Nick Clegg received an unusual York welcome on Saturday.
Over 3000 anti-austerity protesters marched for ‘A Better Way’ through York to greet the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference being held at the Barbican.
As the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in favour of his motion on immigration, hundreds stood outside the building – a building which York’s Lib Dem council closed while it was last in control of the authority – to vent their anger at the cuts to public services, privatisation and other policies which hit the poorest hardest. Needless to say, the marchers’ chants, boos and cries of ‘shame’ reflected this palpable and genuine rage.
It was rage at everything from the Lib Dem’s propping up the Conservatives in government, to the tuition fee betrayal (Clegg’s crocodile tears notwithstanding), the bedroom tax, the back-door sell-off of the NHS to private companies and – judging by the presence of university lecturers and their UCU union – the dismal state of higher education under this government, with course and department closures, real-terms pay cuts and increasing marketisation.
This was a feeling expressed by the many students on the march too – a bloc that reflected the more radical spectrum of the protest. York’s Socialist Students made an effigy of Nick Clegg himself, hanged off the city walls, alongside a ‘Welcome to Traitor’s Gate’ banner. A grim sight for delegates to behold, in a wealthy former-Lib Dem city where they probably expected a friendlier reception amid Labour authority unpopularity. No such luck.
The TUC-organised demo couldn’t have chosen its day to be more symbolic. Saturday marked International Women’s Day. That very morning, delegates were hit with headlines of ‘Osborne’s tax and benefits changes hit women almost four times harder than men’. Not the best way for the previously centre-left party to celebrate IWD. But who wouldn’t have predicted that the three-year freeze in child benefit would have hit women hardest? Or that the cut in the top rate of tax for millionaires mostly helps rich white men?
Speakers at the rally after the march were quick to point this out. All ten speakers were women – a figure that contrasts sharply with the Lib Dems current level of gender representation. The figure hasn’t been picked up upon, but those 10 northern speakers are more than the Lib Dem’s current number of female MPs in the whole of the UK – and certainly more than at the next election after a number of announcedfemale resignations . Most inspiringly, leading the march were strikers (almost entirely women) from Care UK in Doncaster – workers who have just finished a week-long strike against the company to which their jobs were recently handed over to by the council. They’re facing pay cuts of up to 50% in an attempt to boost profits – and they’re fighting back.
Thirty years on from the miners’ strike, it’s a reminder that unions still matter. In fact, the whole protest – amid hundreds of union flags and banners – served to prove that trade unions, in standing up for the hardest-hit by austerity, are actually more needed than ever in the face of the neoliberal onslaught that is this coalition government (and don’t think the austerity will end with Labour, either). Indeed, the TUC collected 52 full carrier bags of food at the demonstration for local food banks under strain from the weight of a cost of living crisis.
Saturday’s march showed that, with over six million members – the majority of whom are now women – and the ability to mobilise thousands in the cause of social justice, unions still pack a punch. But with just 13% of 16-24 year olds members of what are still the largest democratic civil society bodies, perhaps the biggest message was that our generation needs to get organised. Otherwise, the current austerity measures could be ‘permanent’, to use Cameron’s word.
On Sunday, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity are planning to wave Clegg off as he leaves the city. Given the welcome he got, and the goodbye he’ll receive, he may well get the message that York – with its large student population alongside those hit by benefit cuts – isn’t such a big fan of the Lib Dems, after all.
Credit: Steve Cooke