The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – A Round-Up

Over 4000 gathered in Westminster Central Hall in London on Saturday for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, organised by the Coalition of Resistance with the backing of major unions. The day aimed to be one of ‘discussion and debate’ focusing on how to ‘turn the tide on austerity’. 15 sessions and workshops took place to discuss how to tackle the cuts, protect public services and launch co-ordinated action – building on massive local PA gatherings in recent months.

Owen Jones began the conference, describing workers as ‘the real wealth creators’ and calling for unity on the left, as well as mass civil disobedience to reverse austerity.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady also spoke in the opening plenary, describing the Tory-led government’s attacks as ‘class war’. ‘They fight for their side – so we will fight for ours’. She called for the bedroom tax to be scrapped and replaced with a mansion tax. She encouraged delegates to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ in communities and workplaces across Britain. Unite’s Steve Turner spoke to promote the TUC and Unite bus tours currently going round the UK, with Unite’s ‘People United’ tour launching from the People’s Assembly on the day.

In the ‘Mobilising Millions: Re-Unionising the UK’ session, a range of speakers from both the floor and panel discussed how to revitalise the trade union movement here, especially among the traditionally unorganised.

  • Kelly Tomlinson from Unite explained the urgency of educating young people about unions, and urged delegates to talk to their friends who are not members and get them involved. She pointed to the recently established Unite Community membership scheme as a way of organising those who aren’t in work.
  • John Hendy QC explained ‘the problem of the British economy is the collapse of collective bargaining’. He noted the spectacular decline in collective bargaining coverage in the UK, from 82% in the late 1970s to just 23% now, despite the European average still being around 80%. The UK has been hit hardest by anti-union crackdowns, despite collective bargaining being an internationally-recognised human right.
  • Speakers from the floor noted the surge in outsourcing, the continuing stagnation in wages (a pre-recession trend), the dramatic rise in executive pay and inequality (the CEO average being £4.5m), and the fact that 2/3rds of children in poverty live in a household with at least one parent in work. Others described the rise in casualised labour in Further Education (at 60%), the recent successful organising campaign by BECTU among (largely young and non-British) Visual Effects workers, and other recent organising drives among service sector workers, such as BFAWU’s 100% union density among Greggs workers in Leeds!  One speaker congratulated last Thursday’s strike at Huddersfield College which was 80-pickets strong. A key call from delegates was for the TUC to ‘name the date’ for a general strike.
  • Unite construction workers also pointed to low union density not always being a barrier, noting the recent successful ‘sparks’ campaign against pay cuts by grass-roots activists in the sector. Another speaker also said being a small workplace was no barrier – indeed in his own outsourced company it made it easier to organise and quickly reach high levels of density (in his case over 90%) due to campaigns being easier to win with a small workforce.

In other sessions, Unite’s Andrew Murray spoke of the need for workers to make the country ‘ungovernable’ if austerity continues, pointing to up-coming co-ordinated industrial action. A huge groundswell of potential support for an alternative to austerity exists, with PA organiser Sam Fairbairn noting that around 30% of the public consistently oppose all cuts. Co-organiser John Rees called for national action of all forms on the 5th November – Bonfire Night. He also proposed the draft PA declaration, to be fully ratified at the recall People’s Assembly in early 2014 and discussed by local PA’s in the meantime.

Excellent participatory workshops saw groups split off to draw answers to important modern problems – media ownership, fixing the political system, reforming the City and so on. The workshop on building local People’s Assemblies saw regional People’s Assemblies begin to emerge through discussion, with one planned for Yorkshire and cities within it. A Facebook page and email list will shortly be established, along with an informal meeting at the end of June in Leeds.

Green MP Caroline Lucas used the conference to announce her plans to introduce a bill this week to renationalise rail. She also called for hope among the left and an end to negativism.

The People’s Assembly trended on Twitter over the whole of Saturday, and was covered by most of the major news networks.

In the closing plenary, Len McClusky called for co-ordinated anti-austerity strike action, mass civil disobedience and all possible resistance – even so far as breaking the anti-union laws – to reverse the cuts. He demanded of the wealthy – ‘pay your taxes, you greedy bastards!’, and explained the annual earnings of the top world billionaires could wipe out world poverty. Disabled activist Francesca Martinez said the country’s elite are keen to ‘keep their profits, but share the deficit’.

