Well, what a turnout! It was no surprise to us in UNISON that half a million resolute and angry people turned out on Saturday to say ‘no’ to the Coalition’s regime of social vandalism, ‘no’ to the front-loaded cuts in local government and ‘no’ to the mindless marketisation of the NHS.
Those of you who weren’t at the Embankment on Saturday will know by now that old, young, disabled and able-bodied, parents, teachers, black, white, nurses, lawyers and doctors all turned out in vibrant and self-confident opposition to the spiteful and unnecessary dismantling of our welfare state. My union, UNISON, was resplendent throughout in purple and green.
The march from Embankment to Hyde Park was pleasant and short and blessed by sunshine for those of us at the start. The drizzle that started not long into the speeches was perhaps a portent of less pleasurable and tougher times to come. The cuts haven’t started to really bite yet. No doubt the ostrich tendency of the Coalition will be working overtime to tell itself that it is not under attack and carry on regardless.
Carnival-like marches might win the short-term psychological battle, but they won’t win the political war. For sure, they keep spirits high, build solidarity and remind us that there are millions out there who want an end to Coalition cuts, but alone they are not enough. There is much more to do.
Those of us in trade unions, opposition parties, campaign groups, community organisations, academia (and, dare I say – football clubs) have to work tirelessly to dispel the myths that underpin the Coalition’s insistence on making the majority pay for rich minority’s mistakes. Now is the time to build local and novel opposition through simple messages, old-style community organising and new ‘relational’ politics a la Citizens UK, to challenge councillors and MPs supporting cuts at every turn.
We intend to develop local organisation throughout the UK which can come together in a truly Big Society, but a Big Society Against the Cuts. It must be long-term and sustainable to make sure that politics changes forever and that Labour too is forced to address the real needs of the poor and the ‘squeezed middle’ , acknowledge the contribution of public service workers and the ravages of privatisation. We must see off Coalition and anti-public sector candidates in the forthcoming local elections and vote instead for those who recognise that the welfare state exists not just for comfort, but as an essential ingredient of a strong economy and a cohesive society.
I may have shared this with Public Finance readers before, but I will share again the words of historian Caroline Steedman in her autobiographical work ‘Landscape for a Good Woman’. Recalling a south London childhood in the 50’s she says: “I think I would be a very different person now if orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something”.
The Coalition ignores that message – and the No Cuts Big Society at its peril. Getting the terraces at Stamford Bridge behind the message will be a challenge, but I’m on the case!
Heather Wakefield is head of local government at Unison