Britain: Huge march takes on austerity alliance

Issue 
A huge march of 150,000 people in London against austerity, October 20.

About 200,000 people marched in London, Glasgow and Belfast on October 20 against the austerity programs of British Prime Minister David Cameron's government.

The trade unions that called the actions put the numbers of participants at: London 150,000, Glasgow 10,000 and Belfast 10,000. Marchers were of all ages and backgrounds — trade union members, students, families affected by cuts to health and social services and women's rights advocates, among others.

Some union leaders speaking at the London march backed calls for a general strike against austerity. These included Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PSC (the biggest civil service union), Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union, and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey.

At the September annual conference of the union movement’s peak body, the Trade Union Congress, delegates voted to conduct a consultation with members over whether to call a general strike.

McCluskey asked marchers in Hyde Park if they were ready for a general strike and received huge cheering. “We won't get what we want just by asking,” he said.

On March 26 last year, as many as half a million people marched against austerity in London.

The Cameron government's woes are deepening. Its chief whip has been obliged to resign following a verbal altercation weeks ago with police in which he swore at them and called them “plebs”.

Finance minister George Osbourne, who has pleaded “we're all in this together” as he carries out draconian cuts to social spending, has been outed in the “Great Train Snobbery”. During a train trip on October 19, he moved from a standard class to a first class coach without paying the additional fare, assuming the railway workers on board would turn a blind eye.

A former Conservative cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher wrote an open letter in  The Observer  saying, “This government has earned a bad name for being a government of toffs who neither know, nor care, how the other half lives.” 

Britain is in the throes of a deepening class struggle prompted by attacks on social and democratic rights by the capitalist class. The economic elite is pressing forward with an austerity program of ever-deepening cuts to jobs and social services.

A coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats has been in power for the past two years and has cut billions of pounds from public services.

With the country mired in economic stagnation, the two parties are aiming to cut billions more in government spending, most notably in the social sphere.

The Conservatives want to cut a further £10 billion from welfare payments alone between now and 2015.

Also under consideration are denial of housing subsidies to people under 25 years of age and ending per-child welfare benefits to families that bear more than a yet-to-be announced fixed limit of children.

Wages of Britain's public service workers have been frozen since last year. In March, the UNISON union said the pay freeze and other attacks had cut the purchasing power of health service workers by some 15%.

Further cuts are aimed at holiday benefits and family-friendly work schedules.

Previous Labour governments began the outsourcing of health services to private providers. The Conservatives have drawn up a list of 6000 extra procedures to be outsourced.

This is stoking tension with directors of the Nation Health Service. Its chief executive, Sir David Nicholson, recently warned against privatisation “carpet bombing,” saying it could easily end in “misery and failure”.

As a result of government attacks, social protests in Britain are on a marked upswing. A student national day of protest  is set for November 21 against rising tuition fees, cuts to student living assistance and other restrictions on access to education.

The Coalition government is not as stable and strong as Tory bravado suggests. The weak partner in the arrangement, the Liberal Democrats, risks political annihilation in the next election as a result of its participation. It has lost 20% of its members since 2010.

Anger against the decades-old privatisation and austerity drive is prompting a scale of protest not seen in decades. Last November, 2 million public sector workers went on strike to defend pension benefits.

Strikes of public service and other workers have continued, including teachers and rail workers. Union branches and some national unions have voted in favour of a general strike against austerity.

Student protests are reviving after big protests  involving tens of thousands of students across England in late 2010. Heightened police violence had contributed to a dip in protest.

A key front of struggle is the defense of the right to protest. Political protests are routinely harassed or broken up by police. Since 1990, 1500 people have died in police custody. But a fightback is deepening.

A day-long conference of the “Defend the Right To Protest” coalition took place on October 14. A leading force in it is the Socialist Workers Party. The conference was marked by broad participation, including from trade union and student groups, Black rights organizations and activists from some of the main historical battles for civil rights in Britain. Speakers included MP John McDonnell, Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Janet Alder, sister of Christopher Alder, a former British soldier killed in police custody in 1998.

Today's Conservatives carry on the same class-warfare policies as during the years of Thatcher, but it's a tough go. They don't necessarily bring the same set of political skills. They showed some weakness during the 2010 election campaign by presenting themselves as undergoing moderation in an effort to shuck their image as the “nasty party”, though the recent party conference visibly put an end to that pretense. Most importantly, privatisation and austerity programs now have a track record of failure to create economic and social progress for the majority of society.
All of a sudden, the working class protests and political advances in the countries of southern Europe are looking less distant from the shores of Britain. The working-class has an opportunity to organise to give the fragile Coalition government the boot long before its 2015 electoral mandate is up.

[Abridged from a more detailed article at The Bullet. Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC.]