Throughout the day speakers called on delegates to support the NUT/NASUWT joint strike action over the coming months, to march against the Tory conference in Manchester on September 29th, and to rally on the NHS’s 65th birthday on July 5th.


The Left in Labour – what to make of the LRC Conference

The left in the Labour party face an important year. Saturday saw well over a hundred delegates, members and observers come together for the annual Labour Representation Committee conference in London. The conference coincided with the Fabian Society conference, marking an important day for the left in the Labour party. The LRC unites over a thousand left-wing activists both inside and outside of Labour, and Saturday saw intense debate over the future of the LRC – in particular whether to involve itself with other anti-cuts groups, or to remain the main group in the Labour party arguing for socialist values and policy.

LRC leader John McDonnell MP gave a rousing opening speech, calling for solidarity and resistance to the government’s cuts and privatisation agenda. Tony Benn, arriving later, also spoke of ‘demanding, not protesting’ that the government changes course. He was met with standing applause on entrance and after the speech for his dedication to the cause, despite him being in his 80s. He constantly attends anti-cuts meetings around the country, and has been on the picket lines over the past year supporting workers defending their jobs.

Other speakers included Tunisian exile Mohammed Ali, who spoke passionately about the uprising in Tunisia at the moment, with thousands of students and workers opposing the government’s oppressive West-backed regime.

The issue of union affiliation was raised by a Communist Students amendment which called for ‘all unions to affiliate to the Labour party’, a contentious point. But because there was no modification process this could not be removed from the otherwise positive amendment. Most unions reject the idea of affiliating to the party until Labour becomes an organisation which truly supports the working-class.

An amendment from Left Front Art in support of LGBT community groups draw unanimous support. Near unanimous support was also received for calls for a more democratic Labour party and party conference.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the day was the calls for the LRC to be less London-centric – for example, conference to be held in Birmingham in the future, and for executive committee meetings to be held in areas other than London – Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh being clear options. A comrade from Exeter supported this proposal, noting how difficult it is for many in the South West to get up to London with increased rail fare and high accommodation costs.

John McDonnell summed up the mood when he said the Tory-led government’s attack on both the unemployed and working people amounts to a all-out ‘class war’.

Islington Labour Councillor Charlynne Pullen bravely came forward and explained why she had voted for a cuts budget: ‘this is not the ’80s’, referring to militant Labour councils in the north of England voting against budgets which slashed services and jobs. To many though it appeared hypocritical that she has been campaigning against the cuts in her area while at the same time voting for them. There are indeed huge problems for councils who refuse to set legal budgets – but the majority of LRC members believe Labour councillors must vote against the cuts, and instead resign in protest, or stay on and face the consequences for the sake of local communities – mostly deprived communities – being slashed by the neoliberal axe of Osbourne.

It is hoped that by the end of the year there will be a Devon and Cornwall LRC group, following on from the establishment of groups in Hampshire and Teeside. As the saying goes – ‘two is company, three is a branch’. The growth of the left in Cornwall can also be seen in the Socialist Party’s aims to establish a branch in Cornwall within the next few months.

There were some problems with the conference – the second half was rushed, some speakers were wrongfully heckled and some amendments were given too little discussion time. One speaker noted that ‘the left prefer fighting ourselves to the enemy’, a point being raised in anti-cuts groups around the UK, some of which are suffering from sectarianism. Matt Wrack of the FBU offered similar criticisms. But the conference on the whole was passionate and supportive of all organisations fighting the cuts in a bold rejection of infighting and internal chaos (which Compass, the centre-left element within Labour, is being torn apart by).

The message of the conference was therefore clear. Councillors must oppose the cuts. LRC activists should be at the heart of community campaigns. And 2011 must be the year that the myriad anti-cuts groups unite under one banner in defence of public services and our welfare state.




Cornwall Anti-Cuts to Meet on 26th Jan

The next meeting of Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance has been confirmed for the 26th of January. All who are opposed to cuts are urged to attend the meeting which will be from 6:30pm until 8:30pm at Truro Sixth Form (near the police station), room 71.

The last meeting saw students, workers and activists come together to talk about plans for the anti-cuts movement in Cornwall.

On the 26th it is hoped that street stalls, protests, leafletting and online campaigning will be discussed so as to plan for the TUC demonstration in London on the 26th of March, and also local actions related to UK Uncut and the student movement.

Get involved in the anti-cuts fight in Cornwall and come to the meeting on the 26th of January.

