Though more than three decades apart, the problems facing working people in 1981 were not dissimilar to those we face today in 2016.
A Conservative government then had its grip on power as it does now – both prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron were single-minded in their ideological obsession with austerity and laissez faire politics.
The result was both in 1980s and in 2010s the sundering of entire communities as joblessness and cuts to public services took their toll.
1981 too, marked the year of the People’s March for Jobs, in which 500 jobless people marched from Liverpool all the way down to London, where the marchers presented Parliament with a petition bearing the signatures of 250,000 calling for change.
Starting on May 1, the march covered 280 miles and ended a month later on June 1.
Last month, inspired by his father Paul Carter, who was a UCATT trade union organiser and one of the main coordinators of the march, Guardian journalist and author Mike Carter decided to follow his father’s footsteps on the same day the marchers set off from Liverpool, thirty-five years ago to the day.
“Once again, we have a savage right-wing government in the early days of its programme. Again, we have a divided opposition, struggling to gain traction with an alternative narrative,” Carter noted in the Guardian.
“Again, we are seeing brutal austerity and cuts to the welfare state, with communities getting destroyed.
“It feels to me as if we are standing on the edge of an abyss,” he added. “What better time, then, to retrace the steps of those 1981 marchers, and of my father, who died a few years ago.”
Following the exact same route as his father and hundreds of others, and staying in the same exact towns, Mike Carter was joined on his journey by others looking to recapture that spirit of 1981.
Unite member Tom Skehan, who’s worked at the Birmingham Registry Office for the last 13 years, was one trade union member who joined Carter on the march last month.
“Mike [Carter] is a good friend of mine and we’re both committed socialists,” Skehan said, explaining why he decided to join the march. “I too see many parallels between what was happening in 1981 and what’s happening now.”
‘Gap is wider’
“In many ways, what’s happening now is actually worse,” Skehan added. “The gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has grown much wider since 1981. The press has grown ever closer to the establishment, and they’ve worked together to give many people this perception that austerity is something necessary.”
Skehan, who joined Carter for 13 miles between Coventry and Nuneaton, noted that the fight against austerity is one that’s particularly close to his heart as a local government worker.
“Public sector workers are being constantly asked to sacrifice more and more – to take less pay and to simply accept worse terms and conditions,” he said. “We have to stand up together and say, ’No this is wrong’.”
Carter, who earlier this week finished walking the entire route of the original 1981 march, will be documenting his experiences in an upcoming book.
“The 1981 march was intentionally meant to go through the UK’s industrial heartlands,” he told UNITElive.
“And so retracing the marchers’ steps took me through so many of these communities that have been devastated by decades of neoliberalism.
“One thing I noticed on my journey was that a lot these same towns are now dominated by bookmakers and charity shops.”
Before setting off last month, Carter found an old documentary of the 1981 march.
“I was struck by this proud sense of the participants and those who came to greet them as they made their way to London that they had the power to change things,” he said. “There was this unshakeable optimism; this feeling that what was happening to them was a terrible mistake but that together they could force politicians to listen to them.”
Carter believes that, nearly four decades later, much of that spirit has dissipated.
“We have seen the utter betrayal of politicians who’ve let people down – that elastic that binds the politicians with the electorate they’re meant to serve has been cut. This marginalisation that people feel can be seen in how low voter turnout in elections has fallen.
“And you can see it in the utter contempt that politicians have for the people,” he added. “[Health secretary] Jeremy Hunt’s treatment of junior doctors is just one of the more recent examples.”
But that same spirit of 1981, Carter notes, can again be galvanized.
“The greatest effect that neoliberalism has had is the atomisation of individuals and the fragmentation of communities,” he explained. “Building communities with common interests will be at the core of future progress. When you have a community, you realize you have something worth fighting for.”
While Carter argues that this has been one of the most difficult times for progressives “Just look at how the media rails against, for example, Jeremy Corbyn or Len McCluskey” – he believes too that the neoliberal model of unfettered capitalism has failed, it is nearing its demise, and people know it.
“I’m not sure what it will be, but there will be a catalyst that will eventually bring about change,” he said. “But in the mean time we must keep fighting; we must keep marching forward.”
All photos are by Martin Jenkinson Images/press photos.co.uk
Main pic of AEUW Construction Section members on the People’s March for Jobs, Yorkshire to London. Market Harborough May 18, 1981
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