People Spent the Weekend Showing Their Contempt for the UK Government

Unsurprisingly, the disaster at Grenfell was at the forefront of protesters' minds.
June 18, 2017, 2:47pm
(NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images)

Most campaign slogans are discarded after elections, since they no longer serve a purpose. If they are picked up afterwards, it is either as an ironic rejoinder to the successful government (so much for the "change"!) or to cast retrospective gloom on the losing side. "For the Many, Not the Few" is peculiar. Nine days after the election returned a hung parliament, at a protest outside Whitehall yesterday – "No Coalition of Chaos with the DUP" – you could still hear the slogan on Labour supporters' lips: reprised into speeches, in conversation, on placards.


This is partly because, with another general election on the horizon, Jeremy Corbyn has instructed the party to stay in "permanent campaign mode", but it's also because the slogan, taken from the end of Shelley's poem "The Masque of Anarchy", describes a distribution of power and wealth in British society that remains true independent of election results – one that feels all the more visceral at the end of a week like this, with the blackened remains of Grenfell Tower in everyone's mind.

The protest was supposed to express opposition to the Prime Minister's plans to form an informal coalition with the far-right Democratic Unionist Party, but it naturally felt centred around recent events. The Prime Minister's craven, pitiful reaction to the fire in west London has alienated figures in her party and even usually supportive newspapers: "Tories Tell May: You Have Ten Days", was The Sunday Times's headline. There was a sense amongst the few thousand protesters that Grenfell represented both the "bankruptcy" of the "social order" that enabled it to happen, to quote the speech from co-organiser Owen Jones, and the fact that Theresa May's premiership appears to have lost popular consent. Her departure is now considered a self-evident truth. (Although, like all those other self-evident truths that have been proved wrong, it won't happen until it happens.)

Sarania and Nadia, two sixth form students from Shepherd's Bush, don't live far from Grenfell Tower, and went to "support and help out" on Wednesday. When I asked them how the week has been, Nadia paused before saying, "Intense."


"Personally, I'm glad [about] what's happening now: the protests, the so-called 'storming' of the town hall. I think it's completely justified," Sarania said. "The most disadvantaged working class people are the primary target of the Conservative government's policies, and no one can tell me any different." When I asked if she thinks Theresa May is going to resign, she wasn't sure: "She seems fixated on keeping her position… But it's not just her; it was Cameron as well. It's seven years of these debilitating measures."

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For Liam and Kaitlyn, primary school teachers who had come from Luton, it was a week that "really epitomised" this era of Conservative rule. "People have literally had to pay with their lives. £5,000 would have made that building safe," Liam told me, referring to a much-reported story in The Times on the cost of fireproof cladding.

Liam was unsure how to parse the prospect of May's response to the crisis. "As someone who wants Corbyn in, I want a weak Conservative leader," Liam said. "But this is beyond weak; this is embarrassingly weak. And at the end of the day, I don't trust her one bit. We need an election, regardless."

It was the first protest Kaitlyn had attended, and she was starting to appreciate being in a place where hundreds of other people think in a similar way to her. "Because we're teachers, [having a Conservative government] affects the children we teach," she said. "We see kids coming to school and we have to give them proper school uniforms."


"The government is taking this out on six-year-olds. What have they done?" Liam added.

The connections between electoral politics, Grenfell and the wider programme of austerity were being made on stage, too. Richard Seymour gave a brief history of the DUP and its relationship to paramilitary violence; another Northern Irish activist spoke about the potentially dire consequences on reproductive rights with the Christian fundamentalist party so close to power in Westminster; a nurse said her profession was prepared to launch a summer of industrial action to help bring a minority Tory government to its knees; Pilgrim Tucker, a housing activist who had worked with Grenfell Action Group, spoke about the fire's preventability and the council's dire treatment of its residents. In between speeches, calls of "Tories Out" and "Oh Jeremy Corbyn!" (to the tune of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army") rang out.

There was also a determined sense of fun. Muslim drag performer Amrou Al-Kadhi made a hilarious speech in which he joked that he was originally excited about talks with the DUP because he thought it stood for "double penetration", before performing a mesmerising reprise of Prince's "Purple Rain" with the words swapped in for lines about Theresa May.

The meme-ification of protest signs was on full show, too, with offerings from, "Say 'Strong and Stable' One More Time – I Dare You!" with an image of Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, to simple, effective puns: "Please May You Fuck Off". The protest ended in the late afternoon with a call to sing along to Labi Siffre's 1987 social justice anthem "Something Inside So Strong". A testament to just how young the crowd was is that most people didn't seem to know the words.