Six hundred people attended this year’s Peterloo commemoration in Manchester on the 14th August. Peterloo was named after a massacre in St Peter’s Fields in the centre of Manchester in 1819, taking the memory of Waterloo to mark the event.
This year hundreds marched round the town lead by the increasingly popular PCS Samba Band; a regular feature of radical events, they are now turning out almost every weekend across the north. More people waited at St Peter’s Square, which now sits in part of what was St Peter’s Fields.
This was a long way from the handful of activists who used to meet at the plaque on the Free Trade Hall (also on the massacre site – as is the convention centre where the Labour and Conservative Parties have their conferences). They campaigned for a new plaque that recognised the state assault and murder that had occurred.
Now there is a better plaque and the council has funded a monument, which ironically is closed during Tory conferences and was again during the commemoration. The monument itself is not disabled accessible, though the council were warned that this was the case, and could have changed the design.
This year’s event was a much more overtly political than previously. There have always complaints that the radical potential of the day was played down a bit and tensions over modern political banners being displayed or banned. This year it was full on, with Jeremy Corbyn, Laura Pidcock, Dave Nellist, Ken Loach, Ian Hodson as the big names alongside Stella Assange and many many more speakers. There were all manner of banners and campaigns.
It many ways it felt like just one more of the many marches and rallies on the same spot over the past year, which include several Kill the Bill demos, the biggest of which was 3000 strong, 600 protesting against conversion therapy, 1000 for women’s safety on the streets, 500 against the fuel price rises early in the year, and 250 for SOS NHS in February.
But whereas they were single issue events, this was the big names outlining their strategy for the coming conflicts with government and employers. Some urged for a vote for TUSC, some for joining the Peoples’ Assembly, some for Enough is Enough, and for building a new independent labour movement and there were more. Everybody hated Starmer, and cheered the call for synchronised strikes. But the demonstrator who wasn’t merely lapping up the charged atmosphere must have been wondering whether the speakers were willing to draw these initiatives together.
The need for dialogue and cooperation across the movement is vital. But so is seeking out core demands and coordinated action. A united front couldn’t be more urgent. Debate and disagreement is what workers democracy must be all about, but it must also make united steps for the common good.
Like most of the mobilisations in St Peter’s Square organised by the established workers movement we were still rallying the converted. We need events like this. But we also need events like the Kill the Bill demos which mobilised large numbers of young, possibly majority young women, people wanting to defend their rights. The Peterloo commemoration, as with all workers’ commemorations, need to mark out not only the past but look for their relevance today.