Austerity wars — the activists fighting government cuts

Experts warn of a “spring awakening” of protests and industrial action — but can anti-cuts activism convince those in power to reverse course?

John McDonnell stood facing a crowd of 50,000. From their roars you would think he was addressing a pop concert, not a political rally. It was a sunny April day, perhaps the first really hot day of the year, and a wave of optimism rippled through the sea of demonstrators. The Conservatives were in a crisis. The Panama Papers revelations, linking the Prime Minister to his late father’s offshore tax trust, was just the latest trial facing the party.

One month earlier Iain Duncan Smith, the much reviled Work and Pensions Secretary, had resigned from office with parting shots critical of proposed cuts to disability allowances. The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had failed to get junior doctors to agree to a new contract and, after threatening to impose it upon them, now faced endless strike action. And as the referendum on continuing EU membership drew near, deep divisions were forming between Tory MPs that wanted to Brexit and those that would rather Bremain.

In Trafalgar Square the baying mob were starting to believe they could make a difference: the Tory Party could be defeated — maybe even kicked out of power altogether.

This feeling was not lost on the Shadow Chancellor as he stepped up to the microphone. It was important, he told them, to attack them on all fronts — in parliament, at picket line, out on the streets.

“If we can work in solidarity together, we don’t have to wait for an election in 2020. We have to work to bring this government down at the first opportunity.”

Below, a thin middle-aged man wandered through the crowd, handing out copies of the Socialist Worker to demonstrators. He introduced himself to me as Roddy Slorach and told me he was a member of both the Socialist Workers Party and the University and Colleges Union. Like the others in attendance he believed activists were starting to gain ground. “People are beginning to sense that the government is actually a very weak government, a government that is divided and a government with a very small majority.”

Slorach had short dark hair, wore small oval glasses and spoke in a thick Glaswegian accent. “People, from all walks of life and all sorts of campaigns, are beginning to have hope that the struggles they’ve been involved in are finally reaping some fruit.” He believed that a united front of activists could help junior doctors, save steel jobs, and convince those that felt backed into a wall to feel like they could actually triumph.

Anti-austerity protests have been a regular appearance in London since the coalition came to power in 2010. Back then Conservative cuts were watered down by their Lib Dem coalition partners. But since the Tories achieved an overall majority last May, the government have been free to administer planned public sector cuts with less restraint. And this in turn has led to an increase in demonstrating, in size and frequency.

“The economy hasn’t really recovered from the financial crisis,” Dr David Bailey told me. The political science and international studies lecturer is researching the role of protest in the contemporary political economy. He has documented the frequency of protest events since 2008. After an initial protest peak in 2010–2011, when protest events reached 154, there was a drop in 2012 as protest events reached just 92.

Dr Bailey puts this down to a despondency felt by protesters after large demonstrations in 2010 and 2011 failed to convince the government to cut back on their programme of austerity measures. Since 2013, however, protest events have increased to a record high of 206 in 2015. This can be compared to just 155 in the 1980s, during the tumultuous period of industrial action and social change of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“We have one of the highest levels of economic stimulus in history, with near zero interest rates in most advanced industrial democracies for around seven years,” he explained that increased protesting was inevitable given the current state of the global economy. “Expectations for growth are very low: around just nought to two per cent.”

According to him increased protesting is down to a combination of two processes: the rising social demands of citizens who are better able to work together to expose social inequalities, and the government’s unwillingness to meet demands for increased public spending.

“This has produced a situation where protest activity is increasingly common as people are angry their voices go unheard, but also realise they need to find new and innovative ways in which to get those voices heard.”

People are also angry that cuts to reduce the government deficit are being targeted at the most vulnerable members of society rather than the banking industry, which due to bailouts and quantitative easing contributed to around 11 per cent of the national debt.

“Seven years ago we watched the bankers turn our economy into a casino,” McDonnell said at the People’s Assembly rally. “This has been used as an excuse to cut wages and benefits, and now a million of our families queue at food banks. People with disabilities are assessed for work, and in there thousands are dying. And we’re seeing homelessness escalate on a scale not seen for generations.”

This perceived unfairness is leading to a multitude of different interest groups congregating together to fight cuts and public sector reforms. At the People’s Assembly demo this took the form of procession of different blocks representing trades unions, public sector workers, fringe leftist political parties, Labour activists and single-issue campaigners. Each block had their own colours, flags, banners and balloons, and sang their own songs and chants — forming mini-protests within the greater demonstration.

