Sunday, 21 October 2012

Broad, upbeat, determined - reflections on 20 October TUC mass protest

The TUC demonstration was undoubtedly big enough to put the movement back on track - and create the impetus to carry us forward in coming months - if not as audaciously huge as the 26 March 2011 protest. Around 200,000 is probably a fair estimate of the turnout. It was broad, united and had a great atmosphere: upbeat and determined.

There was an inspiring array of homemade placards, as well as banners, flags and placards representing all the unions and a vast range of campaigning & political groups. International activists, in London for today's Coalition of Resistance European co-ordinating conference, joined the demo (like the Greek socialists, left). The mishaps of Andrew 'Plebgate' Mitchell and George 'Ticketgate' Osborne even provided a touch of humour in some of the signs and chants.And who knew there were quite so many anti-cuts samba bands and choirs?

The double whammy of some unions' pensions climbdown and the failure to stop the NHS bill becoming legislation had substantially demobilised the anti-cuts movement. While there have been a great many small-scale protests and campaigns in recent months, there has been a lack of national focus or co-ordination. Yesterday's demo provided that focus and co-ordination. It therefore has the potential to become a turning point for us all.

The mobilisation from the north east, where I am based, was highly impressive. Hundreds of trade unionists travelled on union transport, many of them on a train chartered by northern region TUC (undeterred by a 5.30am departure from Newcastle). As with the rest of the country, every union was involved. This was - like 26 March - an event that pulled all the unions together in a remarkably united, representative show of opposition to cuts.

I was on the Coalition of Resistance (CoR) coach from Newcastle, a double decker coach which had 70 people - from a wide range of backgrounds - on board. It was, as far as I'm aware, the only transport from the region not organised through the trade unions.

We had students, sixth formers, Green Party members, NHS campaigners, socialist activists, young unemployed people, pensioners, a delegation of National Association of Probation Officers members, Stop the War veterans, first-time marchers and more. There was a high level of commitment, as there must be when facing an early start and a long coach journey!

In London I helped carry the Tyne and Wear Coalition of Resistance banner and didn't have time for speeches in Hyde Park. I gather that Ed Miliband was booed, epsecially for his comments that a Labour government would still make cuts. There has been a small but significant shift rightwards in the Labour leadership's approach to austerity since Miliband's speech 19 months ago (which was better received than yesterday's).

This shift, together with the fact we are much further into the austerity era (though it is still to get a lot worse), presumably explains the more hostile reception. I was passing the official TUC bus at around the midway point of the march when one of the organisers - standing on the open-top bus - announced that Miliband was speaking in Hyde Park at that moment. The booing was louder than the cheering in response. And that was without hearing what the Labour leader had to say.

Speeches by Bob Crow (RMT) and Mark Serwotka (PCS), calling for sustained action including co-ordinated mass strikes, were apparently greeted with loud cheers. That is a hopeful sign - and it felt to me, on the march, that the sharpening of rhetoric reflects the mood of the movement. Delivering on that rhetoric will require a great deal of long-term work, among millions of working people, but the demo was a step in the direction we need to go.

Another positive sign was the prevalence of CoR's No Cuts placards - more than from any other organisation in my section of the march. The slogan remains crucial because it asserts a complete rejection of austerity and demands a generalised response, not merely one that addresses specific issues. The CoR broadsheets, distributed for free, were also clearly well received (and made suitable pre-dawn reading as our coach pulled out of Newcastle). It was also great to see so many Stop the War and CND placards, raising the important political demands 'Cut War not Welfare' and 'Scrap Trident'.

On the coach going home, everyone was exceptionally positive. There was a feeling that it was exactly what was needed at this point in time. A young protester on her first national demo commented that "it felt amazing to be in a crowd with such a huge number of people who agree with me" - a gentle reminder of the unique power of large-scale national demonstrations. A veteran protester, meanwhile, reminded me that it may not have been on the scale of 26 March, but was still as huge a protest as anything in the 1980s or 1990s.

What next? A mass demo, however inspiring and combative, is of course not enough. The large-scale strike action called for by Crow and Serwotka is essential, but must be accompanied by ongoing national and local demonstrations plus a broad political campaign which rejects austerity outright and articulates an alternative.

The composition of the Newcastle CoR coach was a vivid reminder that action by trade unionists - while indispensable - isn't the whole story. Austerity is an assault on the whole working class, which requires the unions - as the established organisations of the class - working with coalitions of students, pensioners, unemployed people and so on to sustain a mass popular movement. We should also keep in mind that austerity is an international offensive, requiring continent-wide co-ordinated action. The European TUC day of action on 14 November can be considered a starting point.

The new People's Petition Against Austerity (which everyone signed on our journey home yesterday) is one tool for developing that common anti-austerity front in the months ahead. Its demands - stop cuts and privatisation, tax the rich, drop the debt, democratise the banks and invest in jobs, homes and the green economy - should underpin a new wave of protests, strikes and campaigning activity. Yesterday's magnificent march was a taste of what's to come.

Sign or download the People's Petition HERE

Also see: Counterfire's assessment Back in fighting spirit


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