London Calling: From Peoples March 1981 to Workfare labour 2012

John Curran

Image © John Keogh

In the spring of 1981 the UK was in the early stages of a monetarist revolution linked to the economic philosophy of Milton Friedman. Keith Joseph the principal advocate of the `Chicago School’ was forced to abandon his ambition of leading the British Conservative Party after delivering a speech about cycles of depravation where the perceived feckless behaviour of the poor was held to be the key to understanding poverty. The leadership baton was handed to his feisty acolyte and former Conservative Education Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who gained fame in the 1970s, “as Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher”.

Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister in May 1979. Her first words those of Saint Francis of Assisi, uttered as she entered Downing Street, sounded increasingly hollow as the inner cities went up in flames and a war ensued over the Falkland Islands invasion.  Her doctrine at home was the `Resolute Approach` and abroad she earned the new nickname of `Iron Lady.’

Mrs Thatcher faced early opposition from many quarters. She confronted her first enemy within, not the political left but elements of her own cabinet a faction of `One Nation Tories’ contemptuously described as `wets.’ These liberal Tories viewed her agenda as anathema, adhering as they did to an economic orthodoxy forged in the post war consensus. However, the Conservative victory in 1979 was viewed as a mandate to overturn the Keynesian settlement to restructure the UK economy and in doing so laying waste the industrial heartlands of Britain.

The economy moved away from its manufacturing base as the population transformed from producer to consumer. Mrs Thatcher faced opposition from organised labour.  She set her sights on the British trade union movement learning the lessons of the recent past, her ultimate battle between the nation’s coal miners would take place in 1984 but she vanquished the Steel Workers first. She was determined her economic agenda would not succumb to the U turn in policy that had blighted her Tory predecessor Edward Heath.  Mrs Thatcher ploughed on with an economic strategy that eventually saw three million people join the ranks of the unemployed while elements of society benefitted rationalising that unemployment was “a price worth paying”.

The experience of the jobless in 1981 contrasts dramatically from their 2012 counterparts.  The unemployed 31 years ago may not have realised it but they were powerful, they had a voice and representation. They experienced economic pain and difficulty but this was mitigated by other factors. They belonged to close knit communities which were dominated by a shared experience and empowered by a collective network of support and resources.  To paraphrase the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, they were in the economic mess together.

The jobless of 1981 had a hinterland a culture of political representation. Yes, they were without work but they were also politically resourceful and capable of making a stand; they had lost their jobs but not their dignity.

In the late spring of 1981 the unemployed of Britain demonstrated their ability to fight back. They organised themselves and massed together to demand the right to work and an end to the indignity of the dole queue.

The TUC organised a mass march on London with representatives of the jobless from every corner of the UK, designed to replicate the Jarrow march of the 1930s. In 1981 five-hundred unemployed people from the nation’s industrial areas set off from their respective communities and walked to London together in unity.  They were invited to the nation’s capital as guests by a charismatic newcomer and firebrand having just become leader of the GLC, Mr Ken Livingstone.  His first act as leader was to invite five hundred unemployed as his personal guests and opened the doors of County Hall placing the building at the disposal of the jobless. The marchers were given free and open access to County Hall and slept on the floor of the building on camp beds which apparently had been designated for civil servants to be used at the time of a nuclear attack on London.

As the marchers walked through the country on route to London special events, concerts and civic functions, including what appeared to be lavish meals, were put on by supportive labour councils.  In locations where the political administration was antagonistic to the demands of the marchers, local people such as church representatives from all denominations provided hospitality for the five hundred unemployed. In London, Sikh temples were opened providing free meals at their temples, the first experience many of the marchers had of Indian cuisine and cultural exchange. This was the `Big Society’ in action circa 1981.

In June 1981 the Marchers converged on the centre of London in a mass demonstration a quarter of a million people travelling in coaches and trains congregated to show their support for the unemployed.

How things have changed. In the late Spring of 2012 a cash strapped nation attempts to put on a show in honour of its head of state celebrating 60 years on the throne. The event, a precursor to the staging of the London Olympics, was designed to showcase the best of Britain to the world. The Jubilee party was undertaken in the midst of a savage economic downturn as the UK remains gripped by mass unemployment and public expenditure cuts. Paying for such a party when money was too tight to mention is a question currently ignored. But the unemployed were invited to participate in the Jubilee celebration, lest they should feel excluded.

According to Guardian journalist Shiv Malik a group of unemployed people in receipt of Jobseekers allowance were bussed into the capital from various locations for the pleasure of working for no wages in support of the celebrations:

Two jobseekers, who did not want to be identified in case they lost their benefits, said they had to camp under London Bridge the night before the pageant.

According to Shiv Malik a security firm utilised 30 unpaid staff as part of the activity:

The firm said it had spent considerable resources on training and equipment that stewards could keep and that the experience was voluntary and did not affect jobseekers keeping their benefits.

Those who marched to London in 1981 walked between twenty or thirty miles a day often along motorways and in torrential rain, they got sore feet but their hearts were free. Despite their long walk to the capital the journey had dignity especially compared to those transported to London in 2012 for the jubilee celebration. It seems the quid pro quo operating for the jobless in 2012 was to work for nothing during the ‘holiday weekend’:

The woman said that people were picked up at Bristol at 11pm on Saturday and arrived in London at 3am on Sunday. “We all got off the coach and we were stranded on the side of the road for 20 minutes until they came back and told us all to follow them,” she said. “We followed them under London Bridge and that’s where they told us to camp out for the night … It was raining and freezing.”

The splendours of County Hall were not available to the unemployed in 2012. This is because the jobless of 1981 existed in a dramatically different society to that of their counterparts 31 years ago.  The experience of the jobless today is more isolated and a less collective one where the capacity to organise appears lost. The unemployment in the 1980s focussed on concentrated industries and communities, today it’s just as prevalent but dispersed throughout communities there is no uniformity of experience as there was in the 1980s.

The Marchers in 1981 supported each other and had a common bond realising that together people are strong, isolated they are weak.  However, the marchers in 1981 and the unemployed in 2012 have one important feature in common, their shared humanity and it is time the unemployed of 2012 exercised this humanity and make those in power aware of it.

 A good start is the recent call from former Deputy Prime Minister for a public Inquiry into the events at the Jubilee weekend. Perhaps he should also have a word with his colleagues at the TUC and suggest they organise a `Peoples March For Jobs 2013’ and for the jobless to reclaim the streets of London in a colourful pageant reminiscent of 1981.


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