The experimenting with new forms of association is a key finding in Dr Bailey’s research, and he claims it could be the “potential first step in a process of social change that might come somewhere down the line”. He is not sure it will lead to the overthrow of capitalism, but maybe a reformed version of it that puts the majority’s needs above those of a wealthy minority.

“We are the people and we are the majority,” Phyll Opoku-Gyimah shouted to the throng at the People’s Assembly rally. The “proud black lesbian” co-founder of UK Black Pride took part in the demonstration because she believed it was important that activists banded together to fight injustice. “We need to stand in solidarity twenty-four seven.” Activists and protest groups are starting to realise that by uniting together they can wield a more active resistance than they can in isolation. With amplified voices they can force the government to listen to them, and maybe even agree to some of their demands.

This collectivism is a defining characteristic of the current wave of protests targeted at the Cameron government, and could also be seen in the anti-war protests outside Downing Street last November and at the CND rally at Trafalgar Square in February.

But are these large group protests effective at convincing the government to reverse course? And can street protests still bring about social or political change in modern Britain? After all, it was due to the failures of the original anti-austerity protests of 2010–2011 that protest activity tailed off in 2012. Also, there is the question of whether a protest march so meticulously organised, and which has been cleared with the Metropolitan Police, can really challenge those in power.

The People’s Assembly march was bright and flashy, but it did not really achieve that much. “I think they are good at putting on public demonstrations but probably don’t go in for much more innovative types of protest or dissent,” Dr Bailey told me. “In that sense, they are a necessary but not very sufficient element in the anti-austerity movement.”

Martin Wright in an anarchist vlogger who posts videos on the Red And Black channel on YouTube. On the day of the People’s Assembly march he criticised the tameness of the event, which he called “well-attended but fruitless” and a “Labour love-fest”. Dressed in a black flat cap, the cockney commentator questioned why activists would choose to take part in such a passive demonstration rather than attempting direct action based resistance, such as occupations, mass squats, or taking to the streets without the permission of the authorities. “We should be taking the fight to the enemy, the political and social system in total, and by supporting worthwhile resistance everywhere.”

The People’s Assembly criticised the lack of media coverage the march received, particularly from the BBC, which they accused of bias. After all, the event did draw a crowd of between 75,000 and 150,000 according to observers. But this, Wright claimed, was because nothing newsworthy actually happened. “If for example, Coutts had been trashed, a barricade spontaneously erected, a Rolls Royce or two overturned and torched, it would have been in headlines all around. But they don’t want that kind of publicity.” A few acts of civil disobedience would have turned this well-attended spectacle into a major story.

Perhaps Wright has a point. At times, the march from Gower Street to Trafalgar Square better resembled a carnival parade than it did a serious attempt at subversion. People were smiling and laughing, proudly displaying their organisation logos and colours, their pig masks and effigies, and their humorous signs emblazoned with phrases like “Panama Twat” and “Cameron puts the ’N’ in Cuts.” Participants danced and sang, played their instruments and banged their drums. Some even held hands with small children and pushed babies in buggies.

And yet some protesters remain dedicated to mass demonstrations like this one, even when they seem futile.

“It’s the only way to stand up and be counted,” Peter Le Mare told me at the anti-Trident protests back in February. The Cornishman had been a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for over 30 years. With his long white hair and beard, he looked every bit the stereotypical CND activist, an aging hippie who joined the organisation the first time round. When I asked him why he still attended anti-nuclear protests, despite the unwillingness of governments to even entertain the idea of giving up on the UK’s nuclear arsenal, he looked taken aback. “It’s the only way that people can show they do matter.”

During the mass protests against the Iraq War in 2003, Le Mare organised six coaches to take demonstrators on a 300-mile journey from Land’s End to the capital.

“That was democracy. That was people telling the government what they wanted. They said no to war, all around the world. And it was suppressed. But if we can only tap into that feeling, that war is not necessary, then we can live a different way.”

Eduardo Gill-Pedro was a legal adviser to both human rights organisation Liberty and activist collective Friends of the Earth. “There are other channels through which contestation can take place,” he told me. “In courtrooms, through public discussion in public media, and through participation in party politics. But all of these channels are, to some extent, controlled by public power.”

