UK: Anti-austerity rally at ruling party conference

Left-wing groups criticise cuts to public services as ruling Conservative Party holds annual conference in Birmingham.

Birmingham protest by Al Jazeera
This was the first major protest against the government's austerity policies since the re-election of Corbyn as Labour Party leader [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Birmingham, UK – Thousands of protesters have rallied against the British government’s cuts to public services as members of the ruling Conservative Party gathered for its annual conference.

Sunday’s protest, which started a short distance from the conference, drew a coalition of left-wing groups, including members of the opposition Labour Party, trade unions and student activists.

The diverse grouping of protesters flowed through Birmingham’s city centre, shouting slogans against Theresa May, the UK prime minister, and in support of her Labour rival, Jeremy Corbyn.

The rally was the first major protest against the government’s austerity policies since the re-election of Corbyn as Labour party leader last week and May becoming prime minister in June.

Government cuts to public services and the welfare system gathered pace after the Conservative Party took power in 2010 as part of a coalition.

The protest started a short distance from the Conservative Party annual conference [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
The protest started a short distance from the Conservative Party annual conference [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

It later secured majority rule after the 2015 general election.

The policies have affected most aspects of public life, with tuition fees increasing almost threefold – from nearly $4,000 in 2010 to more than $11,600 today – and cuts to benefits available to the country’s poorest.

Shelly Asquith, vice president of the National Union of Students and an introductory speaker at the rally, said there was anger at the government for the severity of austerity policies.

“Students are angry at the way our grants have been cut [and] our fees are set to rise,” Asquith told Al Jazeera.

“It’s important that we resist austerity in every way possible. A sustained presence of thousands on the streets shows there are many of us who are angry and unwilling to let them tear up public services without a fight.”

Turning point

Colin Griffiths, a trade unionist with the GMB union, told Al Jazeera that Corbyn’s re-election signalled a turning point in the left’s fight against government cuts.

“We’ve got ground-level support, the Labour Party now is the biggest party in Europe, so there’s obviously something [Corbyn] is saying that’s striking people,” Griffiths said.

Last year, the UK became the first country to be investigated by the United Nations for alleged violations against people with disabilities.

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Disability rights activists accuse the government of causing deaths through the withdrawal of welfare payments to the disabled and cuts to care services.

Carl Phillips, a member of Unison, one of the largest trade unions in the UK, said the government had made it more difficult for people with disabilities to become self-sufficient.

“We’re fighting against the unjust cuts to disability benefits and access to work schemes, which helped empower disable people get back into or stay in work.

“Without schemes like that, disabled people have to live on handouts, which most of them do not want to do.”

Uncertainty over finances

While not a supporter of Corbyn or of the Labour Party, Phillips said more people were starting to understand the importance of public-sector infrastructure and were increasingly getting involved in safeguarding institutions.

The rally in Birmingham comes amid uncertainty over British finances following the country’s  vote to leave the European Union in June.

The British government brought in austerity policies ostensibly to reduce its sovereign debt and fiscal deficit, but the amount the government owes has gone up from just under a £1 trillion in 2010 to more than £1.61 trillion today.

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Opposition politicians, like the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon, have linked the vote to leave the EU to the “economic and social cost” of austerity.

In comments made to the BBC on Sunday, May said that the UK would begin negotiations to break away for the bloc in March next year.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Matthew Goodwin, a political analyst, said: “Voters are pretty divided over what they want from this Brexit negotiation. Some say ‘I want to be in the single market, that economic relationship is really important to me’.

“Others, typically Leavers who voted for Brexit, are saying, ‘Actually for me, the economy is second to getting control on free movement’, so Theresa May has a very rocky road ahead on how to satisfy a divided electorate.”

Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM

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Source: Al Jazeera