Rally becomes crusade against economic policies

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The Independent Online
FAR-LEFT political groups, young families and self-confessed Conservative voters yesterday joined miners in a mass protest in central London against the pit closures.

The demonstration, which began and ended in Hyde Park, was timed to coincide with last night's debate on energy policy in the House of Commons and was the biggest anti-government demonstration since John Major became Prime Minister. Estimates of attendance on the protest march, which stretched for more than four miles (6.5km), varied from a conservative 50,000 (the police) to a highly-coloured 250,000 (Tony Benn MP).

What started as a demonstration against redundancies in the coal industry became a crusade against Government economic policy, taking on board ministers' warnings about a pay freeze in the public sector. Rail union leaders threatened industrial action if the Government denied their members a wage increase.

After the march curled its way round the outside of the park and through west London, John Smith, the Labour Party leader, Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, and Michael Clarke, a Tory MP, were among those who addressed a rally at Central Hall, Westminster. Some marchers went on to lobby Parliament.

To an enraptured if small audience, Mr Scargill continued with his tactic of invoking public support rather than urging strike action. 'If we can get rid of the poll tax and the people of eastern Europe can get rid of their governments, then we can roll back the economic policy of this Government.' For the first time in many years, Mr Scargill did not even mention the word 'strike' while speaking from a public platform.

Admitting it was out of character, he revealed that he had written to the Prime Minister requesting a meeting. 'If ministers can see the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers, they can see me.' He added: 'In the last three days, the Government has completed four body swerves. But I don't want body swerves - I want a U-turn.'

Mr Scargill blamed the police for the limited attendance at the Westminster rally. The authorities had insisted that the march take place at Hyde Park, about two miles from Westminster. 'Otherwise we would have filled the hall five times over,' he said.

As police helicopters flew overhead, the march took three hours to file out of Hyde Park. It was attended mainly by trade unionists, but also present were representatives from such disparate groups as 'Prospect House Nursing Home' and Wednesford Football Club, and American Indian lobbyists. One morose marcher wore an 'Ex-Tory voter' badge.

Shoppers lined the streets along the route to cheer and clap, and posters of support could be seen in the exclusive antiques shops on Kensington Church Street. Union leaders called for an even bigger turn-out at a march on Sunday being organised by the Trades Union Congress.

At yesterday's rally, Mr Clarke, former chairman of the energy select committee, said he would be supporting the Labour motion in the Commons pit-closures debate last night: 'We don't always have things in common but tonight I will be voting in the coal lobby.' Mr Smith told the rally the Government would now make determined efforts to put the coal issue to one side following the promised review of the industry. But he said: 'This is not the end - it is just the beginning of a campaign involving every area of the country. If we lead that campaign we can make sure that this comes back to haunt the Government.'

Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, said he did not believe the battle would be won in Parliament: 'We will win it on the streets . . . There are a lot of guilty people out there realising that they have an incompetent wimp at the helm of the Government.'

Construction workers on two power station sites walked out on unofficial strike in support of the miners yesterday, writes Martin Whitfield. The stoppages, the first sympathy strikes seen for several years, involved 200 of the 700 workers at PowerGen's new pounds 300m Killingholme gas-fired station on Humberside, and more than 1,000 construction workers at National Power's pounds 700m desulphurisation project near Selby, North Yorkshire. Output at Killingholme was unaffected.

The 2,200 firefighters in Greater Manchester declared a '999 only' day in support of the miners, and refused to carry out other routine duties.