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.

Defend Public ServicesYesterday 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.

Victoria EmbankmentTaking 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. Westminster Green PartyThe 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. Green Party ProtestersBemused 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?!

Some more photos here.

While Stoke City were battling against the odds and gaining an unlikely draw away at Liverpool last Saturday, I joined several thousand others in Manchester to engage in another mammoth task – the struggle for peace in our time. Stop the War Coalition Media coverage of the Stop the War Coalition demonstration was sparse to say the least, the official StopWar.org.uk site and BBC Manchester being the only sources I could find. Depending which one you believe between 2,500 and 5,000 people took to the streets of Manchester to march past the Labour Party Conference to protest highlight the movement’s opposition to the Government’s strong support of George Bush’s aggressive foreign policy. Conference protest

The march was organised by the Stop the War Coalition and CND and called for all troops to come out of Iraq and Afghanistan and for an end to a foreign policy that risks spreading war. It has been a while since my last political march, but inspired by a meeting in Leeds last week, my friend Dave and I decided we had to attend and support the cause. The weather was wonderfully kind to us, a rare sunny and warm day, and the mood was upbeat even if the start was delayed due to the late arrival of a few coaches. We grabbed some placards, chatted with a few of the 57 different varieties of leftist groups including one of my colleagues who was a surprise encounter, and made our way to the back of the long snake of people.

The demonstration brought together trade unionists, students, pensioners, Muslim activists and peace campaigners of all sorts. Andy the activistIt was led off by Rose Gentle and other members of Military Families Against the War. As it approached the conference centre the demonstration apparently stopped to hand in a letter of protest to the Prime Minister, although we were so far behind we never saw that take place.

There was also a two minutes silence held to respect the hundreds of thousands who have been killed as a result of the government’s foreign policy. Then the protest marched right up to the conference centre fence chanting ‘Troops out now’ and various other slogans belted out by a rather loud socialist group behind Dave and I. Dave gives his views at conferenceSadly my “Bush, Brown end this farce… shove your Trident up your arse” chant didn’t catch on, clearly not serious enough. ;-) It was a noisy affair outside the conference and one would hope loud enough for every delegate inside to to hear. There was a strong police presence but thankfully the demonstration was well behaved, passionate but peaceful and no strong-arm tactics were required by the Manchester Constabulary. However it didn’t stop the unnecessary filming and photographing of the crowd by the police, and a large number wearing the uniform of the modern riot police stormtrooper.

The march ended with a rally at Castlefield Event Arena. Dave and I stayed long enough to hear speeches by Rose Gentle, Lindsey German (Stop the War convenyor), Kate Hudson (CND National Chair), Seumas Milne (Guardian newspaper columnist), Peter Cranie (Manchester Green Party) and veteran politician Tony Benn. Tony Benn interviewed They all spoke of the need to continue and expand this campaign and continue to strive for peace. The rally gave all the speakers enthusiastic applause.

We drifted away, Dave to head back to Leeds, myself to the Lake District, and word came through by text that Stoke were holding Liverpool at halftime. Remarkably they went on to keep a clean sheet and take a draw from the game. The road towards peace will also be a struggle in the face of formidable opponents. But as long as there is belief, passion, and people prepared to take action there is hope. People are the true agents of social change. History is punctuated with struggle, movements that have changed the world for the better. I’d like to think we played a small part on Saturday.

More photos

Despite working at Leeds Civil Hall for five years of my career, last night was the first time I can recall being in the wonderful Council Chamber. I was there to hear Tony Benn address around a hundred supporters of the Stop the War Coalition movement. Tony Benn in familiar pose outside Leeds Civic HallI was lucky enough to attend a talk by Benn at Leeds University in the early 1990s, and as a long time admirer of his, I was looking forward to hearing him speak in person again. The main purpose of the meeting was to rally support for a demonstration in Manchester on Saturday to coincide with the Labour Party Conference. However it was also a chance for key speakers to reaffirm the coalition’s beliefs and make a strong case for opposing war and aggression.

