Anindya Bhattacharyya writes:
Saturday’s march through central London was a test for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity’s – the first time it had organised a national march primarily through its own resources, rather than putting a call out for a march that brought bigger forces (the TUC, the big unions) behind it.
It passed that test smoothly and with flying colours. The march was a sunny success, drawing visible delegations from far and wide: Lancaster, Dorset, Norwich – even a small group around a Cornish flag. The biggest blocs were unsurprisingly connected to two public services people feel passionate about protecting: education and health. But anti-war sentiment also ran through the demo: “NHS Not Trident” was a hugely popular placard, as were Stop the War placards opposing British military intervention in Iraq or Ukraine.
The march assembled at Portland Place before snaking its way down Regent Street to a variety of reactions from passing tourists (most reached for their smartphones). At its head was the People’s Assembly banner, followed shortly by a large, young and visually striking bloc from the NUT. The union had decided to use the demo as a springboard for their part in the 10 July pay strike, and I doubt it is regretting that decision.
After heading past Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall we eventually filed into Parliament Square, easily filling the lawn. The last sizeable anti-austerity demo there had been a very different affair – 9 December 2010 when police savagely attacked students, almost killing Alfie Meadows, and later caged thousands in a brutal kettle on Westminster Bridge. A significant minority of the crowd would have been at both demos: Defend the Right to Protest and the Justice for Mark Duggan campaign were both represented, selling copies of the new Who Killed Blair Peach? pamphlet.
But while the demo was a far more peaceable affair, the anger in the crowd had not gone anywhere. “The mood of the demo was pretty chilled whereas the speeches were quite radical,” noted Shanice McBean from KCL students union. “Speakers were saying if we must, we’ll work outside the law – which received big cheers.”
The compère at the rally announced that 50,000 took part in the march. The crowd cheered. The police for their part threw a bit of a sulk by refusing to provide their own estimate. They also reported, presumably glumly, that there had been no arrests.
Speakers included union leaders such as Christine Blower of the NUT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS. Tower Hamlet’s newly re-elected independent mayor Lutfur Rahman did a turn. Celebrity stardust was sprinkled from Francesca Martinez and Russell Brand, who sent a moving and powerful message of, well, effortless love and solidarity really.
The lawn on Parliament Square was the perfect venue for a rally, allowing people to listen to the speakers, mingle, catch up with old friends or just sunbathe. rs21 comrades were for the most part busying about our stall and flogging 165 copies of our new magazine (available for very reasonable prices here).
Amy Gilligan, the new magazine’s editor, said: “The demo was a good size and was a snapshot of the variety of anti-austerity campaigning, even if the individual groups weren’t huge. The NUT clearly mobilised effectively, as did Unite, FBU and PCS. I was struck by the enthusiasm in the crowd when McCluskey spoke.
“The other interesting aspect was the number of People’s Assembly groups from smaller places or areas outside of metropolitan centres. The People’s Assembly seems to be playing a role in these places that is a bit different to what the People’s Assembly is doing nationally.”
Dan Swain travelled down from Norwich as part of his local People’s Assembly delegation. “It was heartening to see a lot of new faces on the three coaches from Norfolk, and I got the feeling this was replicated in other areas. On the way back we discussed building solidarity for the 10 July strikes and future events in Norwich. It’s definitely given us a shot in the arm, and I hope it can do that for other areas too.
“For better or worse, there’s been a significant reconfiguration of what the left looks like. I think this march showed that there’s a basis for developing significant activist groups, especially outside of London, which can be part of a renewed left. I still think austerity is going to be the main mobilising thing in the immediate term, though we should be on the lookout for other issues too.”
This was a very different anti-austerity demonstration to those of previous years, and judging from the media response, is being met with a much more positive reception, and in some quarters even welcomed.
The initial wave of austerity cuts were targeted at the weakest in society, those already pulverised by decades of neoliberalism: the young, the disabled, those on benefits, council tenants. They nevertheless fought back angrily and bravely, catapulting the issue of cuts into the headlines even if their rollout seemed inexorable.
That initial wave of protest was met with a ferocious response by the authorities that has undoubtedly blunted the movement’s radical edge. The tide seems to have turned against criminal prosecutions of protesters, but at enormous personal cost to those directly involved. Running alongside all this the wave of industrial action that could have rolled out after the 30 November 2011 pensions strike failed to appear.
Now two major planks of the government austerity programme – health and education cuts – are now beginning to stir mass organised resistance. It’s not a coincidence that these issues cut across neat distinctions between the political, the industrial and the social. They involve not just the jobs but also the very lives, prospects and well being of masses of people. The health bloc at one point deviated off the march route to briefly lay siege to the Department of Health.
These mobilisations around mass social issues may not be as rapid and spectacular as the students, disabled activists, UK Uncut protesters and rioters who took to the streets three years ago. But what they lack in speed they make up for in clout and size. If the People’s Assembly march does mark a new turn in the anti-cuts movement it is one where these mass social issues will play an increasingly prominent role.
Dan Swain comments: “Major social issues like healthcare and education fuse industrial and political issues. As well as questions of wages and conditions for workers, they pose fundamental questions for communities about how, and in whose interest, our society is run.
“We have to engage with these campaigns at both levels, without either narrowing the political to the industrial, or completely obscuring key questions of workplace organisation and strength.”
And as for the edge – well it has been blunted but it can regrow. The cuts aren’t going away and our need to fight brave and hard won’t go away either. And certain immediate issues – anti-migrant racism and the immigration cops, community defence anti-Nazi work – require a militant, mobile and immediate response. Throughout this revolutionary socialists face the question of how to graft these various masses and edges together – and what role we can play in that process.