Sam Fowles delivers an eye-witness account of the 26 March London protests

Suspiciously like solidarity

The March for the Alternative (26 March) was not the first protest of 2011, nor is it likely to be the last. But with around 500,000 people boarding busses as far away as Edinburgh, this was certainly the most diverse.

The March for the Alternative (26 March) was not the first protest of 2011, nor is it likely to be the last. But with around 500,000 people boarding busses as far away as Edinburgh, this was certainly the most diverse.

Traditional public services have been hit harder than most by the government’s spending cuts. The Conservatives claim the public sector is bloated, but the men and women (and children!) marching on the 26th were not the district council Chief Executives who provoked howls of rage from the right wing press for daring to earn more than the Prime Minister. These were fire figh ters facing cuts to their pensions, academics facing cuts to their pay, teachers watching the job they were trained for devalued by ‘free schools’, and social workers, prison officers, police officers and soldiers who simply faced losing their jobs.

There was also a healthy smattering of students, who began their own march from the University College London’s Students’ Union. Contrary to the tabloid stereotype, their banners covered far more than simply tuition fees, and students (including a sizeable contingent from St Andrews who had boarded a coach at midnight the night before) marched alongside union members in a show of what looked suspiciously like solidarity.

Much attention since has been given to the 200 or so protestors who occupied Fortnum and Masons (although less has been written about the many more who were later beaten into submission by riot police while staging a peaceful vigil in Trafalgar Square). The Times screamed ‘balaclava brigade’ and ‘anarchists’, while the New Statesman simply described angry young people who The Independent claimed were ‘not representative’ of the majority of marchers. But this is only half true. Everyone at that march was angry. But this was an anger demonstrated through peaceful demonstration – and no less real for it.

The sea of placards momentarily blotted out Big Ben as we passed beneath Charing Cross station. Their messages were brief and to the point: ‘No To Cuts’. Some were more creative but most eschewed slogans or pictures. One woman, pushing a pram alongside a son in his early teens, held a sign bearing ‘Don’t rob my child of a decent education’. Not enough has been written about the selflessness of a generation which marches to protect the quality of life of the next.

Roger Allum

That’s not to say the ‘next generation’ was not ably representing itself. Nine year old Matilda Fell spent most of the march riding atop her father’s shoulders, blowing a whistle and frowning. When I asked her why she was there she explained that she was worried that she won’t be able to go to university when she grows up. Her friend, Adam Mclean (also 9) has more immediate cause: his mother is a careers advisor and will lose her job at the end of July.

These are worries that cross both generational and professional gaps. Dr John Baruch, a specialist in robotics at the University of Bradford, is more vociferous than the children. ‘It’s like a circus run by the clowns’ he said, ‘they clearly don’t know what they are doing, it’s just dogma.’ Such a sharp response is strange to hear from an elderly, mild mannered academic, so I pressed him further. He explains that George Osborne’s calls for a resurgence in manufacturing are ridiculous because such products can be so easily and cheaply produced overseas (which is why they left). Britain’s economic advantage lies in our ‘knowledge economy’, but with cuts to university funding and academics’ pay, this too is drifting to more lucrative positions in the US and China.

The Metropolitan Police website promised ‘appropriate and proportionate’ policing of the event and, for the most part, this was the case. The job of keeping marchers to the pre-planned root was actually performed by bright pink jacketed TUC stewards, while most police stood in groups at the side of the road, many taking pictures of the march on their camera phones.They had very little to do.

The most threatening scene at the beginning of the march was the members of Equity, the actors and performers union, striding down the Victoria Embankment, somewhat surreally singing ‘Les Miserables’ from under purple banners. I found myself flanked by the great and the good of British television. Law and Order: UK’s Bill Patterson walked behind one of the banners, languidly swinging what used to be a placard – now just a stick. He told me that the government has no mandate for cuts as deep and quick as those proposed. He pointed out that the majority of people in the country actually voted for parties that had promised to maintain government spending – including, it should be remembered, the Liberal Democrats.

Much criticism had been levelled at the TUC by government spokespeople for marching for the ‘alternative’ but failing to properly lay out exactly what that should be. But Patterson didn’t hesitate. There’s huge savings to be made in clamping down on tax evasion. ‘I pay the 50% tax rate.’ he says, ‘so do many people here, andwe’re happy to do it because we want to make a contribution.’ (Sources inside Westminster suggest that the same amount of money the government hopes to save by clamping down on ‘benefit cheats’ could be raised simply by asking the government’s ‘efficiency tsar’, Lord Ashcroft, to pay his taxes).

March of the middle aged

Roger Allum, who recently found wider fame in the BIFA nominated Tamara Drewe – and portrayed a particularly nasty Conservative MP in The Amazing Mrs Pritchard – voices a common grievance of protestors. The banks caused the recession, he pointed out, yet it is public sector workers, many in jobs that pay less than a tenth of what the average banker earns, who are losing those jobs to pay for the bailout. ‘The cuts are clearly ideological,’ he said.

Pete Watson, not a famous actor, but a former student of St Andrews, agreed. ‘The alternative is job creation,’ he claims. ‘It means more tax revenue rather than more expenditure on unemployment benefit and it’s the only thing that’s worked in the past.’ It’s fairly simple logic but it’s exactly what the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls (a former Harvard economist), will suggest in an interview with the New Statesman next week. Talking to my fellow marchers the ‘alternative’ is neither abstract nor vague. It falls to a fireman (who cannot give his name for fear of his employers finding out he talked to ‘the press’) to sum up the situation, turning Nick Clegg’s ‘you can’t run a household budget on a deficit so how can you run a national budget on a deficit?’ argument on its head: ‘If you try to pay your mortgage over 5 years you’ll bankrupt yourself,’ he said, ‘so why do they think they can pay off the national deficit in four?’

In the car that morning, driving down the M40 at 8am, I listened to the government minister Tim Yeo interviewed on the Today Programme. The interviewer asked him the obvious question: ‘With three hundred thousand people marching past the House of Commons, will this influence the government to change its mind on cuts?’ By the end of the day it was clear the actual figure was closer to half a million, yet I was doubtful that this would have changed Yeo’s single-word answer: ‘No.’

The violent minority

The March for the Alternative may have been addressed by Ed Miliband but it wasn’t party-political. I arrived at Hyde Park much too late to see the Labour Leader speak. But I did catch a succession of speakers ranging from foresters and teachers to a woman in her 70s, who told the assembled crowd that she had witnessed the general election of 1945, the result of which ushered in the National Health Service. ‘That was the last time we asked for an alternative. I’m not going the see the next 65 years, but I’m here today to make sure that the next generation gets the same chances that we had.’

Nick Clegg sacrificed his party’s stand on education, health, civil liberties and the economy to secure a referendum on the Alternative Vote that will cost £250 million. He claims it will make Britain more democratic. The feeling amongst the crowd in Hyde Park that day, as the setting sun made silhouettes of the banners and students huddled in Trafalgar Square, was that Mr Clegg might make a better contribution to democracy, not by offering Britons yet more chances to sate their views, but by influencing his coalition partners to listen to us when we do.


Sam Fowles is the Students’ Association Director of Representation Elect