Having recently been elected as a majority government for the first time since 1992, the Conservative Party gathered in Manchester for its annual party conference, which was pretty brave considering that of all the MPs elected from Greater Manchester in May, the Tories won five (out of twenty-seven). The TUC in partnership with The People’s Assembly organised a mass demonstration to welcome the Tories to arguably the most left-wing city in the country.
Before the march started groups had been gathering for a number of hours. The crowds themselves were sparse until the University of Manchester Students’ Union, after which blowing whistles, flag waving and anti-Tory chanting became the norm. Different organisations had stalls along the Oxford Road including the Green Party, CND and the Communist Party of Great Britain. The atmosphere was palpable as more and more and more people kept arriving to join the march. The placards on display varied greatly; some were traditional union banners and some were home-made; some made reference to pigs or ‘telling porkies’ whereas others were more blunt such as my personal favourite a piece of cardboard saying “Fuck off Dave!”.
The TUC had estimated that around 100,000 people had arrived and at the start of the day the police presence was not as prominent as you would think; outside of some of the main buildings of Manchester Metropolitan University, the TUC had erected a stage in which musicians including Billy Bragg performed songs to inspire the crowd into action. On the verge of the commencement of the march union leaders including the TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady and the General Secretary of Unite Len McCluskey took to the stage to chastise the Tories for introducing the Trade Union Bill and cutting the welfare state.
As the it kicked off the demonstration marched down the Oxford Road past All Saints Park and a branch of Starbucks which prompted the crowd to shout “pay your tax”. The protest then passed a group of homeless people under a motorway bridge, with many protesters stopping to speak to them. As the march went on whistles were blown and chanting became louder as the protesters endeavoured to drown out the sound of the police helicopter circling above; it was only later that I discovered that there police snipers on some of the buildings looking down the march, which is disconcerting as at no point was there really any threat of violence from anybody, and the only mention of death was some people chanting “we still hate Thatcher”.
Once the protesters had reached the Manchester City Council building the police presence became noticeably increased which is somewhat indicative of the police as an institution: rather than marshalling the protest and keeping people safe they largely protected seats of authority and people in power. However the loudest noise of the day came as crowds turned onto Peter Street as the Tory Party Conference itself came into view; I say that it came into view there was actually a large police cordon that prevented any of the protesters from getting anywhere near the convention centre however what was visible was some Tory delegates from on the building’s balcony looking down onto the tens of thousands of people below, as well as the conference’s Orwellian slogan: “Security. Stability. Opportunity”.
As we approached Deansgate the march split in two, with a sizeable minority going down to the locks for a gathering organised by The People’s Assembly in an open-air performance space. With a host of different speakers waiting to whip up the crowd, the police for no apparent reason began saying to people that the area was full even though, having gotten there early, everybody could clearly see that it was half empty. Fifteen minutes later people came flooding in just in time for the speeches. The speeches themselves were exactly what the crowd needed to keep their spirits up: Natalie Bennett, Charlotte Church, and Owen Jones spoke with passion about the need for significant democratic change and the need to resist the Tories. Representatives from the CND, trade unions, and the Stop The War Coalition also spoke about Syria, Trident and the upcoming Trade Union Bill, each of which was greeted with rapturous applause, especially when union representatives asked for a show of solidarity with their members.
Overall the day was incredibly peaceful and everybody was simultaneously proud to be part of the anti-Tory movement whilst also being incredibly upbeat, although that could well have been as a result of the frequent drumming and the almost permanent aroma of marijuana that was in the air (a big thank you to the Greens for that). The most significant political aspect of the day was that the people that spoke, either before the march began or at the end, was that almost all of them agreed that should the Trade Union Bill pass the union bosses will encourage civil disobedience and possibly ignoring the law altogether in order to defeat it. It was repeatedly mentioned that Tory MP David Davis may oppose the government over the Trade Union Bill, which should show how vindictive the legislation would be; but what was more interesting was how many trade unionists I spoke to were willing to sacrifice days, sometimes weeks, of pay by going out as a part of a general strike to defeat the bill. If the Tories listened to anything the protesters said, I would consider the threat of a general strike as a real possibility.