UK: 250,000 march to “End Austerity Now”...the Tories respond with more cuts

Despite some 250,000 people taking to the streets of London last weekend for the first major national mobilisation against the austerity agenda of the Conservative government, Chancellor George Osborne has just announced plans to slash the welfare budget by £12 billion (approximately €16.7 billion).

The 20 June protest, organised by the People’s Assembly – a coalition of trade unions, various social movements and political parties – was a show of anger and frustration against the government’s continued assault on the welfare state.

The Tory government, led by prime minister David Cameron and re-elected in May, pledged to make a number of money-saving reforms to the welfare system in its election manifesto.

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people marched in London against the proposed cuts under the banner “End Austerity Now”. Smaller protests took place in cities like Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow.

A number of individuals and organisations ranging from the Student’s Assembly against the Austerity to Unite the Union, Stand Up to Racism and Fascism and Keep Our NHS public took part to protests.

They were joined by the Green Party (including party leader Natalie Bennett) and the local branches of European anti-austerity movements Podemos from Spain and Syriza from Greece.

Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn was the only one of four Labour leadership contenders to attend the rally.

Jack Hazeldine, an organiser for the Bristol’s People’s Assembly told Equal Times: “We had elections in Britain last month and the Conservatives were elected on a very small majority only 24 per cent of voters chose them, and yet they are now proposing even more harsh, severe and really drastic cuts to all the services that we all need, from assistance for the disabled, to the NHS, education and a continuous degradation of living standards for many, including young people”.

But the day after the march, the Chancellor Osborne and the Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith defiantly announced their plans to implement the massive cuts.

Details will be outlined in next month’s emergency summer budget and in the autumn spending review, but a reduction in the benefits cap is expected, as are “significant” cuts to other working-age benefits, as well as housing benefits and tax credits.


Frontline issue

But for many of Saturday’s marchers, education is also a frontline issue in the fight against austerity.

As Martin Powell-Davies, secretary of Lewisham branch of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and national executive member of the teachers’ union, explains: “They [the Tories] are trying to privatise education through widening the number of academies.”

“I come from a South London borough, Lewisham, where we are involved in a major campaign and we have successfully defeated, for now, an attempt to try to turn three of our schools into privatised academies”.

But very few people were marching against a single issue. For Powell-Davies and his fellow NUT members, the defence of the right to strike was also a major rallying point.

“The Tories understand that the people who really have the power to actually lead the resistance are the trade unions so they are trying to introduce legislation where in order to have a national strike you would need to have 50 per cent of your members voting ’yes’ in a postal ballot," he said.

“This will be extremely difficult. It has nothing to do with democracy, but it’s about trying to stop the trade union movement organising, but as you can see today we are organised”.

At the end of the rally in Parliament Square, a number of speakers took to the stage, from the journalist Owen Jones to the singer-songwriter/activist Charlotte Church and the comedian/activist Russell Brand.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite the Union, the UK’s biggest trade union, told the crowd: “The majority in the House of Commons for the Tories, when 64 per cent of the voters voted against them, will never legitimise the ravaging attacks on the disabled, the elderly, the sick; the poverty and human suffering caused by the greed and gluttony. It will never legitimise the attacks on trade unionists, on democracy or on the right to strike”.

McCluskey added: “The battle ahead is a defining one for all of us. The outcome will define not only our country, not only the lives we live and those of our children, that will define the generations that still have to come”.

In his speech. Sam Fairbairn, national secretary of the People’s Assembly, echoed McCluskey’s sentiments: “David Cameron thinks that his small majority means that he can do whatever he likes for the next five years without opposition, but he’s wrong. We are that opposition”.