The Blair’s Blood demonstration in London in December 1997 was small but had a massive impact – it changed UK politics on welfare reform for ten years, and taught the New Labour cohort of politicians and advisors that disabled people had political power. How did this happen, and could it be achieved again?
The Blair’s Blood demonstration almost did not happen. The main protest was to be held the following day in Trafalgar Square, being only about a kilometre or half a mile away from Downing Street but a hundred miles away in terms of media coverage.
The protest was against the welfare reforms – cuts – being proposed by the New Labour government. The protest was organised by a disabled people’s non-violent street protests campaign group called DAN, the Direct Action Network.
Before the protest in Trafalgar Square there was some frustration amongst the DAN activists at the lack of media interest. About 20 disabled people decided to stage a further, unplanned protest the day before at the security gates to Downing Street nearby. DAN members as a group were experienced in surprise protest tactics, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to the police officers at the scene that this small group going along the pavement of Whitehall would become a further protest.
At the time it was usual for the national print and television media to keep a presence of photographers and camera crews at Downing Street. This group would supply pictures of various ministers, including the Prime Minister Tony Blair, arriving and leaving the main offices of the government.
Reports indicate that four of the 20 DAN protesters were wheelchair users. In a highly effective and visually compelling manner, some of the wheelchair users threw themselves to the ground up against the security gates and smeared themselves and the floor around them in bright red paint. The slogan was Blair’s Blood, and it caused a wildfire of TV and newspaper coverage with the bright colour pictures resembling a crime scene. There was some internet coverage, but in 1997 the internet was not yet the main media channel for news.
Alan Holdsworth recalls: “I think it was we called a snap action called a day before as you say about 20 turned up. We had the red paint in charity collecting tins saying, Tony Makes us Beg! It was Kevin’s first action as a Danner traveling all the way from Liverpool. We met at Westminster Abbey went to Downing Street, got out of our chairs and threw the red paint out of our cans. I remember how cold it was and was really worried about Kevin in his tee shirt. Nigel had a seizure but the cops just thought he was playing around. Still no arrests and I remember thinking if we don’t get into jail soon we’ll freeze to death. I started crawling towards the police wiping the red paint closer and closer to them that did it and soon we were in the nice warm police station off Trafalgar Square. It made the front page of the New York Times.”
This wildfire of press coverage mattered in two very significant ways.
Firstly, up to this protest the New Labour core group of politicians and their advisers had prided themselves in their control of news stories.
This was the age of the new skills of spinning the news and of instant rebuttal, where the journalists at the time were finding it very hard to challenge and question the power of the New Labour message. It was a tremendous shock to the egos of the New Labour media handlers that a small group of unknown disabled people could so massively defeat them. The New Labour era of believing in their own media superpowers, enjoyed before and after the landslide general election result six months earlier, had suddenly ended.
Secondly, the Blair’s Blood demonstration brought home to New Labour politicians that so-called traditional Labour voters, the core group, could not be taken for granted when making political decisions.
The fashion at the time was for something called triangulation, where politicians took the traditional left and right wing responses and then created a third response, midway but forward, which would defeat all challengers. An early classic example of triangulation was the slogan used by Tony Blair in the early 1990s in opposition as Shadow Home Secretary: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. The Blair’s Blood demonstration was a stark message to New Labour that the core group could not be taken for granted.
The sharp lesson was that the welfare benefits of disabled people could not be easily cut by adding a bit of media spin and changing the headline from cuts to reforms.
This article was amended on 30 October 2016 to clarify the date of the Trafalgar Square protest, and to add the quote from Alan Houldsworth.
This is from the BBC at the time:
Protesters throw ‘Blair’s blood’
Disabled protesters have thrown red paint over Downing Street’s gates during a protest against the Government’s welfare reforms.
The group chanted slogans against the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, outside his official residence, Number 10 Downing Street.
The paint was thrown at the gate blocking public access to the street from Whitehall.
“Blair’s Blood” was daubed on the pavement nearby.
Four protesters got out of their wheelchairs to smear the red paint on the road.
Kevin Donnellon, 35, … said the Government’s intention to reform the benefits system would lead him to lose his invalidity benefit and mobility allowance.
“These benefits are worth around £150 a week to me and my whole lifestyle is based around getting this money.
“I live on my own and I also have to pay for home help care so that will be under threat now.
“I feel that the Government are picking on us as soft targets, but we are going to show them that we are not soft targets.”
He said: “I will not be able to run my car without my benefit and allowance money.
Another of the protesters handcuffed himself to the gates across Downing Street as more police officers began to arrive on the scene.
The protesters chanted “Tony, Tony, shame on you” as they made their way from Westminster Abbey to Downing Street.
Police arrived at the protest, which was organised by the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network.
Around 20 people attended the protest.
Published: Tuesday, December 23, 1997 at 08:16 GMT