Conor Gearty, a professor in Human Rights Law at LSE, told me that protesting was a more inclusive form of political engagement. “You don’t need money to demonstrate, just the will and the capacity to build alliances. It is a vital stop gap in democracy, giving even the disempowered a voice.”

Also, if protesting is so ineffective then why have governments worked so hard to restrict it? A 2015 government paper on countering extremism mentions putting pressure on public halls to reject meetings that include unfavourable people, and also suggests imposing restrictions on meeting at universities. “There is a risk that all this, now being pushed by the Counter Terrorism and Security Act will spin out of control into serious repression of different points of views designated extremist,” Gearty said.

From his work with Friends of the Earth, Gill-Pedro has seen first-hand some of the ways the police and the authorities have tried to restrict protesting, from the use of kettling to surveillance tactics employed against protesters by police, who photographed and videoed demonstrators, and even added protesters to ‘extremist’ databases. This, he believes, is purposefully done to discourage people from demonstrating.

“Treating participants in public protest as ‘extremists’ and keeping them under surveillance has a profound and chilling effect on the right to protest.”

In my view we should consider effectiveness in terms of whether the anti-austerity protest caused concessions to be made in order to pass the austerity measure,” Dr Bailey told me. This could be seen if proposals needed to be sufficiently modified in order to be passed and when they caused considerable consequences for the government. “This will create a reluctance for the government to propose another austerity measure again in the near future.”

By this measure Dr Bailey thinks there have been some successes. “It is when we see the full range of different types of anti-austerity protest that we also see the most obvious signs of impact upon the governing parties.” Although the tuition fee protests of 2010 did not lead to the withdrawal of the proposal to raise tuition fees, it did lead a relatively high threshold for repayments (£21k) being introduced and the near-total collapse of Lib Dem support. This meant that less austerity measures were passed during the course of the 2010–2015 government than had been originally planned. The protests also led to the Welsh Assembly announcing they would not permit an increase in tuition fees for Welsh students.

Other forms of protest, specifically those that involve industrial action, have a more obvious way of affecting government policy. Already we have seen increasing pressure on Jeremy Hunt’s position as Health Secretary following the junior doctors’ strikes. This came to a head last month when doctors took part in the first ever all-out strike, which included the withdrawal of emergency care such as A&E, maternity and intensive care services. Despite this, Jeremy Hunt still promises to impose a new contract on junior doctors, who claim a “seven-day NHS” will spread services too thinly.

“They would like to rip open the belly of the NHS and offer it up as sacrifice at the altar of private profit,” Yannis Gourtsoyannis, a member of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, told the crowd at the People’s Assembly rally. “But, I promise you this: we 50,000 junior doctors will not let them get away with it. We one million NHS workers will not let them get away with it.” The charismatic registrar warned that the imposition of a new contract on junior doctors would signal the “destruction of safe terms and conditions” for NHS workers, and that doctors would not give up without a fight. “It is obvious that we are about to enter probably the most important period of action in a generation. This will indeed be a true spring awakening.”

And yet, Jeremy Hunt has been adamant that he will not back down. He will still impose the contract on doctors. Although he might be willing to resist strike action, he may still lose his job if junior doctors follow through on their plans for a mass walkout in August, to take up jobs in Australia and other countries around the world.

“Even if it’s a small percentage it could cause major chaos because we’ve already got rota gaps and a shortage,” Dr Clive Peedell told me. As well as running the National Health Action Party, he works as a specialist in clinical oncology. Although he is not sure industrial action will be effective, in his view, the government could be forced to back down if hospital executives band together in protest at their treatment of junior doctors.

“If junior doctors are going on strike and elective care is being cancelled, efficiency is falling off and they’re not going to make their targets.”

But history teaches us that mass strikes do not always go to plan. This year is the 90th anniversary of the general strike of 1926, which began after 1.2 million mine workers were locked out of their by pits by mine owners. Despite being the largest strike action in British history, with more than 1.7 million workers taking part over a ten-day period, it ended with the TUC giving up in defeat. Although much of the transport and manufacturing industries ground to a halt, the TUC refused to cut off essential services such as electricity for hospitals and telegrams. The government stockpiled coal and middle class volunteers were recruited to maintain other needed services. The strike was doomed.