The first speaker was co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition, John Rees who commenced with an analysis of the current situation in Georgia, finishing with a rousing call to join either the Coalition or CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and follow that up with attendance at Saturday’s demonstration. Within his speech Rees suggested that American support of Georgia was unsurprising given Georgia had the third largest number of troops in Iraq, mainly guarding the Green Zone in Baghdad. Rees attacked what he called America’s belief that it has the right to carry out a pre-emptive first strike, including invasion, and called on the British Government to break its alliance with George W Bush and the Neo-Cons, indeed stating what might follow Bush had the potential to be even worse. It was frightening and a disgrace that a man like McCain could sing a song “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” and might be the next President of the USA. McCain should not be allowed to run a local council let alone one of the most powerful countries in the world, he added.

The second speaker was CND’s National Chair Kate Hudson. Her main point was the worrying expansion of NATO and how it has contributed to destabilising many regions across the world, ultimately increasing the likelihood of conflict. Hudson argued that over the past decade the USA have been pushing forward both economically and militarily into a wider area across the world, with oil and energy being common strands in this expansion. She added that NATO was set up as a defensive organisation during the Cold War and should have been disbanded along with the Warsaw Pact in 1991. However instead it has expanded over the last 15 years and changed its mission statement from being defensive to an actively involved organisation (with many thousands of troops in Afghanistan), and is worryingly a nuclear armed alliance with a first strike policy. In March 1999, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were all admitted to full membership. Ten days later they found themselves at war with their neighbour Yugoslavia, as part of NATO’s illegal bombing campaign. Stop the War Coalition meeeting Leeds Civic Hall 15th Sept 08But the change at that time was not limited to NATO expansion. At NATO’s fiftieth anniversary conference in Washington in April 1999, a new ‘Strategic Concept’, was adopted. This moved beyond NATO’s previous defensive role to include ‘out of area’, in other words offensive operations. The geographical area for action was now defined as the entire Eurasian landmass. In March 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to NATO, not only former Warsaw Pact members, but also former Soviet republics. This has contributed to international tension as Russia sees itself being surrounded by US and NATO bases, including in the Balkans, the Middle East and central Asia. It was little wonder Russia feels threatened. NATO’s ongoing expansion into former Soviet republics, and its ‘out of area operations’, particularly in Afghanistan, are helping make the world a more dangerous place.

Hudson went on to put forward that as a member of NATO Britain finds it is dictated to when it comes to defence policy. The USA have pressed on with the Missile Defence System and bases like Fylingdales and Menwith Hill in Yorkshire are part of that system. This gives the USA first strike capacity without fear of retaliation, and increases the likelihood of Britain being a target. Hudson finished with a summary of CND’s campaigns, opposing further NATO expansion, and missile defence. The organisation was campaigning hard in the Czech Republic and Poland where the public were strongly against these weapons being based in their countries. The recent agreement to place US Missile Defence interceptor missiles in Poland is a destabilising move that will have profound effects for years to come. The positioning of US missiles less than 120 miles from the nearest Russian territory has brought a strong response from Moscow, which feels itself to be the target of the US system. Despite strong opposition amongst the Czech public, their government has agreed to host a US radar station, but hopefully public pressure may still scupper the deal. The treaty must be ratified by the Czech Parliament which is evenly split on the issue. The opposition of 70% of the public may yet prevent its passage in October, but if it goes ahead the destabilisation and damage to international relations will be enormous. Hudson’s final words were: “Say no to warmongering policies, yes to peace”, and she urged us all take that message to the Government at the demonstration in Manchester.


