met with coverage in the press largely because of the crowd’s reaction to a short speech by Ed Miliband, in which he was booed loudly upon opening the way for future cuts under Labour. This should not come as a surprise to anyone after his conference speech three weeks ago. The rhetorical lines of that speech were re-trod in Miliband’s address to the protesters. This time, however, the talk of ‘One Nation’ backfired. After experiencing years of betrayal under New Labour, Saturday’s audience required far more concrete commitments. Amid cries of “they’re all the same” and “what will you do?” Miliband failed to deliver. Indeed, he turned the other way, saying “with borrowing rising not falling this year, I do not promise easy times. I have said whoever was in government now there would still need to be some cuts.” Miliband’s words and the reaction from much of the crowd revealed the Labour leader’s lack of interest in representing the British working class.
Trade union leaders were received with warmer welcomes, perhaps because they offered more radical solutions. Mark Serwotka (PCS General Secretary) openly called for a general strike, saying “if [the protesters] winning the argument doesn’t stop them, if marching doesn’t stop them…we need to have strike action right across the economy.” Bob Crow (RMT General Secretary) and Dave Prentis (UNISON General Secretary) voiced their support for an examination of the possibility of implementing a general strike. At every mention of this prospect the speaker received rapturous support. Paul Relph, who had sung in Côr Cochyn (Welsh for ‘Red Choir’) summed up the dominant mood. Feeling personally disinclined towards a general strike he told me that “if they decide on a general strike I’ll go along with it.” A sense of solidarity was the prevalent theme of Saturday’s march – and it seems lasting. The coalition, and for that matter Labour, should be very frightened by this.
Dr Jocelynne Scutt, a Labour member, believed that the speakers, including Miliband, “articulated that people are hurting, losing jobs, that leaving people unemployed doesn’t help the economy in any way – that we can’t leave people starving on the street. The idea that we end class division is really important. The idea that these people are somehow born to rule – should be in a position to rule – because of their income, the school they went to – that idea is something Labour is trying to counter.”
This march, and those held simultaneously in Glasgow and Belfast, offered a disenfranchised public the chance to mobilise and realise its strength. As austerity further damages the economy, expect them to use it.