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Tens of Thousands Gather Across the UK to Protest Conservative Austerity Measures

Just over a month after the Conservative Party won five more years in power, hordes of unhappy British citizens took to the streets to protest.

by Sally Hayden
Jun 20 2015, 8:45pm

Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the United Kingdom on Saturday to protest against anti-austerity measures.

Just over six weeks after the Conservative Party came to power in a surprising election result, massive demonstrations were held in London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow.

The largest gathering was in London, where hordes met outside the Bank of England in central part of the capital before joining the march to the Houses of Parliament.

Fresh bail restrictions were imposed on some activists in advance of the protests, leading critics to accuse the police of staging a politically motivated crackdown ahead of what was anticipated to be the biggest anti-austerity protest of the year. Demonstrators also issued calls against fracking, the treatment of migrants, welfare cuts, homelessness, and badger culling, while one woman was calling for the legalization of sex work.

The British government has said that austerity measure are essential in order to cut the country's deficit.

Some protesters held signs with comical sayings like "Winter is coming," "Heaven knows we're miserable now," and "Cut Boris's hair, not welfare," a reference to London Mayor Boris Johnson and his lengthy blond locks. 

Kerie Ann, assistant branch secretary of Tower Hamlets UNISION, a public service trade union, told VICE News she decided to protest because she'd had enough of Conservative austerity.

"I'm a social worker so I see firsthand what these brutal policies are doing to some of the most vulnerable people in society and we can't let it go without challenging it," she said. "I'm protesting for all of my cases."

Related: Conservative Party Sweeps UK Election and Three Opposition Leaders Resign

Kerie Ann, assistant branch secretary of Tower Hamlets Unison union. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Before the main march started, the crowd assembled in "blocs," including the anti-racism/anti-fascism bloc, housing, National Health Service, and welfare bloc, and the local people's assemblies bloc.

In the education bloc, campaigner Owen Jones spoke from one of the stages before the march began. "We're here because this is a launch pad for something else," he shouted.

When asked how the crowd felt about immigrants, they responded with the chant: "Let them in." This was later replaced by: "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts."

Standing on the side of the street with left-wing anarchist group Class War — who were throwing smoke bombs — a 44-year-old man who gave his name as "Church of Punk" told VICE News that he had come because "homelessness has gone up 55 percent. 50,000 families have been pushed out of London. There's gentrification going on worldwide."

Asked whether protesting is an effective way of influencing change, he responded, "It's got its place, but they still don't listen."

Related: Should We Stay or Should We Go? Britain to Decide on its European Future

"Church of Punk," 44. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Farther down the road, a group from the Sussex Marxist Society chanted "What solution? Revolution," and waved a Chinese flag.

Behind them, holding a banner for left-wing Spanish political party Podemos, was 42-year-old Antonio Jimemez. Originally from Spain but living in London, he told VICE News he was protesting because of "this crisis we have in Europe."

"Some people in the UK haven't noticed the crisis but in other areas the crisis is really there so people are suffering a lot," he said. "It's the same thing we've got in Spain. One part of the population hasn't been affected by the crisis but one of the main consequences has been the cuts that were supporting the more vulnerable in Spain."

Jimemez said he used to work in a bank and has a lot of friends who are in no way affected by austerity. "But [they need to] apply a bit of empathy," he said, "and remember that their education was paid for by the country or by their fathers or mothers. If you don't have money and the government doesn't support you, how are you supposed to afford that?"

Sheffield Marxists protest against austerity. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

After more than an hour of walking, the group came to Parliament Square in Westminster, where they heard speeches from activists, including comedian Russell Brand, singer Charlotte Church, and Labour Party leader hopeful Jeremy Corbyn.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite trade union, told the assembled crowd, "If they think they won the war of austerity on May 7 they'd better think again." Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he planned on fighting "right-wing Thatcher-ite policies."

Shouting from a stage at Westminster, a spokesperson from the People's Assembly, an anti-austerity group and the organizers of the march, said there could be a quarter of a million people in attendance, though other estimates put the figure at around 75,000.

"I think bigger protests like this will [change something]," Richard Stones, a 27-year-old student from Blackburn, told VICE News. "I think there has to be more activism that goes into communities and changes people who have never engaged in this sort of thing, because they outnumber everyone."

Stones said he would have demonstrated no matter who won the recent election. "For me it's an anti-austerity protest against the climate of austerity amongst all the main parties," he said. "Even if Labour were in power I would have protested."

Eoin, a 25-year-old youth worker who asked VICE News only to use his first name, said he came because "I think that Tory policies, austerity policies disproportionately affect the vulnerable in society. My working experience would be working with young migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and I can see the effects day to day.

"The people affected by the Tory vote don't really have a voice," he added. "They're not mobilized in the same way that other people are."

Rebecca Piper, 20, protesting with Animal Aid. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Rebecca Piper, 20, traveled from Essex to march with Animal Aid. "Not only are we protesting on behalf of people but we're protesting on behalf of the animals that can't be here," she said. "The Tory government wants to bring in a lot of things that will affect wildlife. They want to continue with the badger cull, they want to repeal the hunting ban, and these are obviously things that we're against."

Wearing an animal mask, Piper echoed the sentiments of many others there when she noted that the British electoral system means that the majority of UK voters didn't vote Conservative in May's general election. Gesturing around her, she said, "This is democracy. I don't think a bunch of people sat in a building making decisions for our country is okay. They have to listen to the people. They have to hear what the people want."

As the speeches carried on, some of the protesters set fire to placards in the middle of the square. Police surrounded the area and tried to extinguish the flames, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully.

Predictions of violence were largely unfulfilled, though at one point a group of masked protesters — reportedly the Black Bloc — broke away from the main demonstration to run down Waterloo Bridge, with many of them being cornered by a barrage of police on the other side.

No one stormed the stage in Parliament Square, though one man attempted to disrupt proceedings by scaling the roof of the stage, only to be stopped by security. 

VICE News's Areeb Ullah contributed to this report.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd