The response to the Tory conference in Birmingham was suitably angry and clear in its demands, reports Ellen Graubert
Thousands of people marched through the streets of Birmingham on Saturday on the eve of the Tory Party’s annual conference, demanding a better deal for working people and an end to austerity, in a protest against eight years of swingeing Tory government cuts to public services.
Birmingham’s health care workers and their all-woman band led the march, with two wheelchair users as outriders. Holding aloft colourful banners, flags and the huge balloons of Unite, CWU, NEU, and carrying hundreds of placards, the thousands of loudly chanting protestors marched from Victoria Square around the centre of Birmingham and back, to the accompaniment of music, drummers and whistles.
The event, hosted by TUC Midlands and The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, began with a rally in Victoria Square, in front of Birmingham City Council House, a grand, grade 2 listed classical building – a stark reminder of the UK’s colonialist past and a suitably ironic setting for a people’s protest against the crushing policies of the current establishment government.
People had gathered early, the sky was a clear blue, the atmosphere was upbeat in the brilliant sunshine. People’s Assembly, Stand Up to Racism and various union stalls were set up and TORIES OUT and Stand up to Racism placards were stacked up at the ready. Music from the band Banner Theatre played on the pop-up stage, filling the vast area of the square.
Jeremy Corbyn, regretting that he was unable to join us in Birmingham, had sent a strong statement of support, in which he vehemently castigated the Tory government for its shameful attacks on our public services, libraries, schools, childcare and our NHS, all in the name of austerity. He praised councils that have been courageously doing their very best to deliver services in the face of pernicious cuts, stressing the importance of our support, that our voices are strong, and will be even stronger with him as Prime Minister: he looked forward to speaking to us from 10 Downing Street in the very near future.
The first speaker (from Unite the Union) represented the hospitality workers of Birmingham, who have been on strike for months over the long and unsafe working times of 14, 21 or 22 hours they are being made to work. The workers sent their thanks for the support they have had from the public in their campaign against tipping and service charge scams - where some restaurant and hotels have been skimming off tips from waiters and chefs.
Unite’s successful campaign against Pizza Express in May 2015 sparked a media blitz and a public backlash against the practice, forcing many more restaurant chains to abandon their unfair tipping practices and prompting the government to act to end the failed voluntary code of practice, and make it law that all tips go to staff and not the company. Two years later the scams are still making headlines, so the fight goes on.
The CWU speaker demanded that “Ailing Grayling” – Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary – keep the railways safe and secure and accessible for all. He warned that their members will strike to defend their rights, calling for an end to the pay cap, and for change and not a review. He called for renationalisation of the railways as the obvious solution to the problems exposed by a privately run railway service.
Speaker after speaker confirmed the overwhelming anger of the public towards a government that has ignored and in fact exacerbated the problems that affect ordinary people who are at the rough end of savage Tory cuts. Janice Godrich, President of PCS, sent a clear message to the Tory government, that the rich and powerful have benefitted while the Tories have been in power, to the detriment and impoverishment of the rest. She said:
- the level of wages is lower than in 2007
- the numbers of people using foodbanks has risen to the highest levels ever
- the education system is broken, that schools are not even able to afford pencils and paper
- public debt has swollen to dangerous levels
- libraries are continually being closed
- councils are at breaking point, although bravely doing their best
- Universal credit actually causes deaths while people wait for funds for survival
- The Tory government’s policy of austerity has lead to no less than a massive breakdown of the social fabric of the UK.
John Rees rounded off the speeches from the stage with a powerful delivery, utterly damning the Tory government’s crusade of austerity and cuts which have worn the social fabric of the nation so thin that there are now gaping holes in essential services. We are reaching a tipping point in the capacity of our public services to function. He warned that we cannot waste another day in fighting to rid the country of the Tory government, because there is something worse that grows out of austerity, and that is the poison of Tommy Robinson and the far right, which is being aided and abetted by the American white supremacist and editor of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon.
We must all come out onto the streets on November 17 to demonstrate against racism, and send a message to Theresa May, Boris Johnson and the racists in her Tory government: don’t enable the far right.
We deplore her policy of attempting to divide us by creating a hostile environment to intimidate people who have come to the UK to help build great communities – which are great because of immigration, not in spite of immigration.
Rees vowed that we will create a hostile environment for this Tory government and challenged Mrs. May to “Justify your policies”, which only benefit the rich and powerful – We know that there is an alternative, that change is possible. He also stressed that “Jeremy Corbyn is not a spectator sport”, that it is our mass actions and movements that will achieve what we want - Corbyn in 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister, sooner rather than later and that “WE WANT A GENERAL ELECTION NOW!”
Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
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