By normal measures a demonstration of 100 000 people in London is massive. The TUC, which organised October 20th’s March For A Future That Works, the police and participants seemed to agree that was how many people took to the city’s streets to protest against Con Dem austerity. This was the trade union movement in England mobilising one of its rare political challenges to the government. It succeeded in bringing together members of thousands of union branches, student groups and anti-cuts campaigns.
The only problem was that, in this case, the normal ways of judging these things don’t apply. October 20th’s demonstration has to be measured against its predecessor, the March for the Alternative in March 2011. On that occasion the TUC claimed to have mobilised 500 000 people. This means that after an additional eighteen months of austerity, mass impoverishment and naked Tory class warfare only about 20% of the people who took to the streets in the first major demonstration against the Con Dems came out again.
Activists who had built for October 20th remarked on the lack of a “buzz” around the event, the indifference to it in some communities. All the reports of the local meetings preparing for it agreed that they were smaller than those of the previous year. In his speech to the demonstrators Mark Serwotka of the PCS said “we are in a worse place than we were eighteen months ago.” He was right.
Yet there is a paradox. At the Hyde Park rally the leaders of several major unions explicitly referred to the prospect of co-ordinated strike action. Naturally these included Mark Serwotka, Len McCluskey of UNITE and the RMT’s Bob Crow but there were a couple of surprises. Christine Blower of the NUT said it should be considered when “the timing is right”, which while not exactly a call to arms at least signals that it’s on the agenda. Most astonishingly Dave Prentis of UNISON referred to his union’s support for the recent TUC motion which called on the labour movement to investigate the “practicalities” of holding a general strike. Given that UNISON’s bureaucracy seems entirely driven by the need to sell out its members at every opportunity this was a radical bit of rhetoric from one of that bureaucracy’s most conservative leaders.
All these references to militant co-ordinated action were well received by the audience, a significant section of which wanted to do something more to defend their jobs, pensions and communities than walk through central London every eighteen months.
Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke. A large portion of the crowd greeting him warmly. He got a bumpier ride as he went along. In much the same way that some people are unable to construct a sentence which doesn’t contain the word “like”, Miliband used “one nation” as a verbal crutch. He must have repeated the phrase about ten times in his speech, flaunting one of British Toryism’s ideological heirlooms which he seems rather proud of having nicked from them. But it’s not just their heirlooms he’s got his eyes on. He set out Labour’s programme for government which is “different, fairer cuts”. He completely accepted the need for cuts and promised not much more than shifting the burden of some of them to the wealthier. As he ploughed this furrow the audience response became actively hostile. Yet the hard fact is that the vast majority of people who booed him will vote Labour at the next election in their desperation to get rid of the Tories.
Compared to the mobilisations in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy protests in Britain are smaller and more resigned. Many of those who were there had turned up because they felt it was the right thing to do. They did not feel that the “leadership” offered by the TUC offers a way forward. However, the numbers while hugely down on last year, indicate that there is a large, organised, angry section of workers and activists in Britain who are willing to put up a real fight against the Con Dems’ austerity offensive.
It was Mark Serwotka who pointed out what has to happen next. The time has now come to shift from rhetoric about the desirability of joint industrial action to serious discussion about how to make it happen. The hundreds of thousands who marched in 2011 against austerity have not changed their minds on it. They can be won back to action, but they have looked at the inertia and passivity of the leadership of the union movement and been left feeling powerless by it. That’s why they didn’t turn out on October 20th.