The People’s March for Jobs: taking the protest to Westminster

The first People’s March for Jobs had been a great success. Five hundred marchers set off from Liverpool, Yorkshire and South Wales, heading towards Westminster in a conscious echo of the Jarrow Crusade of 1936 and with a similar objective – to highlight the plight of those at the sharp end of government economic policies that were devastating whole industries.

People’s March for Jobs 1983 badge. Click for larger image

Initiated by the North West TUC, but with support from other parts of the trade union movement, the marchers left Liverpool on 1 May 1981, stopping en route at Stoke on Trent, Wolverhampton, Northampton and other towns hit by rising unemployment, where they were greeted by large and supportive crowds. When they reached Hyde Park on 31 May, they were joined by 250,000 people for the final leg to Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank.

As unemployment hit 2.5 million and kept on rising, in the House of Commons, the Labour MP David Winnick said: ‘Every day 6,000 people are joining the dole queues. More than 150 companies a week are closing. Forty per cent of the jobless in Britain are aged under 25, and one-fifth under 20. There are 400,000 people who have been out of work for more than 12 months.’ Why, he asked, would the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, not meet the marchers. ‘It is her policies that are largely responsible for the unemployment from which we are now suffering. She is the first to defend those monetarist policies inside and outside the House. Why does not she defend them to the victims of monetarism? I hope that even at this late stage the Prime Minister will agree to meet the organisers of the march.’ In the end, she did not; but it is a measure of the popular support that the marchers gathered (and a reflection of very different times), that the Employment Secretary, Jim Prior, did so.

Two years later, with unemployment now rising past three million, the TUC put its weight behind a second People’s March for Jobs. This time, marchers were to begin from as far away as Glasgow, with other groups joining up from Tyneside, Merseyside, Yorkshire, Cornwall and East Anglia.

However, the 1983 march, from which the badge shown above dates, met greater challenges than its predecessor.

The whole event was budgeted to cost £250,000, and behind the scenes both TUC general secretary Len Murray and Labour Party leader Michael Foot voiced concerns that it would divert money and people from the general election that most people expected to take place that year. Frank Chapple, the right-wing electricians’ union leader and that year’s TUC President, was more ideologically opposed to the march, and is reported to have said that when the issue was raised: ‘I put the kibosh on this unemployment marching business. There won’t be any of that while I’m in the chair.’

In the event, the election was set for 9 June – five days after the marchers were set to arrive in London. At many of the stops on the way, support turned out to be lacklustre, with some reports of marchers outnumbering local supporters. And though both Murray and Foot spoke at the Hyde Park rally that day, to a crowd estimated to be between 100,000 and 150,000 strong, the 1983 march left very little by way of a legacy – overshadowed as it was by the Tories’ landslide election victory.

Less than a year later, the government would bring its war on trade unions to a head in its confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers over pit closures.

Further reading

Debate on the People’s March for Jobs, House of Commons Hansard, 22 May 1981.

Photographers from the photographic agency Report walked alongside the marchers for much of the way, documenting their progress. Their photos can be seen here.

A Conservative Research Department briefing paper produced at the start of June 1983 provides an insight into Conservative thinking at the time of the second march.