Union leaders turn heat up on Lib Dems over cuts

TUC hopes to exploit tensions in the coalition as it prepares for march through London on Saturday
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Union leaders are to target Liberal Democrats in a campaign to slow down the speed and scale of public spending cuts as the TUC prepares for the biggest protest yet against the coalition's economic programme.

Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary, hopes to exploit unrest in Lib Dem ranks to step up pressure on a party leadership which he believes is increasingly isolated from its activists.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday before next weekend's anti-cuts rally in central London, Mr Barber attacked the Lib Dems for abandoning their pre-election pledge to delay cuts until the economy was growing. Stressing that the campaign will be a "long haul", he vowed to step up the political pressure on ministers and coalition MPs to "realise quite how out of touch they are with the wider public".

"There are clearly large numbers of the Lib Dem party who are deeply uncomfortable with what's now happening," he said. "They are uncomfortable both at the scale of the cuts and what impact that is having, and they are clearly uncomfortable with some of the big structural reforms as well." He made a direct appeal to "those in the Lib Dems who do echo those concerns to do what they can to pull their party back in a more progressive direction".

A major element in the strategy will be Saturday's TUC march through central London. More than 600 coaches will transport thousands of protesters to the capital, while thousands more are expected to travel by train and car. All police leave has been cancelled, and hundreds of stewards have been drafted in to prevent trouble. A rally in Hyde Park is expected to be addressed by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader.

"I think we'll certainly have more than 100,000 but who knows, possibly quite a lot more," Mr Barber said. "There are huge numbers of people in this country who are totally opposed to the Government's policy. This core economic judgement they have made to focus on deficit reduction, involving massive spending cuts and tax rises with VAT and so on – that is wrong."

Mr Barber remains "puzzled" by the Lib Dems "compliantly going along" with Conservative cuts which are "ideological" and form part of a "wider mission to shrink the state".

Extensive public service reforms, in health and education in particular, are "hugely threatening" but have so far passed "under the radar" while attention has been on cuts. People working in the NHS are "desperately frightened" that Andrew Lansley's reforms "could go hugely wrong and that we could all pay the price".

Last weekend, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, told activists at the party's spring conference that he was angry at the cuts. He insisted that the Lib Dems were not intent on shrinking the state. Delegates voted against the NHS reforms, in another sign of the party exerting its independence in government.

Mr Barber hopes to change the "thinking of coalition MPs" by harnessing public opposition to cuts. Unions are endeavouring to "reach out" to create a "much wider coalition of interests around the country" opposing the Government's cuts programme. "We wanted to avoid being labelled as simply the unions predictably standing up for their own people and just be accused of pursuing narrow self-interest."

Mr Barber insists Saturday's march will be family-friendly and does not want it "distorted or disfigured" by violence, the way some of last year's student demonstrations ended in riots and an attack on the Prince of Wales's car. A guide for first-time marchers has been published at www.marchforthealternative.org.uk.

The UK Uncut campaign group plans to target banks and shops in Oxford Street at the same time as the rally in Hyde Park and will attempt to occupy a "top-secret location".