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Nurses, cleaners, librarians: UK austerity marchers challenge government cuts

A man holds up a banner reading 'Austerity - That's Enough' as a march to protest the government's austerity measures prepares to set off from the Embankment in London on Friday.
A man holds up a banner reading 'Austerity - That's Enough' as a march to protest the government's austerity measures prepares to set off from the Embankment in London on Friday.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Updated at 8:25 a.m ET: LONDON - Thousands of anti-austerity protesters marched in London on Saturday to protest against public spending cuts enacted by a government fighting off accusations that it is run by an upper-class elite that ignores the plight of recession-hit voters. 

The march comes at a time when Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition is reeling from the resignation on Friday of a senior minister accused of calling police "plebs," a class-laden insult for working people. 

Conservatives faced a barrage of negative headlines on Saturday over the departure of Andrew Mitchell, the "Chief Whip" or party enforcer, four weeks after he swore at police guarding the gates to Cameron's Downing Street office. 

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A second row involving George Osborne, the finance minister -- who sat in a first class train carriage with a standard class ticket before paying for an upgrade -- played into the hands of critics who say the Conservatives are privileged and out-of-touch. 

"Who Do They Think They Are?" asked the Daily Mail newspaper in a front page headline, while the Financial Times said the bad news over Mitchell and Osborne capped a "dismal week for the Tories", the center-right party that is trailing in the polls. 

Nurses, cleaners, librarians and ambulance drivers are among tens of thousands marching past the Houses of Parliament to a rally in Hyde Park in one of the biggest anti-austerity protests this year. Marches will also take place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Glasgow, Scotland. 

General strike?

Under grey autumnal skies, police closed roads around parliament in Westminster before the start of the march at 1100 GMT (6 a.m. ET). 

Trade union leaders are seeking to pile more pressure on Cameron at the event where they will tell protesters that the government's economic plan has failed, prolonging Britain's second recession since the financial crisis. 

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The head of the head of the RMT transport workers union was set to say that Saturday's march was a step towards a nationwide strike, Sky News reported.

"The marches are a building block towards the objective of coordinated action and a general strike.  That is why RMT says, march today, strike tomorrow," Bob Crow was planning to say, Sky News reported without citing a source.

Reuters reported that Brendan Barber, head of the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella group which represents 54 unions, planned to say the following:

"Austerity isn't working. It is hammering the poorest and the most vulnerable ... Ministers told us that if we only accept the pain, recovery would come. Instead we have been mired in a double-dip recession." 

Coalition under pressure

The coalition government has responded to calls from unions and the opposition Labour Party to do more to boost growth by relaxing planning laws and boosting lending to businesses. 

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But its latest attempt to ease the pressure on squeezed households backfired this week when Cameron said the government would legislate to force energy companies to give customers their lowest tariff. The surprise announcement appeared to take his own ministers by surprise and sowed confusion over what he meant and whether it would actually happen. 

However, Sajid Javid, a Conservative Treasury minister, said the government was right to focus on cutting borrowing and that data last week indicating a fall in unemployment and inflation showed that its economic policies were on track. 

"There is a still a lot to do," he told Sky News. "I don't pretend for a second that we are out of the woods, but this government is facing up to the problem, it is not sticking its head in the sand like (Labour opposition leader) Ed Miliband." 

Asked about the perception that the Conservatives are out of touch, he said: "I think that what matters is what is actually happening out there in the real world." 

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Opponents of the unions say the government should stick to its plan to eliminate a budget deficit that stood at 8 percent of gross domestic product last year, the biggest of any major European country. 

"The government must not listen to militant union leaders," said Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which describes itself as an independent free-market thinktank. "The cuts we have seen are tiny and further concessions to these protesters would be wholly unaffordable." 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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