Well-heeled villagers from David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency were rudely awakened on Sunday morning last week as over 1,000 postal workers and their friends took to the streets of Witney.
A troop of Asian drummers led protesters against the privatisation of Royal Mail, scores of anti-cuts activists, students and young people.
Together they filled the air with rhythmical chanting and caused consternation among early shoppers struggling to park their oversized 4x4s.
As a host of red CWU union banners from across Britain filled the normally true blue streets, residents, who had been warned by the local paper to “expect trouble”, looked on nervously.
The prospect of demonstrating on Cameron’s home turf encouraged some protesters to set off early to join the march.
Fred and Bill, baggage handlers at London’s Heathrow Airport, were determined to play their part.
“We’re longstanding union activists who have got a bit more energy after seeing the student protests,” they told Socialist Worker.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I was beginning to think that young people didn’t have it in them to stand up for themselves,” added Bill. “How wrong can you be?
“Now, I think that all trade unionists, including all of us in the Unite union, need to learn from the students. We were far too complacent under New Labour.
It was a sentiment shared by the many postal workers who turned out.
“If the government gets away with privatising us, jobs, pensions and conditions are all going to be attacked,” Amarjite Singh, secretary of the CWU union’s Cardiff branch, told Socialist Worker.
“And the public will suffer too. Do you think that private operators are going to deliver to rural areas for the same price as they will in the cities? No chance.
“They are just going to grab the profits and run.
“We are not going to let a 350 year old service be broken up like that. Industrial action is a real possibility.”
CWU deputy leader Dave Ward echoed this point as he addressed the crowd gathered on Witney Green. He praised the union’s political campaign, and said he hoped that it would win some amendments to the sell-off legislation as it went before parliament this month.
But Ward warned Cameron that any attempt to “rob our pensions” would be met by strikes.
“We didn’t do a deal with Royal Mail last year, only to see the benefits handed to a private firm,” he said. “And, if that means we have to take industrial action, then that’s exactly what we’ll do,” he added, to loud cheers.
The mood of resistance was infectious.
CWU general secretary Billy Hayes told the rally that the student protests in London had been an “inspiration” and that his union would “stand shoulder to shoulder” with those fighting fees and education cuts.
He also praised protesters who had targeted Vodafone and Topshop for failing to pay their taxes, describing them as having unleashed “new and exciting forms of struggle”.
But without doubt the largest cheers of the day went to Beth and Nicky Wishart, aged just 14 and 12 years old.
Nicky hit the headlines last month after he was questioned by anti-terror police while at school for daring to organise a protest to save Witney’s youth clubs from cuts.
He and Beth told the rally that they had joined the march because they wanted to stand alongside everyone fighting back.
“The first youth centres were started in Britain at around the same time as Royal Mail, over 300 years ago – and we must defend them both,” they said.
“When we heard our youth club was going to be cut, we made a Facebook group and decided to launch a protest. But the police said they thought we were a threat to national security, and tried to convince us to call it off,” they said, to cries of “shame” from the crowd.
“We refused to back down. The protest went ahead and was really successful.”
In simple but effective terms, Nicky described why youth clubs are so important.
“I think of the youth club workers like friends, not like teachers,” he said.
“They give us support and you can talk to them about anything… sex, drugs, anything. Even things you don’t feel you can talk to your parents about.
“I feel like all under 16 year olds are under attack. Our EMA [Education Maintenance Allowance] has gone. They want us to pay £30,000 if we want to go to university. Now they are saying that up to 90 percent of youth clubs are going to close.
“I don’t think we should let any of them close. And I don’t think we should let them close any Post Offices either,” he said, to massive cheers.
By the time Beth and Nicky had finished the crowd was putty in their hands, but they had one more thing to say.
“We’re gonna do some chanting now,” they said in unison. “And, we want you to join in.”
“When they say cut back,” shouted Beth. “We say fight back,” came the roared reply.