In the main concourse of Kings Cross Station, on a busy Saturday morning, a man wearing a bright pink wig and a metallic silver dinner jacket is stood beside me methodically banging a drum. His friend, dressed in a top hat and ankle-length scarf, is dancing loosely, playing the harmonica. Chinese tourists pass by us with their mouths drooped open, while police officers in black and yellow congregate opposite, holding video cameras and coffees.
UK Uncut has invited its supporters to meet here to begin a day of action against the ‘bedroom tax’, a levy introduced as part of the government’s welfare reforms this month, which critics argue victimises the poorest in society. More than half a million people will be affected by the change, with families deemed to have too much living space by their local authorities receiving reduced housing benefit. One spare bedroom will see claimants lose 14%, while those with two or more will lose 25%.
The protest movement rose to prominence in 2010 after members successfully closed the flagship Vodafone store on Oxford Street to publicise the firm’s tax avoidance. Today’s action has been dubbed Who Wants to Evict a Millionaire and the group has promised to “bring resistance to the homes of high profile politicians pushing the cuts”. The only problem is that nobody knows which one.
I get speaking to a group of first-time protestors from Cumbria. They look excited and have scrawled the number of a UK Uncut-approved solicitor on their arms, which they have been told to phone if arrested.
“Why now?” I ask. “Why today?”
“It’s just got too much”, Jason, a student from Carlisle tells me. “The way that this government is victimising the poor and those on benefits is disgusting. Something needs to be done.”
Charlie, a smart looking middle-aged man from East London, has also travelled down for the day. He is holding a handmade sign that reads: “There is such a thing as society”. This is drawing a fair bit of attention from the throngs of cameramen and women stalking around. A French television crew takes a particular interest and he is soon being filmed by an elegant woman, who is somehow managing to make a boom mic look chic. He is nervous at first, stumbling over his words, but quickly begins to talks passionately and convincingly about the case against the government cuts.
“That sounded prepared,” I tease him, when the crew shuffle away. “Have you been practicing?”
He laughs. “I spend all my time shouting at the tele about this kind of thing, so that’s not too different. That’s why I am here really, to do something, to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.”
This desire to finally put belief into action is a common theme among all the people I meet. Some have friends and family that will be directly affected by the Bedroom Tax, while others believe strongly that the human cost of the policy is not worth the estimated £480 million it will save. All want to feel like they are doing something, even if many are pessimistic about the prospect of anything changing.
After a short delay on the concourse, our group, now 300-strong, is directed towards the tube station. Photographers lead the way, managing to walk backwards quickly without falling, while we file behind a banner. I catch up with the dancing harmonica player, a woodwork teacher named Craig. He looks a little frazzled behind the eyes and can’t seem to understand any of my questions. He later admits to being a bit “distracted”, but is willing to open up about one subject – Thatcher.
“She started all this,” he tells me softly as we travel down the escalator. “Cameron and his cronies are just continuing her work.” As he says this a cry of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie” rings out below us, followed shortly afterwards by a deafening chorus of “out, out, out”.
In the dusty, cramped confines of a northern line carriage speeding towards our destination Archway, I also get talking to Pam Remon, a 69-year-old grandmother of two from Bromley. She has a kind face and is clasping her hands in her lap. Leaning over her and swaying to the movement of the train I ask her why she has decided to join today’s event.
“I care about other people,” she says. “Those that are struggling haven’t got time to do this, they are too busy surviving. If I was told that I had to move out of my home of 30 years, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would be in bits. We are not all in this together. That is a lie.”
I jot down her answers precariously, balancing on my heels so as not to fall in her lap. Does she think that today’s protest will have an impact? “I’m just so happy to see so many young people here. The youth are our future. People need to realise that they do have power, they just need to act upon it.”
As she says this, the door of the train slides open. A mass of bodies fall out and head back upstairs towards daylight. I look around at our motley crew, a healthy mix of young and old - dreadlocks and perms. There are a few drums, but our bark is definitely worse than our bite. Despite this, the police presence is truly staggering. As we exit the station and head up Highgate Hill a helicopter circles overhead, while scores of riot vans race by. Later, as I leave, I count nine vans filled with bored-looking officers, with nothing to do but watch and wait.
We pass Highgate Cemetery, and the resting place of Karl Marx. Most of us are still clueless about our final destination, but rumours filter through the crowd. The gentile north London streets we march through are getting leafier and the houses bigger: we must be close. A young man dressed in a tuxedo, with a blue Tory rosette on his lapel, suggests that it could be George Osborne, while an older Liverpudlian lady claims another group in Buckinghamshire are already camped outside the work and pension’s secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s house. I suggest we could be door-stopping Tony Blair. Nobody laughs.
Eventually we come to a stop outside a four-bedroom semi-detached townhouse. The police are already waiting for us and have formed a line blocking access to the front garden. Here it is finally revealed - by two excitable compères on a crackly portable speaker system - who we are disturbing for the remainder of the day: Lord Freud, the welfare minister and architect of the controversial Universal Credit reforms. The great-grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund was accused of “rank hypocrisy” by the Labour MP Jon Cruddas in January when it was revealed that he lives in an eight bed-room mansion in Kent AND the £1.9 million home in London we are now gathered around. He is, for the group, the perfect victim.
The next two hours are a blur of games, speeches and street theatre. A mock eviction notice is delivered to Freud’s letterbox, but only the photographers are really watching. The mood is unthreatening and jovial, with people sitting down to eat and talk. Kids run around, jumping up and down on the mattresses laid out in the middle of the road. Two teenagers have managed to drag with them a huge green armchair, which they now leisurely rest on in their pyjamas. One of Freud’s neighbours, a 50-something woman of left-leaning persuasion, has even taken it upon herself to hand out boxes of Marks and Spencer’s biscuits in a small show of solidarity. Other neighbours are less welcoming, but resign themselves to peering at us through their curtains.
As the sun begins to fade and the heavens gently open, volunteers are gathered to read out the stories of those who have been affected by the bedroom tax, many of whom are too severely disabled to travel. And as these are spoken, the pantomime of the rest of the day - the slogans written on the back of pizza boxes, the wigs, the costumes and the whoops and cheers - begin to fade away, replaced by something truer, something rawer. One of these is printed below.
I moved into my home with my whole family 30 years ago. My husband and I both worked. When we divorced in the late 90s my children remained with me. After a short time, I became ill and was forced to give up my full-time job. Nevertheless, I worked part-time at my local County Council. When this closed I volunteered at Women’s Aid until my health deteriorated to the point that I could not even manage the three hours a week for that. I am disabled with a chronic condition that affects my whole body and my mental health, leaving me struggling against depression and anxiety. Being disabled in this way makes me feel vulnerable. I have known my neighbours since my childhood and have friends in the area for more than 30 years. Here I have a support network and feel safe. Even the owners in the local shop support me, delivering food to my house if I am particularly weak. Now and then if I am suffering a family member will stay in my spare room.
I have to spend so much time indoors that the thought of moving into a smaller flat is making me suicidal so my GP has been forced to prescribe me with stronger antidepressants. On top of all this I am going through an endless round of form filling and assessments, one of which I had to take to tribunal as ATOS scored me zero points, despite later being given the maximum 15. These things combined make me feel despised and unwelcome in my own country and I feel like I would be better off dead.
After this final testimonial is read, a small moment of silence hangs in the air. I look across to see two older women shyly brushing the tears away from their eyes. A man then stands up and from the bottom of his throat cries:
Shame on this government.”
The assembled crowd roars and, in that moment, it is hard to argue with their sentiment.