The protest followed an event in Mansfield town centre the previous Saturday, which appears to have been well attended, attracting between 1-200 people according to the Evening Post and Mansfield Chad. This seems to have been the basis of claims by the Post that hundreds of protesters were expected. Certainly the council seemed to be expecting a large turnout. County Hall was protected by crowd control barriers and a small army of security staff dressed in high-vis vests. As it happens, the turnout was something of a disappointment with less than a hundred people present, even at the protest’s peak.
Campaigners against the care home sell-offs were prominent, with highly-visible and very professional display boards to put their case. There was a group who seemed to be from Unison, the biggest union at the council, and a handful of people with GMB paraphernalia. Neither of the unions seemed to have made much effort to mobilise their memberships. Quite why is unclear. A protest they organised against an attack on terms and conditions in November drew several hundred people, so they’re ability to get numbers is clear. These campaigners were supplemented by a number of lefty paper sellers and representatives of the local media.
The demo was unique in my experience in that the speakers seemed to have been organised by the target of the protest, rather than by demonstrators. Deborah Hinde, a senior manager from the council, opened the speakers with an introduction, focused on practicalities. The council meeting was open to the public as usual, with an overspill available should numbers be too big for the public gallery, although the authority is apparently unable to stretch to a video stream from the council chamber, with audio only available in the Assembly Hall.
The first political speaker was Kay Cutts, the leader of the council and a figure of hatred for many of the protesters. Cutts has often been compared to Thatcher, but it quickly became clear that she had none of the oratorical skills of the Iron Lady. Heckled by demonstrators she read from a pre-prepared statement, faltering and repeating herself on several occasions. As might be expected she sought to present the cuts as an inevitable response to the economic realities, before scurrying back into County Hall.
Next up was Alan Rhodes, leader of the opposition Labour group who was, perhaps surprisingly given the Labour party’s own poor record on public services, cheered by a number of demonstrators. Rhodes apologised for the barriers which had been erected, declared his opposition to the planned budget and claimed he would support industrial action against it. He was followed by LibDem leader Jason Zadrozny who was also predictably critical of the budget.
John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, gave an impassioned speech, slotting himself into the old-school Labour mode with some success. He invited up two campaigners against the care home sell-off, whose names I didn’t catch. One spoke of the campaign which had been mounted and won a couple of years ago against a previous plan (pushed for by the previous Labour regime) to sell of the homes. They were followed by Grace Perry from Unison who gave the most energetic speech of the day, accusing the Conservatives in charge of the council of having no heart. John Mann then summed up and Deborah Hinde closed proceedings, inviting demonstrators to view the council meeting, which had already begun, from the public gallery or enjoy refreshments in the Assembly Hall.
Protesters then drifted off. Some did take the opportunity to view the proceedings and I understand that Cutts was heckled in the chamber. With a full agenda and all the parties wanting their moment in the spotlight, the meeting did not conclude until 2.20am, Friday morning. Inevitably, however, the budget went through, 34 votes to 21.
Overall, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this demonstration was disappointing. It certainly failed to capitalise on the Tories’ recent difficulties locally. A series of muddled decisions (the withdrawal from the second phase of the Tram, the World Cup bid and the ongoing confusion over the Gedling "bus plug and, of course, the budget) have stimulated a wave of bad press. After articles in the Private Eye and Worksop Guardian about the council’s “reputation consultant,” Mark Fletcher-Brown (hired by Labour when they were in power, but kept on by the Tories), he was quickly given the heave-ho. If rumours are to be believed, this week has also seen the departure of Callum Heckstall-Smith, the Tories’ political adviser. Originally sent by Conservative Central Command to keep an eye on the newly-elected Tory council, Heckstall-Smith immediately set about making enemies and now appears to have overstepped the line.
Whoever wins the upcoming general election, all the parties are threatening to slash public services. While Tory councils have been particularly harsh in their application of cuts, it should be obvious that we cannot rely on the Labour party to make things better. Indeed they will often be on the other side, cutting services. As if to underline the point, Friday saw news of the budget getting the go ahead, appear alongside reports of job cuts at Labour-run Nottingham City Council. There is a clear need for a campaign brining together trade unions, “service users” and the local community, but little sign of any appetite for a fight on the part of those affected.