Thursday, 3 March 2011

Anger and protest greets Liverpool City Council's budget

On Wednesday, Liverpool City Council came together to set their budget for the coming year. With £91m of cuts on the cards, naturally people were angry. Around 300 people turned out to protest and lobby and, though it was far from perfect, the event demonstrated the level of class anger that is brewing.

When I reached the Town Hall, the pavement outside the building was already packed with people. More were filing in or stopping to see what was going on from the other side of the road, and a sizable crowd was gathering as a scattering of police looked on. There were lots of inventive protests, including a group of people dressed as 19th century maids and man-servants, and a "silent protest" made up of people with tape over their mouths.

My personal favourite was a placard that simply read "Piss Off Joe!" Clearly, council leader Joe Anderson's attempts to claim the anti-cuts mantle whilst implementing the cuts hadn't fooled all that many people.

What was particularly heartening, as I made my way through the crowds, was the sheer number of people I didn't recognise. I've been to enough demos and events now that I can spot members of the professional left a mile off, in many cases even identify their particular sect without having to glance at the paper in their arms or the literature they're handing out. They were still here, of course, and I ended up with innumerable leaflets of wildly varying quality stuffed into my pockets. But they were outnumbered by those who belonged to no sect, no party, no particular left-wing grouplet.

These were the people losing out in the council budget cuts. Their banners and signs - not professionally made, and arguably better for it - declared their particular interest and asked that it be saved. From the Park View Project and the Whitechapel Centre to countless nurseries which were also up for the chop.

From the beginning, spirits were high. There was some chanting, but the buzz of the crowd and interactions between people protesting and those passing by meant that even when nobody was yelling "no ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts" or similar, there was still noise. But, at that point, people still seemed unsure of exactly what to do. As I mentioned, there was little room to manoeuvre on the pavement and so all people could really do was stand around and chant.

That all changed in a moment. There was talk of blocking the road, but for a while it was just talk and it wasn't until the first person moved to do it - the banner they were holding billowing in the wind like a parachute - that people did. One moment, everybody was standing awkwardly on the pavement. The next, the streets were ours.

Although blocking the road and causing disruption was definitely a positive, the problem was that it wasn't capitalised on. Whilst the Town Hall doors were wide open, and observers were being allowed into the public gallery, Liverpool Trades Council elected to have speakers waffle into a really poor PA system. The only speaker of any worth being somebody plucked from a nursery campaign who said what she needed to say in maybe a minute-and-a-half, following on from an activist who clearly fancied himself as the heir to Hugo Chavez in terms of long speeches.

It was once the speeches were over that several people announced that they were going to storm the building. This came too late to actually be effective, security barring the door whilst activists pushed against it and tried to get in. One man took to kicking at the door and trying to smash the windows with the wooden pole of a Unite the Union flag, but this was snatched off him by somebody else.

The sceptic in me thinks the whole thing was a set-piece. Although once the attempt to occupy began myself and other comrades were at the front, the initial call came from a Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) member, whilst it was another Swappie who ended up having a go at the security guards in the town hall through the medium of absurd hyperbole. I still can't ascertain the identity of the person who snatched the flag, ostensibly putting an end to any serious attempt to force entry once the doors closed. Of course, my evidence is entirely anecdotal, but given their form on previous anti-cuts demos, my scepticism is holding firm.

The end result was that we stood in the doorway, chanting, for a bit. Two councillors were unable to enter during the fracas and had to go in using the side door. Myself and others then blocked the view of the guards inside, trying to take pictures with a hand-held CCTV device, before duct-taping placards and a banner to the windows to block the view. Thus ended the mini-picket, and people soon after moved around to the side of the building where their chants could be heard by the council meeting that was now underway.

Much was made in the Liverpool Echo, which supports Joe Anderson's "my hands are tied" lie, of the council's "consensus collapsing." That is, the Lib Dems put forward and amendment to the budget, to save four SureStart centres and reduce the level of cuts by £1m.

Of course, this is a piecemeal amendment. And nothing more than a political show at that, given that "Labour does not need Lib-Dem support to get the £91m cuts programme approved as it has an outright majority with 50 seats." The point is to win votes, not actually save any services or jobs. But, when the Lib Dems are the ones opposing (0.5% of) the cuts and Labour are accusing them of "Alice in Wonderland figures," you see for yourself how farcical and pointless electoral politics is.

Back out on the streets, numbers had quickly dwindled from 300 plus to roughly 50. As people leaned on railings to wave banners at and blast megaphone sirens into the council chamber, the Socialist Party contingent took the opportunity to promote the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and ask people to stand as "anti-cuts candidates." This led to an interesting debate with an ex-Militant and current Liverpool Antifascists comrade about electoralism as a tactic, but was also a sign that events were winding down to an orderly retreat.

Especially when a speaker from the Respect Party got the microphone and nobody bothered to chastise the man who drowned her out with an angry megaphone rant at the councillors holed-up in the Town Hall.

Ultimately, the budget and £91m of cuts were finally agreed at 11pm after a three-way split in the Lib Dem ranks. In terms of council protests, Liverpool's was neither the most militant - that accolade thus far has to go to Lambeth - nor the most passive. At the end of it, there remains a lot to build upon and - when the cuts really begin to bite - the potential for mass anger to translate into direct action.