By Kate Bradley, Ashmeet Teemhsa and Colin Revolting.
Around 150,000 people marched in yesterday’s demonstration in Central London, according to organisers, to stand for health, education, housing and jobs, against continuing Tory-led cuts to the funding of welfare and public services. The protest was called by the People’s Assembly, and rallied people under the slogan ‘Cameron Must Go’, following increased resistance to Cameron, after the embarrassing leaks from the Panama Papers.
The protestors began to gather at 11:00 on Gower Street, quickly filling the road. Trade unions including Unite, Unison and the Public and Civil Service Union had mobilised large delegations and had a visible presence, especially in the form of flags and balloons, as did the Green Party of England and Wales. They were joined by many local grassroots, anti-cuts campaigners, migrant-solidarity groups, work-place activists (for example, concerned with Sports Direct), and Corbyn supporters from various organisations – chief among them the anti-austerity and housing campaigner Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s older brother. The demonstration drew familiar faces (for example, a common sight at many protests, the man dressed as an elf, dancing to Irish folk music, holding a placard with prophesies about the soon-to-be-revealed divine-significance of Queen Elizabeth II). As well these, the demonstration also included many families and groups of friends on their first protest.
The march commenced at 14:00 and although parts of the march were quiet, chants such as “say hey, say ho, David Cameron’s got to go!” were picked-up easily. Several groups, led by activists from Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, Stand Up to Racism and London2Calais, took up energetic pro-refugee and pro-migrant slogans. Sound-systems, choirs and drummers lifted the mood elsewhere. Although parts of the march were quiet it was clear that when people led a chant, others responded and, despite the weather, the atmosphere became more festive.
At around 16:00, the demonstration filled Trafalgar Square and the speeches began, delivered from a stage next to Nelson’s column. Speakers included representatives from the People’s Assembly, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah from UK Black Pride, a community-led organisation concerned with LGBT+ issues in the BAME community; Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales; Unite general secretary Len McCluskey (who, half-way through his speech, donned a Panama hat); John McDonnell (unarmed); Yannis Gourtsoyannis, a Junior Doctor on the British Medical Association’s committee; Danielle Tiplady from the NHS bursary campaign, Mark Turner, a steel-worker from South Wales; John Rees; and a recorded message from Jeremy Corbyn, who was busy campaigning in Liverpool. The absence of Jeremy was compensated by the presence of Piers Corbyn, cheering alongside protestors. Many people in the crowd wore ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ T-shirts and held JC4PM placards. McDonnell’s speech was significant, having spoken at countless other protests, but speaking as Shadow Chancellor, his words carried more weight and were met with appreciation from the crowd. He lauded Disabled People Against the Cuts for storming Parliament, and he pledged solidarity for any junior doctors and teachers taking industrial action.
Yannis Gourtsoyannis, speaking onstage, said that “the Tories want to rip open the belly of the NHS and sacrifice it for private profit. One million NHS workers will not let them get away with it: stand with us. The NUT are rallying with us, and we are rallying with them.”
Mark Turner contributed a moving homage to the British steel industry, focusing on its central importance, both for the steel-workers and their families and its role in shaping Britain, its presence in our everyday lives – our cars, our homes, the infrastructure of this country.
As the rain intensified, the crowds began to dissipate, most of the speeches having been delivered. At the same time (from 16:30 onwards), a protest took place outside the Topshop (owned by the billionaire Sir Philip Green, whose tax affairs have been subject to criticism in the media) on The Strand, near Charing Cross station. It was organised by the United Voices of the World union, and concerned the sacking of two union-activists and cleaners, Susana and Carolina. The United Voices of the World union is a members-led union consisting of, predominantly, workers of Latin American descent who work low-paid and outsourced jobs. Susana and Carolina have been active participants in the campaign for a real living-wage (of £9.40 per hour), as opposed to the Government’s pseudo-living-wage (of £7.20 per hour), for the cleaners of Topshop; the importance of their struggle, in an age of precarious work where higher sales and higher profits do not entail higher wages, as well as a relatively-weak workers’ movement, cannot be underestimated – the success of failure of their struggle will be of consequence to every shop-floor employee and every precarious worker in Britain. This group of demonstrators, which included the IWW-affiliated London Wobblies, then proceeded to march to Trafalgar Square.
For seasoned activists, the day was relatively unexceptional – the size of the demonstration was decent, but not as large as previous PA demonstrations and the events of the day were as expected. The danger for the People’s Assembly is that their demonstrations turn into routines or rituals of the British left, lacking concrete results and failing to combat austerity (now in its sixth year). An example of a concrete target might be to improve turnout: the failure to increase turnouts on successive demonstrations is something that the PA could easily address through greater workplace and community organisation. On a positive note, perhaps the greatest value in People’s Assembly demonstrations, however, lies in the opportunities they provide to build new relationships and connect with a wider variety of people, from various campaigns and groups, and from across the country; to discuss, coordinate and relate with people whose existence we would otherwise be unaware of.