A satisfying, hopeful and successful week ruining the Tory Conference recorded by Cameron Panting
We arrived in Manchester by train on Saturday morning, and by the time we’d finished our first coffee, the weekend had begun with the full force of a midday Flash Mob. They took over Piccadilly Station, welcoming the Tories then arriving for the conference. Not to miss out on an opportunity to get our message across, we distributed papers to the non-too willing men in suits, as well as to the many other Mancunians and otherwise arriving by train - some for the weekend of action, some not. Just outside the station, there was a bunch of People’s Assembly activists wearing pig masks.. I figured I might see quite a few of them over the next few days!
By 2:00pm I was already in my first heated argument of the trip, with a financial advisor, telling me he was worth £800,000, and that if I looked around Manchester, everyone was happy and wealthy and that if I wanted to help the world, I should deal with the problem of obesity by telling overweight people they had a problem. “Look around you! Everyone has a phone, there is no poverty” he said. I tried to convince him that poverty is relative, and that inequality is rising, but I was falling on deaf ears.
After a big meeting about the organisation of the demo happening the next day, and the constant carrying of papers, books and gazebos everywhere, the “Acting Out Against Austerity Theatre Gig” couldn’t have come at a better time. I went without many expectations, but any I did have were exceeded ten-fold.
Terry Christian hosted a night full of laughs and sentimentality, though it never deviated from the real issues at hand. Starting with an explosive Physical Theatre piece, soundtracked by the haunting vocals of the now infamous “Cabinet Of Millionaires” song (You may have seen it posted on Facebook, with a video of David Cameron as a puppet), the lead of the show contrived and contorted into frustrated shapes, mouthing out silently the frustration of the many towards the few.
Then came a small play, which exposed the consequences of Tory policies, whilst managing to be extremely funny at the same time (a feat in itself). We followed a young mum broken by financial difficulty, led to the last ditch choice of prostitution. A bailiff was introduced in a pantomime like fashion as the token bad guy of the piece, but we quickly move from humour to disgust, as the same man who was taking away her possessions, also attempted, unknowingly, to pay her for sex.
My favourite piece of the night however, was the ‘Pop Up Penny Pinchers’, who’s sketch show, fronted with the idea of being a service to help those struggling with money, does brilliantly to contrast the difficulties of getting a job, with the ridiculous expectations of a middle class twenty-something year old. The grotesqueness of the characters, and the turning of pop-songs into parodies of the middle class, needless to say, amused the anti Tory audience.
The night continued with brilliant pieces of music and poetry, including a punchy spoken word piece, and a brilliant sing-along to “Do one you Tory scum” sang with choir-boy innocence, it was impossible not to smile.
After a brilliant night, I was ready and pumped for the demo the next day, and found myself incredible lucky to be staying at a housing co-op with the most lovely host, plus another lodger. . We stayed up for a while, had a drink, and talked, peace, politics and protest.
Up early to set up our stall, there was a quiet anticipation in the streets, as different organisations set up their areas for the day and the city woke up. Quickly the amount of people started to increase, our papers started flying out, and we had many people coming to our stall to find out what we were about. As the day went on, the Demo kept growing, but it wasn’t until I walked to meet some other members of Counterfire that I realised just how huge the demo was (estimates were between 80,000 and 100,000). I was struck by the length of the parade, split by several screens booming out rousing speeches.
My day was filled with a number of lively chats about everything from Corbynomics to the welfare of pigs. Eventually, it was time for the march, and I left a few of my comrades to deal with the stall, following the march down, continually handing out our paper. The feeling of hope was overwhelming - paired with a strong tinge of hatred for the Tories, we felt a powerful force.
The knowledge that the Tories were only a matter of minutes away gave me a real sense of imminence, with the discussion of policy that would attack the rights of the least well off in society going on in the same city, us taking a stand together seemed all the more significant. As we drew near to the end of the march, there was a blockade of policeman, and I quickly found out that this was because the square in which the speeches were to be taking place was filling up rapidly, and we needed to stagger our entrances. When eventually we were let through, and I turned the corner into the arena, the size of the crowd was staggering. This really was something. WIth rousing speeches from every corner of the left, including a few of the usual suspects, the most notable and well received speech was from the junior doctor Rory Hicks. His presence along with the rest of the junior doctors attending brought home the reality of what we were facing, as we were confronted by a very real struggle at the heart of the NHS. As the speeches came to a close, it was time for a drink, and to sit in the sun we were lucky to find ourselves in.
