LONDON (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of British protesters marched through London on Saturday calling for an end to public spending cuts and tax rises launched by a government they accuse of elitism and ignorance about the plight of recession-hit voters.
Blowing horns and whistles, demonstrators streamed past the Houses of Parliament behind a banner declaring “Austerity is Failing”, and called on Prime Minister David Cameron to do more to revive Britain’s struggling economy.
The 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, and the perception that they are out of touch.
“The wealthy don’t realize the impact of the cuts and this government is only interested in what you can give them,” said local government worker Eric Batty, 60, dressed in a black grim reaper cloak costume symbolizing death.
The government says it must 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. It says the euro zone crisis has also cast a shadow over the British economy.
Cameron’s party 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 the prime minister’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 aloof.
Addressing protesters, opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband was quick to seize on the latest Conservative missteps to condemn Cameron’s policies.
“He is a weak and clueless prime minister,” Miliband told a cheering crowd. “Andrew Mitchell may have resigned but the culture of two nations runs right across this government. They cut taxes for millionaires and they raise taxes for ordinary families.”
However, Miliband was booed when he told demonstrators that Labour would have had to make cuts too if it had won the last election, albeit at a slower pace.
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.
Nurses, cleaners, librarians and ambulance drivers were among those who joined the march and a rally in London’s central Hyde Park, in one of the biggest anti-austerity protests this year. Organizers estimated that 150,000 people took part.
Marches also took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Glasgow, Scotland.
“I’ve got friends who are in desperate straits, living in fear of losing their job and their house,” said Nick Chaffey, 48, a Socialist Party campaigner married to a teacher who has taken a pay cut.
Police said the London march had passed peacefully and they expected to report a low number of arrests in a bulletin later.
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,” said Brendan Barber, head of the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella group which represents 54 unions.
The coalition government had 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.
Cameron’s party staked its 2010 election campaign on the austerity program, calling for deeper cuts to welfare spending 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. The VAT sales tax went up to 20 percent.
Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps said opposition Labour and the unions had “turned a blind eye” to the need to rein in spending.
He said: “By marching with them, Ed Miliband proved he still stands for more spending, more borrowing and more debt.”
Writing by Peter Griffiths; Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Michael Holden; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Rosalind Russell