Today was the long awaited TUC-led “March for the Alternative” in London, calling for jobs, growth and justice, in the face of the savage programme of public sector cuts imposed by the Tory-led coalition government, which I have been covering since October in a series of hard-hitting articles under the heading, Battle for Britain: Fighting the Coalition Government’s Vile Ideology.
Those of you who have been following my work closely will understand that I was not able to be on the march today, as I’m in St. Thomas’ Hospital, where I’m undergoing treatment for a serious and painful blocking of the blood supply to the toes of my right foot, caused by arterial damage. However, with my magnificent overview of the march from the 11th floor window of my hospital room, overlooking the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge and today — crucially — the Embankment, where the march began at 12 noon, I’m able to confirm that this was undoubtedly the biggest protest I’ve ever seen, with the noble but ultimately doomed exception of the February 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War, which, with an estimated two million attendees, was by far the largest protest in British history.
For four hours today, however, the crowd of protestors surging purposefully along the Embankment, waving banners, bringing rainbow colour to the West End and making a lot of noise before heading west for a rally in Hyde Park, more than adequately fulfilled hopes that hundreds of thousands of protestors would turn up, and as I was writing this, mid-afternoon, the Embankment was still awash with protestors, all the way down to Hungerford Bridge and Charing Cross station. As a result, I’m very much hoping that the ideological butchers of the Tory government (plus their Lib Dem hangers-on) got the message that the British people are not happy with the cuts, and are not happy with the smug arrogance of David Cameron and George Osborne, who have no political experience and no mandate from the voting public for their savage cuts, whose targets include:
- The NHS, which faces privatization by stealth and a hidden slaughter of jobs and frontline services, as I discussed in my articles, Battle for Britain: Resisting the Privatization of the NHS and the Loss of 100,000 Jobs, Save the NHS! Will the BMA Do the Right Thing, and Reject the Coalition Government’s Privatization Bill? and BMA Emergency Meeting Calls on Government to Drop NHS Privatization;
- Funding for university education, where most people still don’t realize that arts, humanities and social science degrees have been subjected to 100 percent cuts, tranferring the entire burden of education out of the state’s hands, as I discussed in my articles, 50,000 Students Revolt: A Sign of Much Greater Anger to Come in Neo-Con Britain, Did You Miss This? 100 Percent Funding Cuts to Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Courses at UK Universities and Cameron’s Britain: “Kettling” Children for Protesting Against Savage Cuts to University Funding; and
- The welfare state — from the working poor to the unemployed, the disabled, and the countless organizations providing essential support to the most vulnerable in society, who had seen significant and necessary investment until the Tories took charge, as I discussed in my articles, Critics Attack UK Government’s Cruel and Ill-Conceived Assault on Welfare, The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms and On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion.
From the turnout at today’s protest — and the wonderful atmosphere that I heard about from friends on Twitter, and from guests dropping by in person — it’s clear that hopes that it would become an influential event have come true. As a result, we have had — as I and others always hoped — a protest much larger than its trade union origins, providing an opportunity for groups, organizations and individuals from all over the country to come together, to network, and, above all, to send a united message to the government not only that its policies are being introduced too fast, are too indiscriminate and too savage, and will cause widespread misery and suffering that is not necessary, but also that a significant proportion of the British people have seen through all the talk about “necessity” and “fairness” and “all being in it together,” and want to see a revised economic basis for society.
This has not yet been adequately addressed by the mainstream political parties — and is only part of Labour’s message, however much Ed Miliband tried to pretend it wasn’t, by turning up at the rally in Hyde Park to deliver a speech in which he stated:
Our struggle is to fight to preserve, protect and defend the best of the services we cherish because they represent the best of the country we love. We know what the government will say: that this is a march of the minority. They are so wrong. David Cameron, you wanted to create the big society — this is the big society. The big society united against what your government is doing to our country. We stand today not as the minority, but as the voice of the mainstream majority in this country.
These were good points, and well expressed, although Ed Miliband’s problem, of course, is that he was limited in how much he could praise Labour for “defend[ing] the best of the services we cherish” when — although Labour had indeed expanded the public sector, to great effect — the party had also done all it could to encourage and facilitate the robber barons responsible for the financial crisis of 2008 that created the excuse for austerity and cuts in the first place.
A harsher critic, speaking a more direct oppositional language, was Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, who told the crowd, “You represent a spirit of resistance in every workplace and community that says we are not going to have our way of life killed so that the rich and greedy can live as they please.”
Again, great words, but had I been able to take part in the protest today, I know I would have been on the lookout for opportunities for new coalitions of resistance to be created, not just including the trade unions and the best of the Labour Party. but also involving others, outside of or alienated by the mainstream, and/or unrepresented by unions, who need a more visionary project — a new politics, and a new political movement drawing on the lessons of the past but dealing with the present and the future, in which ordinary people’s jobs are valued, in which working people are not scapegoated for the crimes of the financial elites and the tax evasion of the corporate giants, and in which those responsible for the financial crisis and for systematic corporate tax evasion and tax avoidance are made to pay up instead.
