Monday, 28 March 2011

I went on the TUC march against the cuts, the march for the alternative, on Saturday with my daughter, partner and partner's mother. I haven't been on a big march since before my daughter was born and I procrastinated for quite a while about whether it was really good idea. In the end our desire to go and register our dissent about national and local level cuts to public services won the day and we are all glad that we went. It felt very positive and affirming and it was good to be part of a crowd that understands and recognises that most of us, the vast majority, need public services and that we have a fight on our hands to save them. 

I told my daughter that it would be a lot of fun and she was duly excited. In the event we didn't get any further than Parliament Square (after four hours of marching) and Billy Bragg remained but a distant memory in the mind of a  forty-something protester with a nostalgia for the marches of the Eighties.  The marching was slow and initially slightly disconcerting (but we seem to be going the wrong way!).  The volume of the crowd crossing from the Festival Hall side of the Thames was too great to  be easily or safely absorbed into the body of the march itself. Instead we were directed away from the thronging masses on the Embankment, walking for an hour and a half in the opposite direction until we finally crossed Blackfriars bridge and joined the main event. This march within a march was big enough and good tempered enough to be enjoyable but it wasn't ice-cream and dancing in Hyde Park and in retrospect we should perhaps have stressed the marching in a crowd aspect of the day to my daughter a little more rather than the 'lets all party'  at the end bit. But I had been saying for days that we had to go and our daughter should come too because it would be her first proper march, a 'right of passage'. And of course marching with a small child offers a different perspective on things. My daughter was truly delighted with her UNITE tabbard and flag , a whistle and clacking hand , so much so that she re-enacted part of the march early on Sunday morning with these key props to fill the gap between waking up and Mummy and Daddy crawling out of bed.

And despite the slow pace, the confusing route and at times the challenge of selling the occasion as terrific fun to a six year old with tired legs it did feel momentous. The pace of the march suggested that an awful lot of people were actually marching and the crowd around us, our marching companions for a little over four hours were a diverse  group.  Whilst the main unions were all in evidence there were also family groups such as ours, and people of all ages and ethnicity and from all over the country. One group marched with a cardboard coffin held  high to mourn the death  of a support service for sufferers from Alzheimer's disease in Camden, a victim of the council's cost cutting. Another protested about the loss of funding for the Refugee Council. A woman in the throng told me that Shelter the charity for the homeless was loosing 9% of it's funding nationally. These charities and third sector organizations are reputed to be the bedrock of the David's Cameron's Big Society and there they were marching to protest about cuts, cuts, cuts which will affect the most vulnerable members of our society. A group of students from Nick Clegg's constituency had a smart set of songs and chants on the theme of Nick Clegg's duplicity with which the crowd joined in enthusiastically. Oh Mr Clegg, they don't like you much back in your home constituency! (or any where else for that matter it seems). And there was of course much chanting about Mr Cameron which led to a few interesting exchanges with my daughter who was not only learning about citizenship and participation but also adding  her vocabulary all the time (Yes my darling that song was quite rude, but it was also funny, that's why I'm laughing, but its only funny on this march and we wont be repeating it will we?) 

Together myself, my partner and my  mother- in-law notch up a combined total of eighty years of working in the public sector ( as a teacher and university lecturer, nurses and art therapist). We could have marched under a banner of Save The NHS in recognition of the frightening changes proposed by Andrew Landsley in the commissioning and funding of health care. Or we could have protested about cuts in funding to Sure Start centres, the removal of subsidised public transport for school age children, the closure of Connexions centres for  teenagers which provided specialist help and support for teenagers looking for work or training opportunities, or the cutting of the small amount of money given to poorer students to support then if they stay on at school after the age of sixteen. Then of course there is the reduction in legal aid (one of the four pillars of the welfare state at its inception) which means that, if your GP fails to commission the correct diagnostic and care services for you and you die as a consequence (and bear in mind that the current data on UK cancer survival rates shows alarming disparities in early diagnosis and subsequent mortality rates) your family will no longer be entitled to claim legal aid to pursue a case of criminal negligence. I could go on...

Faced with all of these huge issues we chose to stick very close to home and to our community and we marched with one of our Save Our Libraries banner. As people following this blog will know our local library, Rosehill Library, on Tomlin Road in Ipswich, along with 41 of Suffolk's 44 libraries are under threat of closure by Suffolk County Council unless local communities can come up with new models for running them instead of the County Council whilst also making a thirty percent financial saving. It's all part of Suffolk County Council's New Strategic Direction- a race to the bottom where there will be no publicly run services at all. Many people expressed their support, a reporter from Reuters marched with us for a while interviewing us en route and when, finally we got on our coach to go home I got talking to a researcher and journalist from BBC Suffolk.

Which is why, on Sunday morning, very early (4.45- I had forgotten about the clocks changing when I agreed to be interviewed) I was sitting by the phone, awaiting a call from the producers of the early morning show on Radio Suffolk. When the call came I was interviewed on air and able to talk about my feelings about the march and what good, if any, I thought it would do.

So, what good do I think it did? Well I don't expect David Cameron to be announcing any time soon that the cuts are being made too fast and too deep. But I marched in that crowd and I saw the range of people, the depth and breadth of feeling, the  diversity of age, income and ethnicity. People from all over the country, marching together rejecting the government's agenda. Whilst the government argues that these cuts are necessary a counter discourse was manifesting itself during the march on Saturday. This counter discourse asserted powerfully the importance of the public sector to all of our lives and it proposed a different view of Britain to the orthodoxy driving these cuts. In our Britain, the one of the marchers on Saturday people matter, individuals matter, our communities matter and how we care for, and support one another from cradle to grave matters.  On Saturday we gave voice and expression to those beliefs and values. We spoke truth to power. David Cameron, George Osborne  and Nick Clegg, reviewing the footage of the march with their advisers and spin doctors  will have heard our collective voice. They may cut our services but they cannot silence us. And as they know only too well we are but a few short weeks a way from local council elections.

Next Saturday's march

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