LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of British protesters marched through central London on Saturday against public spending cuts and tax rises enacted by a government fighting accusations it is run by an upper-class elite that ignores the plight of recession-hit voters.
Blowing horns and whistles, protesters filed past the Houses of Parliament behind a banner declaring “Austerity is Failing”, calling on Prime Minister David Cameron to do more to revive Britain’s struggling economy.
The march comes at a time when Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition is reeling from the resignation on Friday of a senior minister accused of calling police “plebs”, a class-laden insult for working people.
“If the working class strike for a day, we’ll see who runs this country,” said Nick Chaffey, 48, a Socialist Party campaigner married to a teacher who has taken a pay cut.
“I’ve got friends who are in desperate straits, living in fear of losing their job and their house.”
Cameron’s party has faced a barrage of negative headlines over the departure of Andrew Mitchell - the “Chief Whip” or party enforcer - four weeks after he swore at police guarding the gates to Cameron’s Downing Street office.
A separate row involving finance minister George Osborne, who sat in a first class train carriage with a standard class ticket before paying for an upgrade, added ammunition to critics who say the Conservatives are privileged and out-of-touch.
“Who Do They Think They Are?” asked the Daily Mail newspaper in a front page headline, while the Financial Times said the bad news over Mitchell and Osborne capped a “dismal week for the Tories”, the centre-right party that is trailing in the polls.
Under grey autumnal skies, demonstrators waved banners saying “No Cuts”, “Tax the Rich, Teach the Poor” and “Plebs of the World Unite”, poking fun at Mitchell’s resignation.
Others handed out leaflets decorated with Wild West-style “Wanted” posters bearing Cameron’s picture and the message: “Running a government by and for millionaires”.
Nurses, cleaners, librarians and ambulance drivers were among tens of thousands who joined the march and a rally in London’s central Hyde Park, in one of the biggest anti-austerity protests this year. Marches will also take place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Glasgow, Scotland.
Trade union leaders are trying to use the rally to pile more pressure on Cameron, telling protesters the government’s economic plan has failed and only prolonged Britain’s recession.
“Austerity isn’t working. It is hammering the poorest and the most vulnerable,” Brendan Barber, head of the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella group which represents 54 unions, will say in a speech at the rally.
“Ministers told us that if we only accept the pain, recovery would come. Instead we have been mired in a double-dip recession.”
The coalition government has responded to calls from unions and the opposition Labour Party to do more to increase growth by relaxing planning laws and boosting lending to businesses.
But its latest attempt to ease the pressure on squeezed households backfired this week when Cameron said the government would legislate to force energy companies to give customers their lowest tariff.
The announcement appeared to take his own ministers by surprise and sowed confusion over what he meant and whether it would actually happen.
Cameron’s party staked its 2010 election campaign on the austerity program, calling for deeper cuts to welfare spending in the years to come while dismissing the idea of a tax on the wealthy.
In an emergency budget announced after winning power, his coalition government said it would cut most departmental budgets by an average of around 20 percent over four years.
It announced a public sector pay freeze, set a new ceiling on the total state benefits any family can receive and cut tax relief on pensions.
It has also raised the VAT sales tax to 20 percent from 17.5 percent, increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco and raised payroll taxes for employees.
Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband said the government’s policies had damaged the economic recovery.
“They told us austerity would help our economy grow. But our economy has not grown. It has flatlined,” he will tell the demonstration in a speech.
But opponents of the unions say the government should stick to its plan to eliminate a budget deficit that stood at 8 percent of gross domestic product last year, the biggest of any major European country.
Sajid Javid, a Conservative Treasury minister, said the government was right to focus on cutting borrowing and data last week indicating a fall in unemployment and inflation showed its economic policies were on track.
“There is a still a lot to do,” he told Sky News. “I don’t pretend for a second that we are out of the woods, but this government is facing up to the problem, it is not sticking its head in the sand like Ed Miliband.”
Writing by Peter Griffiths; Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Sophie Hares