Friday, June 29, 2012

The people's PR by Ian Walker (New Society 14 May 1981)

Today's Ian Walker article dates from May '81 and is a report from the TUC's People March for Jobs, which was a march from Liverpool to London in protest against then rising unemployment in Britain. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, I guess. I was hoping a google search would reveal some good links that would provide more info and history on the march and its background, but to no avail. However, I did find some marvelous pictures of the march instead. Check them out here, here and here. The first link leads you to a selection of Martin Jenkinson pictures, who was the official photographer of the march. Sadly, my internet search reveals that he just passed away this past month. More info on this interesting man is provided at the following link.
The people's PR

It is a protest march 1981-style, a PR procession with the thematic logo on the green banner up front repeated on the green anoraks of the marchers behind.

We are waiting for the late-risers, still shifting their rucksacks from the gym of Salford technical college to the two trucks loading up outside. We move off towards Manchester at just gone eleven, after the march leader, who looks like a scoutmaster in his army surplus jumper, has offered up three cheers for the overnight hosts.

Four hundred symbols of the two and a half million unemployed walk out, on day five of the march, past squares of rubble and medium-rise council blocks and a building labelled Co-op Funeral Services.

"What's that?" says one of the marchers.

"Don't know. Socialist burials I suppose."

Two old women standing by a zebra crossing put down their shopping to clap the marchers, who return the compliment. A punk behind me in the march says he hopes there's a riot or something, sometime, to liven things up.

The sun is out. Paul has tied his anorak round his waist. He is 16, from Halewood, and was in town with his mother when he saw the march come through on May Day. His mother said how nice it would have been if Paul could have been on it. When he got home, he started packing. "She nearly died," Paul says. But she couldn't stop him.

He arrived without credentials, without sponsorship from a union, but somehow managed to join up - got given the papers and the T-shirt and the anorak. Paul only left school six weeks ago. "My feet are killing me. New boots. Apart from that, it's been great."

A small crowd has gathered on the edge of Salford. Showing above the well-wishers is a red banner which says that 6,553 are unemployed in the borough. More ritual chants of "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie (out, out, out)" as the march stops for a quickie speech from Stan Orme, the MP for Salford West. Paul is telling me that the marchers are given ten or 20 fags a day.

" . . . And a return to full employment. Thank you very much." Stan Orme has finished. The march crosses the border into Manchester. Phil, who finally got sponsored by NALGO, is one of the Socialist Workers' Party contingent here. He says that a short time before the march was due to start, the TUC had still had only 70 applications. And so they came to the SWP, veterans of the Right to Work marches, for help. The march has, it seems, depended on the local contacts of the SWP, the Workers' Revolutionary Party and the Labour Party Young Socialists.

Phil studied philosophy for three years at the North London poly, then dropped out before taking his finals. He thinks Nietzsche is under-rated.

Because the march is ahead of time, it stops at a T-junction, over the road from a pub called the Jollies, for 20 minutes. A couple of marchers fall asleep on the pavement. A Scouser, an electrician who works in the Barbican during the week and goes home at weekends, says his union sent him up because they thought the employed should be solid with the unemployed. He stays at the Barbican YMCA.

"You can only get digs in the Barbican YMCA if you work in the City," he says. "And you can only work in the City if you're in the upper classes. So I said I was a dentist. My mate said he was an electrician. He didn't get in."

First reception in Manchester is in a pedestrian precinct. A delegation of old age pensioners hold up a DIGNITY IN RETIREMENT banner. The marchers, as always, return the applause and recite a few more Maggie chants. Local worthies queue up to speak into a megaphone which isn't powerful enough to reach more than 50 or so marchers clustered round the front of the steps in this square, which is planted with young trees.

"Some of you may well belong to churches," begins the Bishop of Manchester, hopefully.

Walking to Manchester town hall, I talk to a young woman who also did a stint (two years) at a polytechnic before jacking it in. She thinks the stewards, many of them Communist Party members, are sexist and authoritarian. She has thrown away her green anorak in disgust. There are only 30 women officially on this march, and they aren't allowed to walk at the front. The final straw for her was this morning when she was told that she could only wear her black PVC armband, in honour of Bobby Sands, underneath her anorak.

The right to lurk
Up the street named after John Dalton, the man who defined colour blindness, past Rational House, the march shuffles up the steps of Manchester town hall.

