Anti-austerity protests: tens of thousands rally across UK
Between 70,000 and 150,000 estimated to have marched in central London, with demonstrations in Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol
Saturday 20 June 2015 17.40 BST
Forty-four days after David Cameron won an unexpected majority in the general election, the opposition parties are still picking themselves up off the floor. On Britain’s streets, however, tens of thousands of people took up their placards and marched in London, Glasgow and elsewhere in the first major protest against the government’s plans for five more years of austerity.
Estimates of the size of the rally in central London on Saturday varied between 70,000 and more than 150,000. Several thousand more gathered in Glasgow’s George Square and smaller demonstrations were reported in other cities, including Liverpool and Bristol.
“We’re here to say austerity isn’t working,” said Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, to great applause from the crowd in Parliament Square at the end of the London march. “We’re here to say that it wasn’t people on jobseekers’ allowance that brought down the banks.
“It wasn’t nurses and teachers and firefighters who were recklessly gambling on international markets. And so we should stop the policies that are making them pay for a crisis that wasn’t of their making.”
Marching under the banner End Austerity Now, protesters denounced public sector cuts, the treatment of the disabled and the vulnerable through welfare cuts, and the privatisation of the NHS. Teachers, nurses, lawyers and union groups marched under their own banners.
Chants and songs demanded equality, more help for the poor and an end to Tory government. There was a sprinkling of celebrity faces, with Russell Brand, Charlotte Church and the actor Richard Coyle among the crowd.
Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, told the rally: “It is David Cameron’s cabinet of millionaires, they are the people who are the real spongers. They are the people who are given free rein to live out their Thatcherite fantasies at the expense of ordinary, decent communities throughout these islands.”
Protesters set off from outside the Bank of England, and by the time the march reached Westminster, its final destination, a sea of banners, placards and flags stretched for more than a mile down Whitehall and past Trafalgar Square.
The Savoy Hotel, fearing trouble, closed their front entrance on Saturday afternoon.
“This is a magnificent demonstration,” said John Rees of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, which organised the protest. “But it’s only a beginning. We can’t win with only one demonstration.”
Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, addressed the marchers from a stage overlooking Parliament. “Let me warn this government, once again, push us outside of the law and you will be responsible for the consequences, not us,” he said.
“The desire for a better world, a peaceful world, a world where human endeavour is used to enhance all people, where solidarity and community spirit reign supreme, that has always been part of the Labour movement’s DNA and we won’t let them steal it from us.”
In Glasgow, some of the biggest cheers were for Jeane Freeman, of Women for Independence, who gave a passionate speech at the rally.
She argued that austerity was a Westminster choice rather than a necessity: “Austerity is a comprehensive attack on the rights of men, women, children,” she said.
Labour’s London mayoral candidate Diane Abbott said: “It’s sad that there are not more Labour MPs here. Tory austerity is not necessary and the Labour party should be making the case for an alternative.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the only one of the four Labour leadership candidates spotted at the rally, received a rapturous reception in Parliament Square, where he spoke passionately about his vision of society.
“I want us to stand up as brave people did in the 1920s and 1930s, and said we want a state that takes responsibility for everybody to ensure nobody is destitute … We each care for all. Everyone caring for everybody else. I think it’s called socialism,” he said.
Tackling criticism that demonstrations do nothing to change government policy, Corbyn said mass movements had been at the root of the Labour movement, leading to the institution of the welfare state and national health service.
“The people that marched in this square in the 1850s with the people’s charter didn’t achieve very much that day. They were dismissed as out of date, out of time and irrelevant.
“Within 50 years, we had a national insurance system. Within 20 years we had a universal education system. Within 70 years we had council housing. Within 100 years we had a universal health service.”
He slammed those who tried to blame migrants and the jobless for the crisis. “I stand with those people that came to this country, worked, contributed and are part of our society,” he said.
“I want a humanitarian and decent response to those people who are victims of war, that are dying in the Mediterranean trying to reach a place of safety. I am not prepared to join a campaign of Benefits Street and attacking so-called benefits scroungers.”
Russell Brand, the last speaker in Parliament Square, said: “I’m inspired to see such incredible numbers in this square after the results of the election.
“My personal feelings about this movement are very, very deep. Without a welfare state my mum would have died of cancer several times. I am personally a product of the welfare state because I signed on for eight years while I learned to be a comedian.
“We need to learn to talk to one another and recognise that our time on this Earth is fragile and temporary. If we don’t build systems on the idea of love and togetherness the alternative is unconscionable.”
Pascale Mitchell, a school librarian and carer from Bermondsey, south London, was there with her 15-year-old daughter. She said: “I had had to donate to a friend because her benefits were sanctioned and she had to go to a food bank. I’m seeing the impact around me and it’s only going to get worse.”
Boos erupted as demonstrators walked past Downing Street. The anarchist group Class War marched with a banner that read: “We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live.”
A unit of police carefully monitored a handful of black-clad protesters. It had been reported earlier that several people with convictions, or who were alleged to have caused trouble at past demonstrations, had been prevented from marching.
The mood was overwhelmingly good-natured. Parents walked with their children in pushchairs, young people clustered in groups of friends, older people and activists mixed. One young man had covered his face with a bandana handed out by the Network for Police Monitoring. When asked why, he said it was because of CCTV.
“It’s an oppressive, absolutist state where you don’t have to do anything wrong. Just have your picture taken and the facial recognition system will get you on the database and class you as a terrorist, even if you are just attending a protest. The real terrorists are financial.”
Young people said they felt particularly exposed by the billions in cuts the government plans. Owen Winter, 16, from Cornwall, got up at 5.30am to get to London for the protest. He marched with a placard that read: “Your cuts, our future.”
“I’m demonstrating because I feel that the cuts are particularly harsh for young people and affect them quite negatively, and I think that I’m going to grow up dealing with the repercussions. Generally, I think young people get a raw deal out of politics,” he said.
His friend Morgan Centini, also 16, added: “I’ve grown up in an environment where I’ve watched the public sector in my home town destroyed. Watching the cuts rip apart a community, I can’t put it into words really. It’s disgusting.”