Trade unionists, pensioners and anti-cuts campaigners came together last Saturday to march through central London in defence of the welfare state and public services.
Organisers said 10,000 took part. The most impressive aspect was the large number of trade union banners from across Britain.
The march gave a glimpse of the potential for serious opposition to the avalanche of cuts that all the main parties promise after the election. It showed the mood among workers to resist cuts.
And it showed how the trade unions could shape the election debate if they mobilised.
A Sheffield bus worker in the Unite union who was on the march said, “Public services are under attack. We have to fight together, united—we should all take action at the same time.”
The National Pensioners Convention (NPC) march called the march and all the major trade unions backed it.
Pensioners were prominent on the protest—and with good reason.
Dot Gibson, general secretary of the NPC, said, “There are 2.5 million pensioners officially living in poverty and they rely heavily on public services. We are not going to stand by while cuts and privatisation go through.
“Many pensioners remember the 1945 era, when the welfare state was founded.
“The slogan then was that we were not going back to the poverty and inequality of the 1920s and 30s. We are determined that we are not going back again now.”
The cuts have already begun—and so has the fightback.
A delegation came from the Whittington hospital campaign in north London, which recently organised a protest of more than 5,000 people. And a large group of trade unionists and older people came from Barnet, north London, where the Tory council is pushing through big cuts.
“The council is trying to get rid of the live-in warders in sheltered accommodation,” said Sunanda Shah, who lives in Barnet’s Kingsley Court. “We demand that it saves our warders.”
After the march there was a rally in Trafalgar Square. There Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, told all politicians to “think twice before making cuts”.
Prentis is a Labour loyalist, but he reflected his members’ feelings when he warned, “If Gordon Brown thinks that hatred of the Tories is enough for our members to vote for the Labour Party—then think again. We won’t vote for more cuts and privatisation.”
He finished by saying, “We are ready to fight”. Rank and file workers must apply increased pressure for real resistance to the cuts, both now and after the election on 6 May.
Hamish Meldrum, from the British Medical Association, welcomed the unity of trade unions and campaigners.
He said, “It is ludicrous that while the government has nationalised the banks it’s privatising the NHS.”
Jeremy Dear, the general secretary of the journalists’ NUJ union, chaired the rally. He summed up the dilemma many people will feel at the election.
He called on marchers to “demand from those standing to be MPs that they make clear they will not support cuts or support policies which attack the welfare state”.
You wouldn’t need a very long pencil to put crosses against those from the main parties who could honestly make such a pledge.
It was noticeable that there was no organised Labour Party presence on the demonstration, except for the left wing Labour Representation Committee.
To be against the cuts goes against the message from Labour’s leaders.
But Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) supporters and candidates were on the demonstration and got a good response from many marchers.
The march also showed the potential for the Right to Work campaign’s post-election conference on 22 May.
The Right to Work national banner was on the march, and supporters distributed thousands of leaflets for the conference. It will aim to develop and coordinate resistance to cuts which will follow the general election.
Saturday’s protest needs to be the start of a fightback. And the union movement has to use all its power to fight the cuts—not hold back for fear of embarrassing Gordon Brown.