There were two successful strikes in the 1970s that brought huge wage increases and the end to Ted Heath’s Tory government. But the Miners’ Strike of 1984–85 was a turning point in British labour relations as the Thatcherite government instituted a massive programme of pit closures, and miners struck for over a year before they were eventually starved back to work. It could be argued that there has not been a truly successful mass strike in the following thirty years.

And things could be getting even worse. The government are currently pushing the Trade Union Bill through parliament, which would make it even harder for trade unions to take part in industrial action.

“So many of the workers’ rights we have today only exist because of trade unionism,” Dr Sarah Hallett, a junior doctor and BMA activist, told me at protest rally against NHS privatisation, which was held outside Parliament in March. “The bill they are trying to bring through would really restrict what trade unions are allowed to do.”

The advantage junior doctors do have, at least for the moment, is in the way are being perceived by the public. Whereas doctors regularly top polls of the most trusted professionals, politicians are usually at the bottom. “Although the government has ultimate control over policy, I think we’re still winning the PR battle,” Dr Peedell told me.

Where it can be harder to spot the successes of large protests and strikes, activists have seen profound victories on a local level. Dr Louise Irvine is a general practitioner and experienced campaigner in the southeast London borough of Lewisham. She led a successful campaign for a new state secondary school there back in 2002. But, more recently, she was the chair of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, which defeated the government in court after it was ruled that the Health Secretary had acted outside his powers, when he announced casualty and maternity units at Lewisham Hospital would be downgraded. The government appealed but was again defeated.

The decision to close Lewisham Hospital’s A&E was made by a Trust Special Administrator who had actually been hired to investigate a neighbouring trust, the South London Healthcare Trust, which was in a severe financial deficit due to high Private Finance Initiative debts. Dr Irvine spoke to me at a rally against NHS privatisation outside Parliament.

“We in Lewisham felt it was wrong that our hospital was to be closed in order to shore up the finances of a neighbouring Trust.”

Campaign organisers decided from the very beginning that they would concentrate on the single issue of saving the hospital’s A&E. “It was a single issue campaign where everyone was welcome regardless of their political affiliation,” Dr Irvine told me. This was not always easy as sectarian elements tried to split the campaign by trying to force it to take sides on other issues, but they managed to resist these forces. Campaigners manned Lewisham high street on a weekly basis, giving out leaflets, petitioning and talking to people. They also formed a good relationship with their local press, who championed their cause, and other sectors of Lewisham society, from faith groups to local football clubs.

“We made sure this was a real grassroots community campaign,” Dr Irvine said. This included printing a large number of posters that were placed in the windows of homes, shops and businesses.

As the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign grew it gained the support of Lewisham’s MPs, Lewisham Council, and all of Lewisham’s GPs, consultants, nursing and other healthcare staff. It also received the backing of local schools, colleges, small businesses and trade union branches. 700 people turned up to their first public meeting in November 2012. Their first demonstration, in the same month, drew a crowd of 10,000. Their second demonstration just two months later attracted 25,000 people.

“With such strong support behind us we felt encouraged and empowered to launch a judicial review of Jeremy Hunt’s decision,” Dr Irvine told me.

The grounds of the judicial review were that Jeremy Hunt’s decision to downgrade Lewisham was unlawful for two main reasons: 1) That the TSA was acting outside his powers when he proposed the downgrade, and 2) That the decision did not pass the “four tests”, which the government asserted needed to be passed for hospital reconfiguration plans.

“We had not dared hope that the courts would find in our favour so when they did it was such a wonderful moment. It was the culmination of months of hard work. We felt vindicated.”

Before the case went to trial, campaigners were beginning to feel quite despondent, as even a demonstration of 25,000 people had failed to change Jeremy Hunt’s mind. The government appealed against the decision but three appeal court judges took just five minutes to throw it out.

Dr Irvine unsuccessfully stood for the National Health Action Party against Jeremy Hunt in the 2015 General Election. She still regularly takes part in protests against NHS privatisation. “People should learn from how we conducted the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign and ensure that campaigns really try to reach out to and involve the general public, as well as putting pressure on the national political level.”

Although it is rare to find major successes from recent mass strikes or demonstrations, the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign shows that although it is not always possible to win the war against government austerity measures, it is possible to win some pretty significant battles.

[Written as part of a University project in May 2016]