I had thought at first I was going to be late to meet Anne and her daughter Sarah, but the traffic and buses were in my favour for once. I’d agreed to meet them both at the Oxford Road end of Brunswick Street at 11:30, and arrived at quarter past 11 to find them both waiting for me. Prior to that, I’d walked past two empty police horse boxes on Brunswick Street (closed, much to the bemusement of residents) and seen the swathes of coaches transporting march attendees play merry hell with the traffic trying to run the rat run behind Oxford Road, which was also closed.
There were a lot of people already on Oxford Road as we walked down, and we found the Unison section assembling, as planned, by the Aquatics Centre. The atmosphere was rather reminiscent of an assembling carnival, and we even had a PA system and DJ (we think it was Clint Boon), not to mention John Robb as emcee and Billy Bragg playing live. This at once felt much more high powered and glitzy than the previous two TUC marches I’ve been on, but also much more carnival. Not that previous marches haven’t been entertaining and fun, but they haven’t had entertainment laid on. It was the difference between the Arena and the Academy: Sophisticated and innovative use of big screens and PA systems all along the line. There were also speeches from the head of the TUC, head of Unite, and head of the Students Union. Later, we also had the head of Unison, but his speech was timed to coincide with a point when the march on the move and the Unison contingent were going past him and the stage by All Saints Park. As we were trying to simultaneously navigate the narrowing road and the media block, this meant I was paying less attention to him than to previous speakers.
In the early stages, before we moved off, we all got a chance to admire each others banners. Given recent allegations about David Cameron’s antics as a young man, there were lots of pig related banners, inflatable pigs and so on. I overheard one man trying to explain the banners all around them to the young child accompanying him:
“Well, when David Cameron was a young man, he… was very… unkind to a pig.”
We had to wait an awfully long time on Oxford Road before setting off. The start time was 12, but it was nearly 2 by the time we set off. Anne’s knees are bad so we watched part of Billy Bragg’s set and the speeches from the vantage point of the window sills outside Geoffrey Manton building. While we were seated we had the unwelcome chance to observe innumerable people, including many small children, stumbling about as they tried to navigate the hostile architecture between the pavement and the windowsills, which takes the form of hedgehog spikes of upturned bricks.
When we did set off, the Mancunian Way flyover slowed down the huge balloons that at least two unions were making use off, which gave us time to take in the homeless protest under the flyover. A smaller spin off of the one in St Peter’s Square perhaps?
We turned off down Portland Street, then went left, down a series of side roads and side streets towards Albert Square and the town hall. It was at this point that I heard one woman say to a friend that their friends were in a bit of the march that was still on Oxford Road. There was some intermittent chanting, and I was pleased to hear ‘WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!’ again. ‘Build a bonfire’ has been adapted, with the bankers now taking the place of the Lib Dems in the middle. Along the route we passed various people declaiming political polemics on various corners with an inspiring amount of conviction and passion, and as we headed towards Deansgate and Castlefield we passed a fantastic drum orchestra. We didn’t get anywhere near as close to GMEX, or even the Midland Hotel, as last time, or the time before, but we did get to make a lot of noise and sing along rousingly to Pulp’s ‘Common People’ as we drew towards the nearest possible point to the conference hall.
It was as Pulp segued into Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ that I realised how reliant the playlist had been on ’90s Britpop. Earlier on Oxford Road, there’d been some punk (Clash ‘Rock The Casbah’, Jam ‘Eton Rifles’), the Smiths, some standard rebel rousing anthems (‘Get Up, Stand Up’, ‘My Generation’, ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’) and Billy Bragg was playing union friendly anthems like ‘Power of the union’ and ‘World turned upside down’, plus Woody Guthrie’s ‘You Fascists Are Bound To Lose’. It’s a shame there weren’t any more modern records though (surely the students could have provided some suggestions?) and it makes me wonder if modern pop is considered lacking in stridency, or made by posh people. Some of it is, certainly, but surely not all of it? Poppy and the Jezebel’s 2012 hymn to youth unemployment ‘Sign In, Dream On, Drop Out’ would have been a good start. And if they’d wanted a good, but less used, ’80s one they could have had Sade ‘When Am I Gonna Make A Living?’ I suspect Doyle and the Fourfathers ‘Welcome To Austerity’ would have been construed too downbeat though.
Overall, the atmosphere on the march was very carnival and jubilant. There was even a report being filmed in the midst of it all, near Deansgate. Possibly Granada Tonight. Some of the students ambushed it, natch. All along the route people have been handing out leaflets and newspapers, so I’ve returned home with a whole bag full of stuff, mainly socialist, some anti-racist, one for Animal Aid, one to do with NHS reforms in Manchester and Greater Manchester, plus Left Unity, The Morning Star, and the People’s Assembly newsletter.
The People’s Assembly were doing the rally at the end of the march, but we were a bit knackered by then, so headed home from Castlefield to Piccadilly via the bewilderingly genteel and gentrified King Street and St Ann’s Square, and the usual chaos of Market Street. We had thought that our bus stops had been moved for the day but the two day rave in Piccadilly had been shut down we saw, according to a screen with a rolling news feed on it on Market Street. What with the rave and the Britpop soundtrack, the day had a vaguely ’90s feel to it. This echoed the feeling of deja vu I had last week when I heard about government plans to restrict the length of cordoned off road allowed for ongoing roadworks to 1 mile at a time. I haven’t heard any more about this since, but my first thought on hearing the story was that it was John Major and the cones hotline all over again.
As we headed down Market Street we could see the progress of the rest of the march whenever we looked left down a side street, and we finally began to feel that we’d lost the police helicopter that seemed to have been following us since Oxford Road. The union bosses estimated that 80,000 people marched today but the 6pm bulletin on Radio 4 reported the police figure as being 60,000, which is still 10,000 more than the police figure for the 2013 TUC march.
The People’s Assembly are running events all week during the Tory Party conference, and are putting attendees up in Sugden Sports Hall. You can find out about their events in Manchester this week by visiting their website. Their next event is The People’s Assembly Morning Briefing at 10:30am in Central Hall on Oldham Street, which features a speech from Natalie Bennett, and there are number of additional protests and marches planned tomorrow, and throughout the week.