Impressions of the People’s Assembly March Against Austerity, on the 16th of April.
Here we are again. I’m standing in Gower Street in London, recalling that March in February 2003, when over a million of us turned up in an instinctual visceral protest against the lies and evasions that was to finally lead us into that bloody tragedy that became Iraq. This morning people are chanting, singing, blowing whistles, banging drums, expressing a raw energy and fierce joy. But contrarily we are also so well behaved, obedient, patiently waiting for permission to protest.
We march for an hour, then arriving at Trafalgar Square, filled to the brim with 150,000 people. There is a list of speakers. John McDonnell opens proceedings and demands of us certain qualities, which we must locate within ourselves and express, an amalgam and interface of courage, consistency of purpose, solidarity with each other, a shared belief in our collective strength, illuminated in the phrase “unity is strength”. John identified bankers as being responsible for the financial deficit and asserted that the Tories had cynically and opportunistically used this crisis to impose ideologically motivated cuts to punish and stigmatise the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled, members of trade unions, public sector workers, the young, people in social housing. Jeremy Corbyn provided a video message, appearing on a large screen, with him occupied in campaigning in Liverpool this Saturday.
He echoed McDonnell’s comments, celebrating the U turns in policy we have pressured the Tories into making, such as the retreats performed in relation to tax credits and cuts in disability benefits. He asked us to focus on some individual issues such as the steel industry, the housing crisis, Trident, the NHS, Academisation. We must actively resist Tory policies.
The leader of the Junior Doctors then spoke from the platform. He recited the first paragraph of the foundation document of the NHS of 1948, which articulated the core principles of the NHS: a service for all, to be paid through a progressive tax system, free at the point of use.
He argues that this government is intent on destroying the NHS and that the junior doctors are the vanguard of a movement determined to defend the NHS. He reminded us that the junior doctors will be withdrawing their labour on 26/04/16 for 48 hours. He affirmed that they will be continuing their action until their aims are realised. He accused the Tories of seeking to privatise the NHS and that their push for a 7 day service is a ruse to camouflage their real purpose. He announced that on the 26th the junior doctors would lead a march to Westminster, and asked for others to join them that day, including trade unionists and supporters. Following this speech a young student nurse spoke eloquently and powerfully.
She described her love for her job but she is now aware she would not be able to afford to take up the training because of the withdrawal of the bursaries. Student nurses will have to face an accumulated debt of tens of thousands of pounds when they qualify which will exclude people like her. Student nurse are wholly supportive of the junior doctors and share their perception of the NHS being slowly, inexorably subjected to a process of privatisation. In her duties on wards she has seen people grievously affected by the government policy of austerity. She further reminded us that health service staff will be limited to a 1% annual increase in their salaries in the next 4 years.
There were 150,000 of us on this March but the stark question is where are the others? They can ignore this demonstration, which the media largely did, with it not being reported widely. I possess an anger at our apathy, our willingness to be passive victims to be picked off one by one. I met some individuals in the course of the day. A woman who described a demonstration at Yarlswood Detention Centre, with her meeting women asylum seekers who in the past have been subjected to sexual assault and rape, but who even now are receiving inhumane and callous treatment. I met a teacher who argued the need for joint actions and alliances between health workers and teachers in order to oppose government policies of academisation and imposition of contracts. Within this March one of the themes of the day was the call for joint action and for alliances to be formed between workers in different sectors of the economy.