It’s worth reminding ourselves of the scale of the march. The demonstration started at 11am and people were still leaving the Embankment at 3pm! Estimating numbers is never easy, but 500,000 is not excessive. My transport dropped me at Hyde Park and I had to walk the route to join the demo. I met the march at Trafalgar Square – with the Unison block leading the way. I waited at the square to see if I would recognise anyone to march with (some hope!) two hours later the Unison block was still filtering past.
I thought about some of the other demonstrations I had been on – and which are recognised as being significant protest events. In the early 1980s the Labour Party and TUC put on three massive demonstrations (in Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool) against unemployment. The combined total from those protests was less than those who marched today. In 1990 there were two massive demonstrations against the poll tax (one in London and one in Glasgow). Again the combined total was about half the size of the 26th March. In fact it was only the 15th February 2003 demonstration against war in Iraq that was bigger than this.
The second thing to mention is its composition. There are a lot of myths – in sociological circles – about the ‘end of the working class’. But this was an overwhelmingly working class protest. There were close to 2,000 trade union banners, there were banners from community groups, disability rights groups, service user organisations – and even the Liverpool football supporters group ‘The Spirit of Shankley’. There were hundreds of home made banners as well – including my favourite, the one that seemed to sum up all the class anger on display during the day: “Cameron, Clegg: Why don’t you just fuck off back to Eton”!!
The speeches that went down best in Hyde Park were those from people like Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey that spoke about the need for co-ordinated joint strike action to defend jobs and services – not the usual fare at TUC events.
The day emphasised something that SWAN has been saying for some time: service users and workers together, in joint action and in common cause, can defeat the cuts onslaught.
The march emphasised the possibilities – now its time to turn it into action. SWAN supporters must throw themselves into every campaign against every cut.
We have an ‘ideological’ role to play, emphasising that the cuts were caused by the financial system and asking why vulnerable communities should pay the price. We also need to argue for alternatives (increase top tax rates, take the bankers bonuses, scrap Trident missiles, create 1 million green jobs).
But we also have to combine this with our actions as activists. Standing with those who face cuts, or privatisation of services, or job losses. Going to their picket lines, marches, demonstrations and meetings. And we also have to start putting forward social work alternatives.
In this regard I’m delighted that SWAN has started a new series of Practice Notes (see details here). Our first draws on the experience of SWAN activists in the Midlands and offers some ideas about what social workers can do when faced with cuts to services for refugee children and young people. Practice Notes can be accessed on our website and will be – we hope – the first of many. To coincide with the launch of Practice Notes, SWAN and Unison called a successful joint demonstration outside the UK border Agency in Solihull. This fine example is one that I hope we can replicate across the country in the coming months.
Quotes from the day:
‘I was one of the young people from Oxfordshire on the march. We were amazed by the size of it and the diversity of people there. All the different views and actions we heard about and saw were great. Bankers – Wankers caught my eye as a cheeky but true slogan. We had a good day and found out loads about the anti cuts campaign. It’s great to be part of something so BIG. We are the MASSIVE society!’ Pippa, young person, anti cuts campaigner
‘Brilliant! – the biggest Trade Union demonstration in living memory; so big we couldn’t find our delegation! Coming to London on the STUC ‘big red train’ from Glasgow was a long journey, but really worthwhile – half a million on the streets shows the potential strength for a concerted fight back against the cuts – let’s organise coordinated strike action across the Unions to defend the welfare state.’ Barrie, Glasgow SWAN
‘Saturday’s TUC demo was a shot in the arm for us all. In the space of two hours, I went from being among a gathering of about 1,000 people in Kennington Park, to a river of people of perhaps 5-6k as we multiplied on the way to Waterloo Station, and ultimately into the sheer delight of the multitude of hundreds of thousands of people cramming the Embankment as far as the eye could see. Yes, it reminded me of what I’d hoped for: 2003! We bottlenecked at Big Ben, snaked round into Parliament Street, and roared with anger as we passed Downing Street. I bumped into several of the lecturers from my University who our student group had been picketing with two days previously – they were checking the internet on phones and picking up stories of numbers: 200,000? 250,000? Half a million!? That is what you call a social movement.
The biggest demonstration in Britain for years collectively told the government that we demand an economic alternative. In Hyde Park we heard the call for what we need next: coordinated industrial action. It reverberated along Oxford Street, into Trafalgar Square, through television sets in pubs and into newspapers across the land.’
Dan, social work student