Originally North Staffs TUC and North Staffs Against Cuts (the protest groups initiated by the trades council) had planned to march from the centre of Burslem to the centre of Hanley. This would have more or less taken the same route as the 500-strong demo in solidarity with the Burslem 12 almost three years ago, which, if memory serves, presented zero policing issues. On this occasion, and in stark contrast to the helpful accommodation greeting last January's anti-fascist protest against the EDL's visit to Stoke, the police made plain their displeasure. Under Section 12 of the Public Order Act (which allows the police to impose conditions on processions if they "reasonably believe" there's scope for disorder, crime, and intimidation) the police initially wanted to bill the Trades Council for £1,100 policing costs before telling it a march was unacceptable. Under Section 14 of the same they threatened to serve us with a notice if we protested outside the usual venue of Hanley Town Hall. Instead we were confined to the delightful surrounds of Lichfield Street car park just opposite the bus station. I can only assume the uniformed bureaucrat making the decision saw what happened in London and feared scenes of students scaring shoppers with witty signage.
Despite the pre-match chicanery the protest was a success. About 120 people turned up to hear lots of punchy *but short* speeches and network with other anti-cuts activists, trade unionists, Trots, and the occasional Labour bod. It kicked off with a Save Buttercups Nursery campaigner. The nursery, which is owned and subsidised by University Hospital of North Staffordshire want to close it as part of a cost-saving exercise. However, the speaker argued that hospital management hadn't even looked seriously at the alternative proposals parents had put forward. These would see it established as a going concern *without* the subsidy. It would seem the campaign has to struggle as much against bureaucratic stupidity as penny-pinching. N Staffs TUC president Jason Hill then read out a message received from local MP Tristram Hunt, who apologised for not attending but condemned the Coalition's programme and gave his backing to campaigns against the closures of threatened utilities and SureStart centres.
Local trade unionists then took turns with the mic. Colin Walton of City Unison branch gave a tub-thumping speech arguing that there are alternatives to the cuts, alternatives the Tories are simply not interested in. Jenny Harvey of the City's health branch of Unison also condemned the Tories' plans, which would lock the country into a spiral of decline. "This is not the Big Society, but the Big Business Society", she concluded. We heard from a Job Centre worker who talked about the job cuts facing her workplace, even though its use remains at historically high levels. She also talked about cuts to the HMRC workforce, which will mean many taxes will go uncollected at a time of a supposed crisis of public finance. A disabled comrade spoke about how she'd never been active before but felt she had to get stuck in as services depended on by those more vulnerable than her were threatened. A SWP-supporting student from Staffs Uni talked about the student protests and being at Millbank, but made a tool of himself by letting 'fuck' fly a couple of times. Not wise on a family-friendly event with plenty of plod in attendance, one of whom "had a word" afterwards. But nevertheless his calls for unity were welcome. Another comrade spoke with his Youth Fight for Jobs hat on about the need to link up students, young workers and the wider working class. And the event* was wrapped up by Andy Bentley of the local Socialist Party who outlined what was happening next, beginning with a lobby outside the Civic Centre in Stoke Town this Thursday lunch time.
I thought the protest was an excellent beginning to the anti-cuts movement in Stoke. While there was some criticism of the City Council (Stoke is governed by a coalition in which Labour is the largest component) everyone present skillfully trod the tightrope of being very critical without making the Labour-trade union link an issue that can harm unified activity. While some may have been disappointed with the numbers given the strength of protests elsewhere (for instance, where were the left-populist anti-cuts Community Voice grouping?), there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful about future prospects. Give or take, practically every usual suspect was there. So were veteran activists who've been reactivated by the cuts and the enthusiasm of the student protests. But more importantly about half were people I've never seen on any kind of action in N Staffs before, and pleasingly they ensured the TUC/NSAC stall was busy throughout the rally.
So many congratulations to the comrades who undertook the difficult and frustrating work of navigating differences within the local labour movement and dealing with the police. Saturday's rally marked an important beginning for a movement that could shape politics in Stoke-on-Trent for many years to come.
Photo by Chuzzlewit.
*Apologies to anyone I've missed out.