"We're marching for the right to lurk," says a punk in dirty red jeans, dog collar round his neck. "Brilliant place to lurk," he adds, taking in his gothic surrounds: the high arches and the stained-glass windows, the tableaux celebrating famous Mancunians.

More speeches and more statistics: there is 14.5 per cent unemployment in Manchester, and 40 per cent of the workless are under 25. A rep for the Bishop (who had to go catch a train) says, to loud applause, that he was on the Jarrow march. He then spoils it a bit by saying he wasn't on it for that long, and he didn't walk that far.

I sit on a table watching the marchers eating their pork pies and baps. A man who used to work at Dunlop in Speke, before it closed down, sits down beside me. He's been on the dole two years, hasn't been able to take his wife and two children away on holiday for three years.

At 3 pm, the march moves off to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, where everyone is being put up in the building named after Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb. I talk to a pensioner, who went to live in Llangollen after he retired. He used to be a building worker. Why did he come on the march?

"Because I recollect the thirties and those terrible things," he says.

There is a vigil for Bobby Sands in the town at 4.30, and a delegation is going down. About 30 of us troop out, checked at the revolving doors by a steward who makes sure no one is wearing their People's March anorak.

I walk down to Piccadilly Gardens with a man in a brown donkey jacket. From Liverpool, he says he's self-educated working class. "Least I was working class. Now I'm one of the outs. If you know what I mean."

Standing in the rain outside Chelsea Girl, the black PVC armband protesters chant, "Bobby Sands was murdered. Political status now,"and hand out yellow roneo'd leaflets to the people rushing for buses. Some passers-by look angry. Most just look confused. The rain gets harder and, after an hour, the protesters file back to UMIST.

Over at the New Century Hall in the CWS building, there is a People's March entertainment organised by War on Want. The Houghton Weavers do a medley of protest numbers, including We shall overcome and Blowing in the wind, followed by a song written specially for the march, entitled, We want work. Gerald Kaufman, MP for Manchester Ardwick, joins in the conga round a huge dance-floor.

"All the way from Moss Side," says the compere, with just a soupcon of racism, introducing the steel band, Tropical Heatwave. When they've finished their set the bass guitarist, Ken, walks to the back of the hall to talk to a girlfriend. She says that he wasn't up there for long.

"Yeah. Get it over nice and quick," says Ken. "Then you don't have so much work to do. Who wants work?  . . .  Well, this lot do."

Next morning at nine, some people are still fast asleep in their bags at Barnes Wallis. Plates of beans and fried-eggs lie around half-eaten.

Today is a rest day. Most are taking it easy. But the politicos are splitting up into delegations, taking their message to the factory gates. I join a group of twelve going out to an occupation at Holman Michell lead works in St Helens.

Men stand above the barbed wire they have stretched across the blue gates of Holman Michell. The marchers, all wearing their anoraks on this expedition, are let through the door and invited into the canteen for a cup of tea.

Ron Dickson, pouring out the tea, says they occupied the factory on 22 April, after management announced they were making 15 redundancies. And now all 28 of the occupation force have been sacked. Ron says they've got nothing to lose. He adds that he has had 18 weeks off sick in the last nine months because of high lead levels in his blood.

Ray Harper, a fitter, says he thinks it's good that the marchers have come along this morning. "Great. It gives you a lift. Been a fortnight now. You tend to flag a bit." The men here do 16 hours a day, on average, at the occupation. A bell rings. Ray looks at his watch. It's 11.45. "That's for dinner-time."

One of Ray's son is leaving school at Whitsun. "There's nothing for him," he says. "He's applied for at least 15 jobs that I know of. He's studying now for his exams and that. I tell him they're important. But he says to me, "What's the point, when there's nothing when I leave?'"

An unemployed boilermaker on the march, Dave Huyton, joins in our conversation. He says that the idea of the march is to stir people from their television sets. Ray says he is a Tony Benn supporter. Dave is in the middle of the usual spiel about the People's March being above politics, when we're all summoned outside for the pictures.

The four photographers want the workers and marchers lined up by the blue gates, underneath the barbed wire. "Can we get a couple of placards?" one of the photographers asks. The placards are fetched. One says: "Fighting to save jobs. Fighting to save St Helens." Another" "Enter here and walk back in time/" They get propped up. A few fists point skywards.

The pictures done, the marchers file out the gates towards their orange Transit. One more routine Maggie-out chant, and it is on to the picket line at nearby United Glass. Everyone says goodbye with clenched fists.
14 May 1981

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