The self-declared ‘plebs’ were out in force on Saturday at the TUC’s march against austerity in London, while thousands more took to the streets of Glasgow and Belfast to voice their anger at the coalition government.
‘Plebs Unite’ read one placard. ‘Proud Loud Educated Broke’ said another. ‘I’d rather be a pleb than a toff’ was one of the many intermittent cries heard as 150,000 people walked the familiar route from Victoria Embankment via Whitehall and Trafalgar Square to the bark-chip strewn mud-patch that used to be Hyde Park.
Rather awkwardly called the march for ‘A Future that Works’, the demonstration was both an uplifting and disheartening experience.
On the one hand, it was undoubtedly a significant show of force by the Labour movement, a good-humoured gathering of banners, branches and activists brought by chartered trains and 250 coaches from right across the country. Here were unionists and Labour members together declaring their vocal opposition to the government’s cuts. Brass bands, pipers, loud-hailing chanters, and the wonderfully upbeat PCS group, ‘Drumming up support’, helped to transform a dull autumn day in the capital into a loud and colourful festival.
One man stood defiant in front of the gates at Downing Street, scene of the infamous ‘Plebgate’ affair, holding aloft a board demanding ‘Austerity: that’s enough’ in multi-coloured capitals. He was duly cheered and photographed by the noisy thousands who marched past him, his obvious need to stand up and be counted, to visibly demonstrate his anger, drawing much empathy and appreciation.
On the other hand, however, a Labour movement march was all this was, and, as such, it did as much to illustrate the weakness of the anti-austerity opposition as show its strength.
For a start, it was signifcantly smaller and less broad-based in social and political make-up than the TUC’s ‘March for an Alternative’ held 18 months ago. Yes, there was a message from Danny Boyle, architect of the shrewdly radical Olympic opening ceremony with its subtle ‘people’s story’ – Jarrow Crusaders and all that – and there was a group of Olympic drummers dressed in their revolting peasants outfits. But in truth there were few other signs that the TUC had managed to reach out beyond the threads of its own networks.
In the year and a half since the ‘Alternative’ march, there appears to have been little attempt by the unions – or Labour, for that matter – to knit together the fragments of the widespread opposition to austerity, and that lack of leadership and coherence was all too obvious.
Perhaps, it’s not so surprising as the only apparent ‘alternatives’ are somewhat uninspiring. Take your pick between Labour’s ‘not so far and not so fast’ approach, and the impossiblist, self-defeating demand for a ‘general strike now!’ that was plastered across hundreds of Socialist Worker placards and repeated, rather too predictably, by the RMT’s Bob Crow and PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka from the Hyde Park stage.
“We have to be honest we are in a worse place today than we were 18 months ago,” said Serwotka rather candidly before leaping all logic to his improbable conclusion.
“If marching doesn’t stop them, then we have to do what they are doing in Spain and Greece,” he claimed. “It’s not enough to wish for it, we’ve got to make it happen. The time has come to strike, and when we strike, we can win.”
Leaving aside how that last sentence rather glosses over the history of strikes in this country, there appears to be little recognition by union leaders of the political journey needed before such action would have any chance of winning significant public support.
Inevitably, Crow called on Ed Miliband to support his call to arms, which – of course – Miliband could not possibly do. The Labour leader did appear at the demonstration, however, his speech – and its ‘mixed reception’ – responsible for what precious little coverage the march attracted in the mainstream media.
Miliband said Labour was there for “all the young people in this country who want work, but can’t find it in Britain today”, but he was booed for admitting “whoever was in government now there would be some cuts”.
Of course, his mere presence was enough for the Tories to paint Labour as irresponsible. Business Minister Michael Fallon told the BBC: “By turning up at a rally that opposes every single spending cut that’s necessary to deal with our debts, Ed Miliband has shown that he’s still in favour of more spending, more borrowing and even greater debt.”
And Conservative chairman Grant Shapps added: “You can’t be serious about clearing the deficit when you attend a march that calls for an end to austerity.”
And there’s Labour’s problem in a nutshell – it still needs a credible answer to that accusation which allows its leaders to be as angry in opposition as the massed ranks of activists who turned out on Saturday, yet still appeals to the many thousands of other pissed-off people who either didn’t know about the event, wouldn’t have attended if they had, or couldn’t see the point of another march to nowhere.
More about the march and the TUC’s campaign here.