Manchester protest Protesters at the Conservative Party Conference. Getty Images

Protests in Manchester over several days created a sense of a Tory conference under permanent siege writes Chris Nineham

The protests at the Tory Party conference this week were different from the past. Partly they were bigger, estimates of Sunday’s demo alone range from 70,000 to 100,000. They also ran throughout the conference. Right up until Wednesday, disabled activists, NHS workers, students, refugee campaigners and TTIP protestors created a sense of a conference under permanent siege, leading to the priceless Channel 4 News footage of Ian Duncan Smith trying to find a protest-free path out of the conference, and apparently failing.

There was a series of huge cultural and political events too. One thousand packed in to see Frankie Boyle join the state of the art line up for the Laugh Them out of Town comedy night. The Manchester Academy was packed out again for an eclectic anti-austerity gig the next night. A slightly surreal highpoint was Charlotte Church getting the 2,000 there to sing ‘fight the power, change the system, what we need is socialism’ which didn’t really rhyme but worked anyway.

Another novelty was the undeniable impact of the protests. The government was forced to hunker down, and the ring of steel around the conference encapsulated its isolation. Cameron had to refer to the protestors at conference and despite attempts to portray those present as a threatening mob, the media couldn’t ignore the significance of a permanent street opposition. One Guardian headline ran ‘Conservative conference hit by third day of protest’.

Changing mood

But most important was the political mood. The protests came off the back of a some huge popular mobilisations. A quarter of a million marched against austerity on the People’s Assembly demo in June. There were more than 50,000 on the refugee demonstration in September.

Connected to that is of course the Corbyn phenomenon. The feeling that for the first time in decades radical change might just be possible is stoking the confidence of a growing movement. It is also posing political issues that haven’t been widely discussed for a generation or more.

Perhaps the defining moment was the People’s Post rally in Manchester Cathedral hosted by the Communication Workers’ Union and the People’s Assembly with Jeremy Corbyn in attendance. It was an extraordinary event. The Cathedral was full two hours before the meeting. There were thousands of people outside for an overflow rally – the police said 7,000 – and people were running through Manchester to get there on time.

It was halway between a campaign meeting and a rally for socialism, with speaker after speaker calling for a political break with the past to massive applause. Jeremy’s reception was ecstatic. People are aware of the dangers in the situation too, particularly the immediate problem of how to deal with Corbyn’s enemies in the Parliamentary Labour Party. When Lindsey German spoke at the rally about the need to take on the right in Labour she got huge cheers.

New questions

Questions about how society could be organised differently, and how such change might come about are becoming real for large numbers of people. Because of this, throughout the five days of protesting, debating and organising the excitement was palpable. The entusiasm for Jeremy stems partly from the fact that he comes from the protest movements. People are aware too that and his success has partly been made possible by the movements. Now the question being debated is how can the movements stay mobilised to sustain the surge.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.