[The Liberal Democrat Spring Conference was held in Sheffield over this weekend. Yesterday, Saturday 12 March, there was an unusually large public protest reported on below by Vicky Seddon who is a city resident. It may be that the more important opposition occurred inside the Conference. There, Shirley Williams and Dr Evan Harris led a successful revolt against the Coaltion's plans for the NHS. In particular they opposed its marketisation. Back in November, I put this criticism to Nick Clegg and he didn't really seem to understand it. He does now. More important still, it may be that a principled alliance outside as well as within the Lib Dems and Labour is about to develop that cuts across public activism and party politics, what with the TUC march scheduled for 26th of March. I hope that OurKingdom will be able to cover the tensions and possibilities that will be created as there are likely to be more demonstrations like Sheffield's. Anthony Barnett]
The mood was lively; it was noisy and there was anger and frustration expressed both at the presence of the conference, and because of Nick Clegg's role in breaking promises on tuition fees and, as many perceived it, on doing politics differently. Promises on both counts had brought him many student votes in a city with two large universities. To say they are disappointed is an understatement. There were many young people, including school children, in the crowd of 4,000 - 5,000 yesterday and lots of trade union banners. There were also older people, public sectors workers and just ordinary citizens who don't like what the Tory-led Coalition is doing, with great concern and agitation expressed about the government's current plans for the NHS. The few young men with kerchiefs across their faces - or waving red revolutionary banners - were regarded by many protesters as slightly weird and out of place rather than threatening. People were determined to have a vigorous but orderly event, mindful of the negative publicity given to some earlier protests in London, and peaceful it was. One young man who climbed over the chain mail fence was manhandled by police.
The heavy police presence was certainly an overkill. The march, from Devonshire Green via Charter Square, saw police standing in groups along the way, rather than marching alongside the protesters. At one point, there was a line of police across Cambridge Street, though some people were allowed through, though it was not clear on what basis. Maybe if you looked like a respectable shopper going to John Lewis? There is a lot of anger in the City, quite apart from the views of demonstrators, about the £2m cost of policing the event, presumably to be borne by the city. Some of the young police men themselves quietly expressed frustration, wishing they could be getting on with tackling the crimes in their in-trays, rather than hanging around "in case" something happened. And with many fewer shoppers than usual for a Saturday, parts of the city centre were unusually quiet - undermining to some extent the ambitious claims made about extra economic benefits coming to the city as a result of the conference.
The high fence surrounding the conference centre, City Hall, and environs is an unaccustomed sight in the city centre, unlike in, say, Manchester that has hosted Labour conferences recently. It cordons off a significant part of the city centre. It was a provocation, but proved to produce a satisfying rattle when shaken. So satisfying indeed that some of the speeches were all but inaudible.
With most of the normal open space around the City Hall fenced within the security cordon, the remaining gathering area was tiny, leaving protesters there feeling rather enclosed, and suspicious that this was intended to provide an area for kettling, if the police decided to do this. So protesters were spread over a wider area, and as a result many could not hear the speeches. Outside the nearby town hall, there was a pro-Palestinian presence, with music and dancing, and a relaxed atmosphere. When there was a point of conflict, march stewards were asked to intervene to calm things down.
Speeches were a mixture of good old-fashioned rhetoric, anger at the Lib Dems remaining in the Coalition, and strong support for the voluntary and public sectors facing extensive redundancies - with special concern about loss of funding and new hardships to be faced by people with disabilities; strong support, also, for the positive role played by many young people in opposing the introduction of very high fees for university education. With a vocal minority calling for extensive direct action and a general strike against current government policies, there was no mention of the culpability of the Labour Government in colluding with the deregulation of the finance sector and in introducing elements of the market into the public sector (Private Finance Initiative, NHS, academies etc.).
It was left to Paul Blomfield, newly elected Labour MP for Sheffield Central, to remind protesters that whilst condemning Coalition policies there were people within the conference hall who already did or could be persuaded to oppose parts of the Coalition programme, for example over the health service, and that there was a need to make common cause with them.