Called by its mayor, Bristol saw its largest march in many years, setting the scene for civic protest across the country, reports Tom Whittaker
The front of the march had paused to allow the back to catch up, and there was chanting whilst shoppers filmed. At this point, Marvin Rees appeared at the head of the march, flanked by Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy. He then proceeded to lead the march through the Horsefair with members of the public engaging him in discussion and offering him their opinions.
This was unusual and it felt significant. For this was the first time since 2010 that a Labour Mayor or council leader had led a protest against the cuts forced on local councils by Conservative central government. Around 8,000 Bristolians took to the streets in support of it.
The march, organised under the umbrella of Bristol People's Assembly, had gained the support of around thirty organisations including almost all the Trade Unions; the Green and Labour parties; the Fair Funding for Schools and Protect our NHS campaigns; ACORN the tenants’ union; Disabled People Against the Cuts and a range of community groups including the Malcolm X Community Centre in St Pauls and the Bristol Somali Forum.
There were rallies on College Green both before and after the march at which many of these organisations had speakers. The platform was very diverse with a majority of both women and black and asian speakers. Many speakers, such as Amirah Cole from the Malcolm X Centre and Green Party councillor Cleo Lake, referenced the radical tradition amongst Bristol's black and asian communities. They also drew the links between race and class in terms of poverty and inequality. Overall, the march saw an impressive turnout from Bristol's ethnic minorities.
Rob Wotherspoon of the CWU union spoke about the forthcoming strike ballot amongst postal workers, whilst Kevin Courtney of the newly formed National Education Union spoke movingly about the impact of education cuts on school children. A large number of Trade Union banners were present.
Whilst focusing on more funding for Bristol ahead of Marvin Rees visit to London on Tuesday, the march was also a contribution to a wider movement against austerity and alongside Kevin Courtney, there were two other national speakers in John Rees and Owen Jones both of whom were very well received.
Owen Jones conveyed the extent to which the Tories are currently rattled. People were very pleased to see him unequivocally back on the side of Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile John Rees drew applause with his call for the restoration of the powers of local authorities to build council housing in a direct works programme.
The size and success of the march means that there will now be a debate about where we go from here. Obviously, other cities need to be encouraged to join in. Yesterday there was also a protest in Cardiff's that had the backing of the council leader Huw Thomas, but activists in every town and city should now be calling upon their Labour Mayors and councils to call protests over the cuts being imposed upon them. A national movement of protest across towns and cities could beat the Tories.
But there remains the question of what to do about the cuts? In Bristol, this will need to be debated amongst all the organisations that supported the march. However, the numbers of people out on the streets showed that the will is there for the city to resist further.
If Marvin Rees and the council were to escalate the fight with Westminster by setting a ‘no cuts’ budget they could be confident of huge support in Bristol and beyond. Moreover, any attempt to suspend local democracy in response to a ‘no cuts’ budget would entail huge risks for the weak national government.
The context today is very different from that of the mid 1980s when Liverpool and Lambeth councils were left isolated after the defeat of the miners’ strike. A city in revolt against central government cuts, that was also part of a wider movement against austerity, would have a very good chance of winning.
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