It’s not that often at left-wing gatherings that you run out of space – usually the stereotype of a few mates declaring the revolution in a pub is pretty accurate. But the launch of the York People’s Assembly on Wednesday was different, in more ways than one.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing what it is, but the York People’s Assembly is the newly formed local section of the national People’s Assembly Against Austerity, a movement launched on June 22nd in London when over 4,000 delegates from across the UK (including a few from our very own University of York) gathered to end the sectarianism that has dogged the anti-austerity current in Britain since it began – and start, at long last, a coordinated attempt to shift not only the debate on fiscal austerity, but to stop and reverse the cuts altogether.
It was in this spirit that the launch of the York section of the movement kicked off this week, when nearly 50 local activists got together at the rather progressive venue of the Friends Meeting House to discuss how exactly to fight the neoliberal scourge of Osbornomics from the grassroots. And it was refreshing, even for the worn-out veterans among the ranks.
For a start, it looked different to your average lefty get-together. Not just because the average age was under 40. It was young, and fairly diverse, and would have been even bigger and more youthful had not all the uni students fled home for the summer (you class traitors, you).
It wasn’t just the usual suspects attending either – i.e. members of the 57-varieties of British socialist parties – although there was a fair sprinkling. There were union reps, college students, NHS campaigners, the unemployed, and more encouragingly, ordinary people who just fancied tackling the pro-cuts consensus. A coalition, if you like – just not one you’ll see running the country any time soon. Though we can hope.
Feedback from those who trekked down to the national People’s Assembly conference was mixed, but positive on the whole, with most seeing it as a springboard (dotted with rising red stars like Owen Jones and Mark Steel) for broader and more localised action. And York is already leading the way nationally in terms of how organised its group is, according to co-organiser Graham Martin.
Gone was the old language of the left. College students and nurses generally have little time for being called comrade or brother/sister (though personally I’m quite fond of the terms). Instead, and despite minor debates and deviations, the overall theme was one of actually doing stuff – petitioning, door-knocking, rallying, flash-mobbing and even, whisper it, striking. The full activist tool-kit.
That’s what will be needed to tackle the barrage of further cuts and privatisations coming our way – the sell-off of Royal Mail, the East Coast mainline and even the student loan book, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, NHS dismantlement by stealth, public sector lay-offs and union-bashing on an industrial scale. Among many other attacks, of course.
Yet in the face of all this, there’s plenty of resistance planned. In York, the petition to stop those hit by the bedroom tax being evicted over arrears is nearing the 1000 signatures required to force a debate. The Tory Conference in Manchester this September should see thousands march in the birthplace of the NHS against the so-called health ‘reforms’. November 5th – Bonfire Night – holds more exciting scenes as direct action takes place nationally on an unprecedented scale. And with teachers and civil servants on strike in coming months there’s plenty to organise around.
There’s a lot to do, little time and limited resources. And there are few mainstream allies, with Labour buying into the austerity-agenda wholesale. But perhaps at long last the left has, at least locally, come together and stopped lamenting its weakness over pints down the York Arms. It’s acquired a new vitality – and thank god, because we’re going to need it.
The next York People’s Assembly meeting is on July 29th, 7:30-9pm at Friends’ Meeting House, with an inaugural conference in October.