Article published: Wednesday, September 28th 2011
In 2009, the Tories held their first conference in Manchester for over a century, seen as a clear statement of Cameron’s intent to broaden his appeal beyond the townhouses and cottages of the South East to the trendy regenerated terraces and warehouses of the North West. From Sunday through to Wednesday they will return to the Petersfield conference complex in its centre. There will also be protests, since for the entire history of its maturity as a city Manchester has been for everything the Tories oppose, and opposed to everything the Tories are for.
For Greater Manchester’s publicity arm, Marketing Manchester, there is nothing incongruous about such guests, who are celebrated for bringing “£27.4 million to the local economy”. This ignores not only the enormous, £110 million cuts forced on the city by Westminster, but also the ongoing structural inequality which means that Manchester still has the highest levels of child poverty in the UK, and some of the lowest life expectancies. Tweed-suited Tories spending a bit of cash will not only do little to alleviate these problems, but when conspiring together in conference centres they are simply plotting how to make them worse.
The very site that will host them is itself the symbolic heart of the British left. As the Tories boast to the cameras and sip champagne they will be trampling on the spot where, in 1819, 18 people were killed and 500 injured when the drunken Manchester and Salford Yeomanry charged into a crowd of 50,000 protesting against corruption and for the working class to be allowed to vote. The masses at Peterloo had come from the towns around Manchester, and organised themselves not to fight but to march behind music and banners in a festive display of protest. The Tory Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, responded to the massacre by sending a letter of congratulations to the Manchester magistrates.
Peterloo could not suppress the city’s spirit, and nor could the notorious Six Acts, forced on the country a few months later by a Tory government determined to suppress all opposition and remove any political initiative from the lower classes. The city’s Radicals kept struggling: for a free press, to support the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Glasgow Spinners, and to form unions of their own. For decades pubs across Lancashire even had as their signs full-length portraits of Henry “Orator” Hunt, the Radical whose speech at Peterloo the Yeomanry had so bloodily stopped.
The city became a hub of the Chartist movement that electrified Manchester as it did the country, a role it also performed for the strike wave of 1842, when workers disabled factories across the North West to demand reform and better working and living conditions. It was the city where Marx and Engels sought to understand capital in all its complexity and brutality, where the co-operative movement found its base, and where the Trades Union Congress was formed in 1868. It was the home of the Pankhurts, and with Salford one of the two cities in Walter Greenwood’s 1933 masterpiece Love on the Dole.
The house in which the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded still stands, and with the People’s History Museum attests not only to the richness of the cities’ Radical history but also the pride with which Mancunians remember that history. On the other side of the Irwell in Salford is the Working Class Movement Library, founded by Ruth and Eddie Frow; his arrest and beating at the Battle of Bexley Square 80 years ago, when thousands of unemployed workers were attacked by the police for trying to deliver a petition, was depicted in the conclusion of Greenwood’s novel.
The Tories figure into that history solely as antagonists. As Chartist, socialist and co-operative movement activist George Holyoake, after whom the Co-operative’s Holyoake House in the city centre is named, wrote in his autobiography:
“Tories, by the law of their being, seek authority by which the majority of them intend the control of public affairs for their own advantage. They supply money for corruption, intending to refund themselves by place and profit when the resources of the State come under their manipulation.”
This is a reality becoming ever more apparent as once again under the Tories, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Because of this Manchester is not a city to which they are welcome, and on Sunday two protests seek to make this clear: a march through the city’s centre, and an assembly at Albert Square, outside the Town Hall.
As the protests and resistance against austerity and the coalition enters its second year, the left needs to maintain momentum, but it also needs to organise and remain united. It needs to be confrontational, but inclusive rather than alienating. Through the city we can march and show that the Tories need to be resisted for their assault on the working class of the country, not praised for the amount they’ll spend on food and drink. In the streets and at Albert Square, protestors will consciously turn back to the forms of demonstration that so terrified the Tories in the last two centuries: those that show that the masses are against them with a festival of colour, noise and anger.
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