Monday, March 28, 2011

March that says things are moving

SATURDAY'S demonstration in London was really BIG. The organisers, the TUC, had conservatively predicted 100,000. By the evening BBC reporters were saying at least 250,000, and some said it was nearly twice that number. I'm no good at sums, but I know that we moved off from the Embankment before 12 noon, and later, as the Hyde Park rally, addressed by TUC chair Brendan Barber and Labour leader Ed Milliband among others, was drawing to a close, about 4pm, the last contingents were just setting off from the start.

The biggest contingents on the march were Unison members, from hospitals and local services which are in the front line against disruption, privatisation, cuts and downright wrecking from the government. They came not just from London and the big cities but, as we saw from their proud banners, from the Royal Devonshire NHS Trust, and the Isle of Wight, areas where the Tories and Lib Dems could normally count on votes.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport workers' union, RMT, was also out in force, with banners ranging from Dover port to the Orkneys (nobody comes from that far for a demonstration without being serious!); and not forgetting the Easington band from Co.Durham. The colliery there was closed, but not the spirit expressed in the band now adopted by the RMT.

There were Fire Brigades Union banners, some warning that cuts cost lives, and large numbers of firefighters were marching in best dress uniform. There was the GMB, and Unite of course, and quite a decent turnout from the builders' union UCATT. There were college lecturers and students, and school teachers - I had not realised the NAS/UWT had so many members, but obviously this battle against the cuts had brought them out.

There were Green Party and assorted Socialist banners and placards of course, but there were also more local Labour Party banners than I have seen out in a long time. Some were old and from places you'd expect like Hackney South and Shoreditch Constituency Labour Party, and Brent Central CLP, others were from less predictable places and freshly painted. I don't know whether this reflects an increase in new and/or returning Labour Party membership which some have claimed, or simply that Labour Party members feel happier coming out and showing themselves now that it's no longer their party doing the dirty work in government. (Not counting the Labour councils making cuts of course).

Whatever the reason, it is part of the change that's taking place, with all sorts of people who had not been on a demonstration before, or not for a long time, as shown by some of the home-made placards, often with quite witty cartoons and original slogans, as well as by the range of organised union and community groups marching. And today those people who came on the march will have a new confidence talking to friends and workmates who could not make it.

I saw two banners from branches of the Prison Officers Association, and a big Unison banner from members working in the Leeds Metropolitan Police Authority. Earlier a friend had wondered whether any police officers would be marching with us - he meant off-duty, and in sympathy, not as infiltrators. "I don't think we've caught up with Wisconsin yet!", I joked.

For large stretches the (uniformed) police seemed sparse and made no attempt to control the crowd surging across Whitehall, nor did they need to do so. Quite a lot of people, including Firefighters, RMT members and me managed to slip in and occupy the Wetherspoon pub for a pint and rest before rejoining the march as it still moved past. (Big improvement on the poll tax demo years ago when landlords -per haps on police behest - shut their doors on us old codgers wanting to use the toilets). Staff seemed cheerful as they coped with this friendly invasion. I know Wetherspoon has not welcomed union organisation, but I reckon after Saturday they owe us a donation.

And so to the sideshows. We knew UK Uncut was planning something separate, in their campaign against rich and corporate tax evasion. In the end they moved on from Top Shop and Vodaphone to occupy Fortnum and Mason. Although it was meant to be a peaceful occupation, it was later alleged they had caused £30, 000's worth of damage. There is some dispute whether this was caused by an accident with the posh shop's tins of pate, or some fool knocking over a jar of olives.

Joking apart, the police laid siege to the Fortnum's occupiers, then persuaded them to leave peacefully - only to then start seizing people and arresting them, for such "crimes" as "aggravated trespass". Elsewhere, Black Block attacked the Ritz hotel and Santander Bank with sticks, set fire to their trojan horse, and threw firecrackers apparently. Some police were reportedly injured, and their colleagues appear to have taken this out later on people who were "occupying" Trafalgar Square, supposedly in emulation of Tahrir Square in Cairo. There's a call to occupy the square again overnight on April 2, an invitation which I have declined.

If they only wait till New Years Eve it will be the 'done' thing and bigger, and meanwhile there are more relevant places to occupy, such as libraries and clinics that are threatened with closure, even if that does not get you on national television. Mind you I might occupy the pub again in the earlier part of the evening.

Apart from Boris the Berk, Tory mayor of London, who has tried to smear Ed Milliband with responsibility for the anarchists, most people can distinguish between the mass movement against the cuts, at the centre of which is the trade union movement and genuine community organisations, though it is now reaching hitherto untouched parts, and the elements beyond the fringe. That's why the police and to some extent the media, sensing the public mood, had to make that distinction.

At the same time, such is the anger in the country over cuts, and bankers bonuses, wealthy tax dodgers and self-enriching politicians, that while people will be concerned for possibly frightened staff in targeted companies and institutions, there is not a lot of sympathy for the targets as such. Any anger at the anarchists and others is likely to be over them trying to steal the show and so creating diversions. And among active trades unionists, headshaking disapproval tends to be tempered by indulgence of the inexperienced young, as relations with government and privilege get more fraught.

Majority with the marchers

Now here's an item from HR News, spotted by our trades union council secretary:

More than half of the UK supports the TUC's proposals for an alternative to the cuts – calling for a plan B to help get the jobless back to work.

A YouGov poll published on Saturday to coincide with the TUC's March for the Alternative in London asked, 'Generally speaking, do you support or oppose the aim of the march to campaign against public sector spending cuts?'

The majority (52%) said yes, with one in three (31%) disagreeing. One in five Conservative voters backed the aims of the march.

Speaking on Saturday, Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: "No part of our public realm is to be protected.

"And don't believe it when ministers say that the NHS is safe in their hands. With over 50,000 job cuts already in the pipeline - nurses, doctors, physios, midwives - in the name of so-called efficiency savings of £20 billion, the NHS as we know it is already in intensive care.

"With David Cameron talking about selling it off to 'any willing provider' out to make a profit, the NHS is facing the gravest threat in its history.

"Today let us say to him: we will not let you destroy what has taken generations to build.

"Let's be brutally clear about these brutal cuts. They're going to cost jobs on a huge scale, adding to the misery of the 2.5 million people already on the dole.

"They are going to hammer crucial services that bind our communities together. And they're going to hit the poorest and the most vulnerable hardest.

"The Government claims there is no alternative. But there is. Let's keep people in work and get our economy growing. Let's get tax revenues flowing and tackle the tax cheats. And let's have a Robin Hood tax on the banks, so they pay us back for the mess they caused."



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