As is noted in the manifesto of UK Uncut, the biggest campaigning organization to have grown out of the cuts programme, which was involved in a number of occupations in central London today, including Fortnum & Mason’s, and which essentially functions as a galvanizer and franchise for direct action against the banks and the corporations:
We are told that the only way to reduce the deficit is to cut to public services. This is certainly not the case. There are alternatives, but the government chooses to ignore them, highlighting the fact that the cuts are based on ideology, not necessity.
- One alternative is to clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and the rich, estimated to cost the state £95bn a year
- Another is to make the banks pay for a crisis they created: last year they paid out over £7bn in bonuses and just four banks made £24bn in profit
The tax avoided and evaded in a single year could pay for the £81bn, four-year cuts programme.
To provide a little more information about today’s protest, here’s an explanation from the TUC’s website:
Why We’re Marching
Government spending cuts will damage public services and put more than a million out of work. They will hit the vulnerable, damage communities and undermine much of what holds us together as a society.
Ministers say there is no alternative.
But both of the government’s two key decisions are political choices, not economic necessity.
Eliminating the deficit in just four years is a savage timetable that does not give economic growth the opportunity to raise the nation’s tax take. Indeed the deep cuts promised will depress the economy making deeper cuts necessary to meet this timetable.
Raising four pounds through cuts for every pound raised through tax — and doing most of this through a rise in VAT that hits the poor and those on middle income the most — is deeply unfair. The recession was made in the finance sector, yet banks and those now enjoying gigantic bonuses once again, are not being asked to make a fair contribution.
Yet none of these policies were put to the British people at the election, indeed we were told that there was no need for cuts in front-line services.
People round the country are already campaigning against these deep, rapid cuts. Students have shown their opposition to cuts, the end of EMAs and increases in fees. Parents and teachers have opposed cuts in school building. School sport, libraries and public woodlands all now have strong defenders. Few towns now don’t have their own campaign group.
The TUC’s March for the Alternative has two key aims.
First we want to give a national voice to all those affected by the cuts. This will be a huge event that in its breadth and support shows just how much opposition there is to the government’s programme. It will bring together public service workers and those who depend on good public services. Those involved in national campaigns, and those defending what is special in their own community.
Second we want to show that people reject the argument that there is no alternative.
Of course the recession did damage to our economy. But these deep rapid cuts are not the best way to solve our problems, and may well make them worse.
That is why it is the March for the Alternative — an alternative in which rich individuals and big companies have to pay all their tax, that the banks pay a Robin Hood tax and one in which we strain every sinew to create jobs and boost the sustainable economic growth that will generate the prosperity which is the only long term way to close the deficit and reduce the nation’s debt.
And finally, to follow up on that, here are some messages of support, also from the TUC’s website:
Messages of support
On housing benefit cuts and homelessness:
“The Government is creating a perfect storm for poor, vulnerable and homeless people who had no hand in creating this financial crisis and recession. Housing benefit cuts that could leave a million households struggling to pay the rent kick in next month. Local councils are already decimating hostel funding, day centres and other vital homelessness projects. Budgets for new social housing have been halved and rents for new tenants are set to rise with tenancies less secure. David Cameron must rethink his plans, otherwise Crisis fears homelessness will surge across the country.”
Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive, Crisis
On the disabled:
“Disability Alliance will be marching on 26 March as disabled people require additional support from public services and will be disproportionately affected by almost all Government cuts. Disabled people will lose £4.1 billion in essential welfare support alone, despite the banking levy contributing £2.5 billion to tackling the national deficit. This cannot be fair when disabled people are already twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens.”
Neil Coyle, Disability Alliance
“Daycare Trust, the national childcare campaign is proud to lend our support to the march. We believe it is imperative that children are protected from the spending cuts. All children deserve the best start in life, and cuts to childcare provision mean that this is under threat. Our recent research with 4Children found 250 Sure Start Children’s Centres face closure over the next year. These hugely valued centres provide a lifeline to so many parents and we know that they have a positive impact on children’s development, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Families across the country are devastated at the prospect of losing one of their most important local services. We reaffirm our call for Sure Start Children’s Centres to be protected as we join others to March for the Alternative.”
Anand Shukla, Acting Chief Executive, Daycare Trust
On the arts and arts funding at universitites:
Many of us in the arts deplore the Tory obsession with cuts. The effect of this short sighted and doctrinaire policy is devastating on culture and creativity in this country. The very small amounts of money involved make it especially ridiculous given that the arts in the UK are so successful and bring in such huge rewards. Visitors from abroad come here for our museums — amazingly 8 out of our top ten tourist attraction are museums. Our theatre is acknowledged to be the best in the world. The arts give Britain an international edge as an exciting and creative place to live, work and do business. Let us not forget that the arts give us all a sense of belonging and citizenship. They generate jobs and are one of the fastest growing parts of the economy with a commendable track record of regenerating cities and contributing to communities. But all this is in jeopardy if the Tories are allowed to do what they plan. Art schools and the arts and humanities departments of our universities will be set back at least 50 years. I condemn this short sighted policy which will take us backwards as a nation.
Anish Kapoor, Artist