Through 1981, hundreds of young people made their way down to London on the Jobs Express. This modern day Jarrow March was received positively by most people with even muted criticism from the Tories and Fleet Street. Some newspapers did sneer that it was all a far left conspiracy and that the youth were being used by extremists, etc.
But there was no doubting that unemployment in the early 80s recession had hit teenagers very hard with the drying up of apprenticeships and factories closing. As the Jobs Express made its way to London, trade unionists – like those pictured below – mucked in to make sandwiches for the youngsters and give them a cheer.
This being 1981, however, it’s not surprising to read in this article that as one group of teens on the march came back from a disco, they were set upon by fascists. No further details are given but this was a grim sign of the times.
The 1981 March for Jobs was hugely well attended with jobless walking for miles to London to make their point to Maggie. One of those on the dole and facing a bleak future was the former Mayor of Watford, Alan Bonney, who found himself at the age of 40 unable to get into the labour market. Furious, he joined the march and the Daily Star showed him at his political height and subsequent grim position in life.
Londoners of a certain age remember the two massive Anti Nazi League carnivals in 1978 with glowing nostalgia. But Manchester was in on the act too. Let’s not forget that. Here was the Mancunian ANL carnival with acts like Steel Pulse, the Buzzcocks and China Street.
I loved Steel Pulse’s Jah Pickney with that song’s delightful lyrics about hunting the National Front. Check it out on YouTube. Buzzcocks – we all know them! But I’d quite forgotten China Street, a favourite of John Peel and on the EMI label for a while.
The march was sponsored by the north west region TUC. The trade unions were very much a backbone of the whole anti-racist push against the National Front at that time.
You have to try hard to remember what young people were thinking in 1979, 1980, 1981 as the UK went through the mother of all recessions. In contrast to the dreary and sullen mood now, there was a rebellious anger in those days mixed with a strong counter-culture rooted in the 70s punk movement.
Demonstrations and rallies sometimes felt like parties and none more than the Jobs Express that brought thousands of youngsters to London to vent their feelings at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
I found this newspaper article from the time in my archives and the two girls interviewed – Sheila and Becky – had very typical views of Labour trending teenagers. Get rid of the bomb – the nuclear bomb needless to say. Put the money from that into creating jobs – not in the arms industry clearly.
The government Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) was hated – after all these kids’ parents had enjoyed apprenticeships in factories. And on the subject of manufacturing, it’s interesting that Becky says Thatcher must go before she destroys BL (British Leyland – the nationalised car maker).
Thirteen young people died at a house fire in Deptford, south London on 18 January, 1981. They had been at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock, aged 16. Thirteen people died in the inferno including Yvonne and her brother.
Even by the standards of the time, this was a horrific incident. And I say that because house fires claiming lives often got surprisingly little media coverage. In this case, the tone of the media commentary and the attitude of the police played into an already existing sense of grievance among many black people in south London and beyond.
It’s reasonable to say now that this house fire set in train a series of events that would lead to the riots that convulsed cities across the UK in the spring and summer of that year.
A 2001 article in The Guardian details how the police focussed on the idea of something illegal going on at the party – or possible a fight between partygoers being the root cause. In contrast, many black activists believed the fire had been an arson attack with racist motives.
In a way, the cause was overshadowed by the reaction to the event. To many black youth, it seemed that the establishment revealed its indifference. For example, there was no statement of condolence from the prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Whereas now, a tragedy like Grenfell – and similar incidents – are treated with a far greater degree of sensitivity.
Local anger resulted in a Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March, 1981 – new photographs of which were featured in a recent exhibition. It took a long route from Fordham Park in south London, through Peckham and Camberwell, on to Blackfriars and Fleet Street, then finally through the west end to Hyde Park.
Official estimates put the turnout at around 6,000 while the organisers claimed 20,000 – these kind of disparities for demo turnouts were really common at the time. The authorities always wanted to play down attendance whereas the organisers wanted to inflate the numbers. The truth was always somewhere in between.
Tragically, to this day, the cause and motive behind the fire remains a mystery.
It all seems a long time ago now – and yet mass youth joblessness is back with us in Europe. The People’s March for Jobs in 1981 was a very big march streaming into Hyde Park and made up of many young people who had come from all over Britain. Grim economic times but a real gritty determination to fight back in those days. This leaflet may jog some memories.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had come to power heralding a rightwards shift in our politics. Both were engaged in sabre rattling with the Soviet Union. All of this stoked real fear among young people that we could see a nuclear war in our lifetime.
A survey of college students in 1980 found most believing they were going to die in a thermo-nuclear holocaust. It seems incredible to consider this now…even allowing for North Korea. But there was a widespread anxiety that our civilisation could be wiped out by a Soviet-US conflict.
‘Jobs not Bombs’ became a very popular slogan. There was a rather blood curdling song I heard on one demo that went something like…
What shall we do with Ronald Reagan? Put him in the shuttle and take the tiles off.
That would have been around 1981. That was five years before the shuttle explosion caused by…erm…a tile coming off – and a teacher at the wheel (first civilian astronaut).
Another ditty went…
What shall we do with Maggie Thatcher? Put her in a police van and send it to Brixton.
The sense was that Reagan and Thatcher were warmongers propelling us towards the end of the world.