Over a quarter of a million people poured on to the streets of London and Glasgow for the vibrant and angry People’s Assembly ‘End Austerity’ demonstrations on Saturday. Six weeks after the election of a Tory government, people from every corner of Britain turned out to show their determination that the Tories will not get their way.
What we witnessed on Saturday was the birth of a movement.
Young and old, black and white, gay and straight, abled and disabled, all marched in unity in defence of everything that makes society work, combined with a vision of how to make life better; from the cradle to the grave education, a National Health Service free at the point of entry, more council housing, demands for the renationalisation of the rail network, banking system and the public utilities, and much more besides….
Alongside these issues two more stood out. One is climate change. This issue has mobilised millions in recent years across the globe but what was significant about yesterday’s demonstrations was how this has become woven into the fabric of the anti-austerity movement. The demand for one million climate jobs is now an integral part of the resistance to the Tories’ privatising and austerity agenda.
The other was equality. Five years of Tory coalition cuts have hit the poorest communities hardest. An already unequal society has been made even more unequal. At the core of this demonstration was its opposition to the rise of Islamophobia and racism and all forms of discrimination. What was striking about the demonstration was not only how young it was but also how many young women marched to show their rage against their oppression. From the casual sexism women endure on a daily basis in the workplace, the horrendous rise of domestic violence to the continued pay disparity with men – they demanded that these must be confronted not just by them but by the movement as a whole.
The trade unions on the day provided the backbone to the demonstration. UNITE, UNISON, NUT, RMT, CWU and PCS to name just a few were all there with their inflatables. UCU too was well represented and had a good profile on the demo. The General Secretary Spoke on behalf of UCU from the platform.
Run the Tories out of Manchester
From yesterday’s impressive start this movement must build momentum if it is to sustain its promise. The lesson of the anti-war movement was to continue to mobilise large numbers on the streets on a regular basis. The Stop the War Coalition organised 18 demonstrations over a two year period. The smallest of these was 100,000 people on London’s streets; most were much larger. The anti-austerity movement needs to organise demonstrations and protests on the same scale.
On 8th July, Osborne, will be delivering his emergency budget. The People’s Assembly has called for protests across the country on that day in every workplace, college and community.
The next national mobilisation will be at the Tory Party Conference in Manchester in October. The Tories’ attempt to show that they speak for the working class is shown by them, provocatively, setting up camp in Manchester; the birthplace of the working class movement. The Peoples Assembly has called for a mass mobilisation to demonstrate outside of it. We need to start booking trains and buses now.
At the same time we need to be thinking beyond Manchester and how we build the next focal point. The UCU NEC on Friday agreed to implement the Congress motion calling for a national demonstration to defend Education. The General Secretary has agreed to set up a meeting with the NUT and the NUS to discuss plans to organise a national mobilisation. We could have a series of mobilisations around different themes. One in Defence of the NHS, one around One Million Climate Jobs, and another in opposition to the anti-trade union laws. Each one can be focused on a particular issue but call upon the whole of the movement to get behind them.
Striking workers from an array of disputes were well received as they collected and spoke about their campaigns. Lewisham and Southwark UCU members, who will be taking their third day of strike action on Tuesday alongside eight other colleges in London, marched alongside striking PCS members from the National Gallery and BFAWU members from Gunstone’s in Sheffield.
Few unions at the moment are talking about the possibility of nationally coordinated strike action as part of this movement. Although it is not easy to organise coordinated action across different unions it must be something that we in the trade union movement work towards. We did manage to coordinate 29 unions representing two and half million workers to take strike action in defence of our pensions. Unfortunately this show of strength was squandered.
Pay is one issue that some unions could begin to discuss coordinating around. However, we don’t have to wait for a single issue around which we can unite. All unions have particular issues that affect their members due to the Tory attacks. These issues will have their own negotiating timelines but calling national action that coincides with other unions taking action over other aspects of Tory cuts is a real possibility.
To enable all this to happen we need to drill down deeper into the communities and workplaces by setting up more Peoples Assemblies.
The need for a new political representation that speaks for this new movement is something which was also clearly felt on these demonstrations. It was best articulated by Jeremy Corbyn’s entry into the Labour Leadership contest. There is a debate to be had about whether it is possible to turn the Labour Party into a vehicle that the left can use to fundamentally transform society. At the moment, though, the best possibility of creating a voice and a focus for this new movement is Jeremy’s bid to win the leadership of the Labour Party. The bigger the vote for him, the wider and deeper the anti-austerity case will go and the alternative be heard.
It is quite incredible that the Labour Leadership have got themselves into such a muddle. They introduced a rule change a few years ago to weaken the influence of the affiliated unions in leadership elections by allowing people to become supporters of the Labour Party for £3 with voting rights in the leadership contest. Now this very rule change has allowed the real left wing mood of tens of thousands of people to be expressed, forcing some centrist Labour MPs to give Jeremy their votes and placing him onto the ballot paper.
Is it possible? Well, the bookies have shortened their odds on Jeremy. When you consider the fact that Ed Miliband only needed 200,000 votes to beat his brother in 2010 and that the Labour Party’s biggest affiliate is UNITE, led by a Left wing leadership with a million members, combined with new individual supporters votes, it won’t be a walk in the park for the establishment candidates.
Not a bad start…
Within only six weeks of the election of a Tory government we have had one of the largest demonstrations yet against austerity. What yesterday provided was not only hope to millions of people in Britain who are fearful about the future for themselves and their families but it also showed that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Britain today who are already active in trying to find ways to make things better.
It brought people together who perhaps thought it was just them who were trying to stop this government destroying people lives. People were smiling and greeting each other as if they were meeting up with long lost friends. We have a way to go but yesterday was a brilliant beginning of something that could be transformative.
Sean Vernell, UCU Coordinating Secretary City and Islington College and National Negotiator