That evening we attended “Laugh Them Out Of Town”, a night of comedy, with a line up including Frankie Boyle, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy. There was a feeling of incredulity, and of relief as we ridiculed the sheer ridiculousness of the right, and managed to find humour in the worst of places, with Frankie Boyle on top form. A bloody good night in all, with plenty of laughs and a few heartstrings pulled by Francesca Martinez. Long day, sleep time.
In at 10:30 for a morning briefing with The People’s Assembly, organising where everyone would be for the day, covering all the different protests and meetings, including ones on TTIP, student fees and the murdering policies of the DUP. A man in a wheelchair spoke eloquently on how him and many other disabled people were to be affected by the cuts. Most of the excitement however was for “The People’s Post” rally happening that evening, where the man of the moment, surprise Labour Leader and lifelong campaigner, Jeremy Corbyn would be speaking.
We organised our co-ordination for the rally, and then left people to spend the day at whichever meetings they fancied. With the key demo of Sunday being over, it was pleasantly surprising just how many people were still about for the rest of the week of action - it certainly hadn’t stopped there. I went along to the student protests, rubbing shoulders with Tories who were growing increasingly angry and a little bemused by the constant protesting - “Do they never give up?” I heard one say. No, never.
We got down to the rally that evening early as attendance was expected to vastly over-reach the 1,000 person capacity of the cathedral the bishop had kindly allowed us to use. There was a stage set up outside for the speakers to speak to the many that were expected not to get in, but we could never have envisaged the number that attended. As it got to 6 o’clock, we were starting to get an idea of just how big an event this was going to be, with a huge queue for the cathedral, and many more besides, our papers were flying out! We got out 1500 in the space of a few hours. So many were interested in hearing another side to a debate so skewed by the mainstream media, people were wanting them for their friends and colleagues, we could barely keep up! As 7 drew nearer, the number of people outside the cathedral was astounding, with people running across town to get there in time… How often do you get that for a socialist meeting about the nationalisation of the post office?
The place was buzzing, and the speakers were brilliant, Lindsey German made a rallying call for us to take on the Labour right, keep the momentum of the movement going and organise effectively to prevent capitulation. Backing Corbyn was the theme of the night.
And then came Jeremy, ushered in like a rockstar, and met with a similar kind of reception, he spoke with grace and strength about the need for a kinder politics, and for our society to look after those most in need. He also talked at length about the importance of the post office being a public service and not sold off and ruined by private companies. He pointed out that with their main purpose always being to make money, this will inevitably bring down the quality of the brilliant service the post office offers. Every statement was met with rapturous applause. This was no longer the start of a movement - we were well and truly enveloped by it now!
Briefing again, and we were ready and revitalised from the last few days, but also ready to go home soon. A day for reflection, but also for protest, as the “Refugees Welcome Here” protest was on the schedule, as well as one on the selling off of the NHS. My highlight of the day was definitely the “We Are Many” screening, a film about the 2003 anti-war movement which spread across the world, opposing the Iraq war. The largest protest event in human history, it was inspiring to see many of the friends and comrades here with us this week talk about being part of a world-changing event. It made what we were doing seem more important, and gave me hope that if we organise effectively, there are no limits on what this movement can become. No-one expected people to come out in that kind of number, and no-one can know the strength of movements to come, however it is clear from the film that this didn’t happen spontaneously, but was the collective effort of many activists over many many years.
Then on to a meeting (appropriately after watching that) held by Stop The War called “Don’t bomb Syria”. It turned out to be an incredibly informative meeting, as a few Syrians suggested that a ‘no-fly-zone’ would be an appropriate action to lobby for, as a way of not starting a war, but “doing something”. This seemed reasonable enough, but the panel, along with many other speakers in the room argued effectively against such action, revealing that it had been taken in the past, and that it inevitably would lead to more bombing and more war. It was refreshing to have a point of argument so thoroughly squashed, and to come out of a meeting with a far clearer idea of what we were facing than I did before. I guess that many people in that meeting will have learnt a fair amount, with discussions on Islamophobia and the threat of Russia to name just a couple of threads.
It was unfortunate that we couldn’t stay right through to the final day of the week of action (and that we missed the party on the Friday), but any longer and the emails to deal with in the office would have just piled up! We still had a few comrades staying the last day, and by all accounts it was a resounding success, with protests against fracking, the screening of the classic “The Enemy Still Within”, and a review of the week with Owen Jones, Terry Christian and many others. A satisfying, hopeful and successful week ruining the Tory Conference, but the movement must continue to build and organise if we are to seriously challenge the huge power of the Tories, and more particularly the state. Keep the faith.
Cameron Panting is National Organiser for Counterfire and is a member of the editorial board. He is active within the People's Assembly and is a member of Stop The War.
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