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London protest bash government's austerity drive

LONDON -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the British capital Saturday in a noisy but peaceful protest at a government austerity drive aimed at slashing the nation's debt.

Unions, anti-war campaigners, left-wing leaders, community groups and other activists poured down London's streets in a demonstration against reductions to public sector spending which officials are pushing through in order to rein in the Britain's debt, which stands at more than 1 trillion pounds ($1.7 trillion).

Although the austerity program has had some modest successes _ the country's deficit has dropped slightly _ the U.K. economy has shrunk for three consecutive quarters amid cuts at home and economic turmoil on the continent.

Brendan Barber, whose Trades Union Congress helped organize the march, said that the message of Saturday's protest was that "austerity is simply failing."

"The government is making life desperately hard for millions of people because of pay cuts for workers, while the rich are given tax cuts," he said.

Britain borrowed 13 billion pounds in September alone, and with other European countries _ including next door neighbor Ireland _ struggling to make good on their debt, and there is a general consensus that the U.K. budget needs to be rebalanced.

But the right-leaning government did little to endear itself with ordinary Britons when it reduced income taxes for the country's wealthiest citizens earlier this year. And its leadership has struggled to fight perceptions of elitism which rankle many in this class-conscious country.

On Friday the Conservative Party's chief whip stepped down following a dispute over whether he'd described officers guarding the prime minister's official residence at Downing Street as "plebs" or warned them to "learn your (expletive) place."

News of Andrew Mitchell's resignation broke just as word was getting around that Treasury Chief George Osborne had been spotted by a journalist sitting in a first class train carriage with a second class ticket. Osborne paid for an upgrade, but story's humor was irresistible. Newspapers lavished coverage on what many nicknamed "The Great Train Snobbery," and Osborne's misadventure was a talking point at the rally, which marched through the city beneath huge red and purple balloons emblazoned with union logos.

Some protesters shouted "no first class tickets here"; others booed as they passed Downing Street. But unlike some rallies elsewhere in Europe which turned violent, Saturday's march appeared to go off peacefully.

One group of children dressed up as government workers, including a nurse and a traffic warden. Another child, dressed as a chef, held up a sign warning that Prime Minister David Cameron was "a recipe for disaster."

Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, is among the speakers scheduled to address the crowd in London's Hyde Park, following the march. According to text of his speech released ahead of time to the media, he is expected to tell the rally that while some cuts are inevitable, the country needed a "different and fairer approach."

Crowd estimates were not immediately available, but organizers said that more than 250 buses were booked to bring people to London. Similar protests were also held in Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital, and Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city.