Sunday, 2 October 2011

Marching on the Tories

As delegates descended on Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference today, so too did protesters from all across the country. The TUC national demonstration drew between 20 and 30 thousand people opposed to the government's austerity measures. It was lively and fun, but it only demonstrated how far the workers' movement has to go in terms of effective radical action.

Four of us from Liverpool Solidarity Federation reached Manchester just after 10am. Intending to beat the crowds, and the possibility of a heavy police presence, we headed down to University Place on Oxford Road for the Education feeder march. When we arrived, there were about fifty people milling around - seemingly all members of the Socialist Workers' Party, with their flags flying, stall tables under gazebos, and countless placards with SWP and Education Activist Network branding to hand out to marchers. There was little else to do but top up our caffeine levels in the café across the road.

Fortunately, things soon livened up when people began filing in for the march and we got a flavour of what to expect. The arts students had made a vulture with scissors for a head - carried on four poles. There was a mobile boom box pulled by a bike. A troupe of people played marching drums. Banners and flags from all sorts of groups soon started appearing, including several anarchist banners, flags, and signs. Silence soon gave way to the growing din of the crowds.

Two speakers and a bench provided a makeshift stage for a number of youth, student, and university speakers. Mostly, they were the kind of speakers who wouldn't be included in the TUC line-up at the end of the rally. They ranged from rabble rousing to inoffensive, but - tellingly - there wasn't a full-time bureaucrat or Labour Party MP amongst them. Most likely because, unlike the broader trade unionist demographic who would be at the final rallying point, a gathering of students, socialists and anarchists would have torn them limb from limb. Though there may be little as yet in terms of a coherent alternative, there are more and more people waking up to the fact that our official and would-be leadership are self-interested parasites.

After the speeches, the march itself assembled. We managed to build a modest anarchist bloc - made up of Liverpool and Manchester Anarchist Federation, Liverpool Solidarity Federation, North East Anarchists, and some Class War - quite near to the front. As always, one of the main merits of such national events is the chance to meet or catch up with comrades from around the country. It soon became apparent that, whilst there had been 50 Swappies when we first arrived, there were now around 1,000 people on the feeder march. Three large purple banners from the Occupy Manchester initiative caught the eye along the sides of the column of marchers, with the EAN banner at the front.

I say "assembled" rather than "kicked off," because we were actually static for about 15 minutes whilst paparazzi shot photographs of the assembled demo. It was still lively and incredibly noisy, but after a while it became more of an irritation than anything else. Even when someone set off a flare and we started forward to huge cheers, there were two more long stoppages between slow staggers forward before we finally got moving properly.

The feeder march headed off down Oxford Road, then down Whitworth Street and past the final rally point for later in the day before reaching the junction of Liverpool Road where it would merge with the main march. I wasn't keeping track of time, but this took at least half an hour. During that time, chants rang out in the middle and at the front of the demonstration, with steel drum backing, whilst towards the back demonstrators marched to the beat of the mobile boom box. Even as we stopped again, with two lines of police with mounted officers in the middle separating the main and feeder marches, the party atmosphere never let up.

Once more, a flare signalled that we were on the move and huge cheers went up as we merged with the other march. From here, though, things stayed much the same and it wasn't until a lot later that I'd get any sense of the size of the gathering. The only noticeable change was that our pace became considerably slower as we meandered around to Albert Square.

Albert Square, of course, was the target of Occupy Manchester. It was here that the three huge purple banners split off from the crowd, along with the anarchist bloc, and a number of other people. Initially, I put numbers at between one and two hundred. There was a buzz of excitement as people claimed the space, and the banners were raised around the monuments. A line of police formed further on down the square, with vans behind them, clearly waiting for some kind of kick off. There was none, however, as somebody took up a microphone to announce the occupation and declare that this would be a space to discuss strategy and tactics for the struggle ahead without the overpowering presence of politicians or union bureaucracy, eliciting a cheer.

The first limitation of the "occupation" was that nobody who had turned up appeared to have tents or sleeping bags with them. If this was to last the night, it would require supplies. The second was that, in the time they gave for people to relax and get food before the assembly started, I returned from getting a coffee and a sausage buttie to find numbers depleted to about fifty. The silence had grown considerably, and though people were taking turns to speak on the microphone there was no real atmosphere any more. Then there was the threat of rain.

I don't necessarily put this down to any fault of the planners. As I've said before, the occupation of squares has become a popular meme of resistance since Tahrir Square, whilst it isn't hard to see the appeal of democratic popular assemblies such as in Greece and Spain when faced with the stifling bureaucracy of the mainstream unions. An alternative to the official leadership, built from below and directly democratic, is desperately needed and it is encouraging to see people try to build that. However, in the form of Occupy Manchester and the previous attempt to Occupy Trafalgar Square on March 26, it suffers the same shortfall as the anti-globalisation movement - an over-reliance on adventure activism over grassroots community organisation.

The people who occupied the square in Egypt were defying a dictatorship and had been propelled into a movement where they had to do or die. The popular assemblies in Spain and Greece were built from the local, radical communities who could come and go as needed as well as to make decisions which actually affected the course of a coming demonstration or strike in a significant way.

The people who would occupy chosen areas of Britain are coming in from all over the country largely because they are activists and because they can afford to spend that time sitting in a tent without necessarily worrying about other commitments. There is no connection to the communities around them, and thus despite being far more radical in its intent such a venture is as much astroturfed as the current recreation of the Jarrow March. We could do with popular assemblies emerging in Britain, but they need to be growing across the country amongst ordinary workers and in connection to ongoing struggles rather than at a chosen "hotspot" for activists to pour into.

As such, with even the police numbers thinning out around us at the realisation that nothing was about to ignite, I left the occupation to try and catch up with the back of the main march.

I didn't have to go far, as further along the route the entire march had ground to a halt. Rather than join at the back, I meandered along the street and past the marchers, trying to get a sense of scale. It soon became apparent that the marchers numbered in the tens of thousands, with the streets jammed full of people. It was still lively, but there was also a hint of frustration and I got the sense that they had been held there for some time.

We found out why when we came to a "front" of the march that wasn't actually the front, and peering around the next street saw another section of the march separated by some distance. We had reached the conference venue, and the police were splitting the demo into manageable chunks. A ring of steel surrounded the venue, with Tory banners along the way. There was a lot more ferocity in the shouts and chanting here, and the people viewing the march from various windows in the venue became the target of a lot of hurled insults and gestures. All good fun, especially the spectacularly random and insane outburst of "victory to Gaddafi" from a nearby Stalinist, but ultimately fruitless. After that we soon reached the park where the TUC were holding their main rally.

I took no time to listen to the speakers or even pay attention to who was speaking. The internet confirms my suspicion of a Labour MP and a load of TUC arseholes, with a token student and couple of "lower" trade union officials thrown in to make it appear less of a bureaucratic circle jerk. The only reason I had to go near them was to reach the portaloos when I needed a piss. Otherwise, I wandered around and caught up with various comrades who had been on different parts of the rally before deciding to call it a day when significant momentum gathered for people to relocate to nearby pubs or head on home.

Ultimately, it was a fun - if knackering - day out. The TUC still has nothing to say to rank-and-file workers, but we're still struggling to build an effective, democratic alternative. The number of people demanding it is increasing as the struggle wears on, though, and that can only be a good thing. The real question now is whether that will translate into initiatives on the ground in time for November 30.