Four minutes of Tony Benn’s speech at Leeds Civic Hall 15/09/08

The final speaker was the main draw Tony Benn. His initial thrust was about the dangers of justifying aggression and war on the grounds of religious belief systems and the lies of government. Benn argued that the basic tenet of all the world’s religions was peace, and loving thy neighbour was a worthy starting point. Self defence was acceptable Benn claimed, which is why he joined the Home Guard in his teens to fight the threat of Nazi Germany, but outward aggression was not. Benn said we needed to understand the nature of empires, essentially they have been the forceful action of strong nations to take the resources of the weak. Tony Benn addresses Leeds Council Chamber crowdHe went on to say that if we can understand what is going on, potentially difficult when a largely right wing media fails to report it, then we are in a stronger position to counter moves of aggression. The Stop the War Coalition was therefore an educational movement as much as anything else, to inform the public of the truth and mobilise people to protest against undemocratic actions of the political elite. Benn feared the potential election of McCain as US President, particularly as his running mate Sarah Palin has stated she would be ready to go to war with Russia, something that might have catastrophic results. He added that we must remember that 135 million people died as a result of two world wars in the last century.

Benn went on to criticise the use of nuclear weapons. He said that even the British military do not like them, in the main wars are fought on the ground, and personnel lack the basic equipment in conflict and decent living conditions back home because military expenditure was tipped towards hardware. In recent conflicts it has been the guerilla who has had the upper hand, not the nuclear force as the weapons are too horrific to consider using. Indeed the Royal Navy go around in their nuclear submarines with weapons they cannot deploy because America has to switch them on before use.

Benn won loud applause when he said he said the United Kingdom should be non-aligned with any Tony Benn makes his pointparticular force like the USA but have a strong relationship with the United Nations. He went on to say we must recognise that empires in decline are very dangerous, and he had serious fears of the future bombing of Iran and Pakistan. There had to be a peaceful means of settling international disputes and Benn claimed we were the first generation with the know how, technology, and money to end conflict. Benn ended his speech saying that the moral purpose was behind the Stop the War movement because across the world there were people in need of shelter, food, aid and yet billions had been wasted on war in Iraq.

An open floor session commenced after the speeches allowing the audience to make observations, comments and pose questions to the speakers. One audience member requested an update on CND’s opposition to the Trident replacement, given the UK Government planned to spend £76 billion on it money that could be better use on housing, jobs, hospitals and public services. Kate Hudson replied that the proposal would be back in Parliament in 2009 for debate and it was vital for us all to keep the pressure on leading up to and during that time. There was considerable discussion about the current recruitment drive in the British armed forces, and the tactics used to attract not only university students, but younger children. Fifty percent of officers were recruited on university campuses, one person claimed, while another added that the Army were offering grants to students to pay for courses. More worrying was the military’s involvement in “outward bound” school trips, and school visits to offer “hope” to working class kids with little prospect of employment. A teacher spoke of her investigations into companies wishing to take over the trust school she worked for. One company, Bearing Point, had been involved in rebuilding programmes wherever the USA had bombed, while another Jacobs Engineering, had the contract to maintain Aldermaston, the headquarters of the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Tony Benn commented that recent figures show 1 in 8 people incarcerated in Britain’s prisons are former military personnel. There was a clear worry that experiencing conflict, seeing people blown up, and witnessing horrific civilian casualties, were sure to leave a permanent scar, and we had to show there was hope and alternatives for young people considering joining the armed forces. Benn also said it was worth remembering that until the USA entered World War Two, the UK’s main allies were Russia and Serbia, and 25 million Russians died fighting fascism as a result. He added we have seen that global economic crises have led to racism and war in the past, and we needed to offer hope from the Left of politics to counter the rise of the extreme Right which always looked to gain popularity by building on people’s fears and disillusionment. He urged us to write to our Member of Parliament to ask them to oppose war. Unfortunately Parliament had become part of the establishment rather than being the representative of the people, and as the elected part of the state is much smaller than the unelected part, people had little say over who controlled the things that affect their lives.


Tony Benn gives his views on Barack Obama during questions

The meeting closed with the evocative use of a large banner unravelled to show the huge sums of money spent on the war in Iraq, running into trillions. It is often argued by governments that there is not enough money to solve the world’s problems. However a sobering thought is that the world’s annual arms expenditure is seventeen times the amount needed to feed every hungry person in the world. As Tony Benn has said, if we can find money to kill people surely we can find money to help people.

Other Links
CND briefing on NATO
Tony Benn in excellent form in Michael Moore’s “Sicko”