Life has got a lot more involved and busier since my last blog. Time seems to be precious and the blogging has been duly relegated towards the bottom of the priorities. I intend to do a “catch up” piece soon, but one recent event was so momentous I felt it time to get back on the keys and capture the experience.
Yesterday I travelled to London and joined thousands of others (estimates range between 250,000 and 500,000, but I favour something towards the top end) on the March for the Alternative. This was a demonstration and rally against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s cuts to public services, and their refusal to consider other fairer alternatives to reducing the budget deficit. My day started at 5am as I hauled my unwilling body out of bed, and I managed to get a bus into Leeds to make the coach rendez-vous point in time. Settled on the back seat with Dave, Daljit and Stewie, we set off to the capital at 6:45am.
The decision to park the coaches at Wembley and have people travel in by the Underground had been controversial at UNISON branch meetings. However it went smoothly and turned out to be a good idea, particularly as London Transport told us to pay at the destination station, and did not enforce it there either! (Plus it gave us chance to see the new Wembley Stadium). So we were at Waterloo station around 11:30am, and soon crossing the Waterloo Bridge with many other protesters. That was where we had first glimpse of the magnitude of the event. Victoria Embankment was rammed solid with people for as far as the eye could see. A truly stunning sight.
Taking photos from Waterloo Bridge led to my first separation of the day. The lads went off in front, but some how I ended up overtaking them as we tried to make our way along the Strand way to the access to the Embankment. The first feeder street was blocked off by stewards, and the next was packed solid but I eventually made my way down it. The swapping of text messages allowed the other three lads to catch up at the bottom of Arundel Street, where the confused crowd was slowly heading towards the main body of the demonstration. The reunion was short lived however, as just as we got on the Embankment I spotted a Yorkshire CND banner, snapped a photo of it, briefly spoke to one of the bearers who I knew, and turned to find my companions gone. There was no way of spotting them in such a sea of people, and the next time I would see them was on the backseat of the coach, late and delaying our departure!
It is impossible to do justice to the scenes I witnessed. I’ve never been in such a huge mass of people before. The mood was upbeat, almost celebratory, a loud blend of chants, whistles, drums, and various performing bands. One moment it would be the brass of the RMT Union, the next the wail of bagpipes. The crowd was colourful too, Trade Unions wearing their colours, individuals in fancy dress, banners and placards of all hues. I was there in my capacity of UNISON Steward but I was also supporting the Green Party and CND, fleece replete with badges, UNISON flag in one hand, Coalition of Resistance placard in the other. The hunt for a Green Party placard proved fruitless, leaving me kicking myself for not being organised enough to make and bring my own. However there were a large number of Green Party banners and placards present, including the beautiful Westminster Green Party creation.
The march to Hyde Park took much longer than expected and I think the organisers planned. I did spend much of my time photographing and filming events, but even so progress was slow anyway. There was a jam in Whitehall approaching Nelson’s Column, but I was surprised how few had gathered outside Downing Street when I reached it. However if the Prime Minister was home he would have known we were there, treated to sustained and loud booing. The lads texted me to say that they had reached Hyde Park and the rally was drawing to a close so they were heading for a pint. I was determined to reach the park at least, so battled on, by this time hungry and feet aching. En route I passed Fortnum & Mason, and the Ritz Hotel, which later were making the headlines due to an occupation, and an Anarchist attack. The latter was looking worse for wear, paint splashes up the frontage, while two confused guests peered down from their window at the baying crowd below.
I made Hyde Park about 3:45pm, missing the major speakers by some while. Probably just as well as I doubt I’d have been impressed by what Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband had to say. It seemed rank hypocrisy for him to be speaking at a rally about the alternatives to cuts when his party was advocating cutting too, merely changing the speed and severity of these measures. There had been a campaign #WhyisntCarolinespeaking on Twitter, and many Green Party members had contacted the TUC to ask why Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas was not on the platform. The Green Party’s manifesto and policies contain the alternatives that the March was calling for, where Labour’s do not. These requests had been turned down, no surprise that the Trade Union movement wanted to give Miliband chance to garner support. The simple fact is that Caroline Lucas would have wiped the floor with him, and could legitimately claim that she was offering an alternative, the sort that the three main parties could never do while a neo-liberal economic political consensus exists.
After walking past the stage, and over to Speaker’s Corner, I sat on the grass for a much needed sarnie and drink. A check of the map showed that Bond Street Underground station wasn’t too far away, and easiest for the Jubilee line back to Wembley Park. Bemused shoppers in Oxford Street took photos of the stragglers heading away from the rally, still chanting and waving their banners. Thankfully the queue at Bond Street tube station wasn’t too long, and I was away down the escalators. I bumped into one of my colleagues, Barry, on the platform, and remarkably there was two Councillors from Leeds in the carriage, one from my own ward. I’d really had enough of standing up by this point, but the train was full and there was little hope of a seat until Wembley. One last walk along Wembley Way, and we were back at the coaches. A flurry of text messages hurried Dave, Daljit, and Stewie on their way, holed up in Carnaby Street for a beer or two, with them finally arriving huffing and puffing following a last gasp dash. The coach left at 5:45pm, late but not drastically, and sailed effortlessly out of the car park and away from Wembley toward the motorway. A short break later we were back in Leeds at 9:40pm, and I got home around 10:20pm, some 17 hours after getting up. Exhausted, aching all over, but exhilarated. When’s the next march?!