Activists storm council in Truro against scrapping of EMA

Around 40 students and activists marched over two miles to County Hall in Truro today to protest against the government’s scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance. The demonstrators marched with placards saying ‘Don’t Con-Dem Us to Unemployment’, chanting ‘education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes’. The march was met with huge support from members of the public.Upon arriving at County Hall, the main Cornwall Council building, the protesters continued chanting and many members of staff and councilors offered their support. The cold weather and exam period had meant many could not attend but the atmosphere was incredibly positive.

Most dramatically though was when six protesters got into the main council meeting and began putting up anti-cuts posters and shouting ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’, before being removed. The short occupation shifted the debate from the trivial topic of an adult products store in the city to the more important matter of education and funding for deprived students.

Max Stephens, a college student and activist, said ‘The fight-back has started and we invite people in Cornwall to join us in solidarity in future actions.’ Lisa Camps, another main organiser, echoed this – ‘We won’t let our voices be drowned out amid the government’s vehemently anti-student rhetoric.’

Another Truro College student said ‘The EMA helps thousands of students from low-income backgrounds in Cornwall and across the country continue with higher education, and despite the turnout the demonstration today was an important part of the overall campaign against the cuts in the county.’

The protest was organised as part of Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance after several large protests in the city against cuts to education, and represented part of the resistance campaign. There will be more demonstrations as socialists, workers and students plan their next moves for the local fight-back.

Demonstrations like these are bringing various left-wing groups and community organisations together in the county – today saw comrades from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, SWP, Labour, anarcho-syndicalists and even Lib Dem councilors uniting.

This is our generation’s 1980s

For a lot of people under 30,  the ’80s seem not much different to any other decade before then – a dark, bygone age, which though still despised, is viewed as somehow irrelevant nonetheless. That may be starting to change. Though the Thatcher era shifted the main stage of politics to the right, the very opposite may now be happening. Just as the neoliberal doctrines of Thatcher’s time were challenged by socialists – Scargill’s NUM being the Conservatives’ staunch and powerful opponent for several years – now we are seeing a new generation of increasingly outspoken students and activists willing to take on the Tory-led government. Whether this movement’s fate will be the same as the miners’ remains to be seen.

Take one comparison. The NUPE (a large public sector union) in the 1980s was drawn sharply to the left because of the sheer scale of the attack on workers’ rights and conditions coming from the Tory government. Last month, Unite (the largest British union) elected Len McCluskey to general secretary on a socialist slate. It seems the force of right may be increasingly counterbalanced by a growing left – and one that is younger and more vibrant than the left of the 1980s. Unions will have a huge role to play in the fight against the cuts, but the student movement looks set to become more prominent in the fight than was expected – especially after aeons of the old ‘lazy/apathetic student’ stereotype.

Crises polarise politics. But politics becomes even more polarised when those in power betray the electorate – and I’m not just talking about the Lib Dems. Cameron was calling any VAT rise ‘regressive’ during the election campaign, and the Lib Dems essentially campaigned against a VAT rise altogether. In just a week it will go up to 20% – the highest it has ever been. Similarly, in ’79, Thatcher had promised not to double VAT, a promise only narrowly kept after she raised it from 8% to 15%.

In No Such Thing As Society, Andy McSmith points out that the Thatcher years merely resulted in a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Indeed, the UK’s richest boosted their wealth by 55% last year, and executive pay at the top is literally thousands of times the average wage.

There are countless more examples showing the parallels between today and 30 years ago. Thatcher’s attempts at cutting public spending actually increased public spending as a proportion of GDP, because as simple economics dictates, putting people out of work does not solve our financial problems. What is does do is increase the benefit burden and lower tax revenue.

The astonishing emergence of the UK Uncut anti-tax dodging movement finds little company in the 1980s, but that is not to say tax dodging was not an issue. While over 3 million were unemployed, the company Vestey was raking in £4m profits. How much tax did the business pay on it? £10. Ten. Pounds. Sounds a little like Sir Green, does it not?

And as our financial woes were exacerbated at home, our international relations were becoming increasingly fraught, with the threat of nuclear war at the back of everyone’s minds. The narrative of the Cold War does not need to be retold here, but the West/USSR tensions are not unlike the tensions today between the ‘West’ and Iran, North Korea, China etc, viz ‘Eastern’ nations. Indeed our plan to upgrade the Trident nuclear missile system is a mirror image of Thatcher’s upgrading of the Polaris system to Trident, at an immense cost to the tax-payer.

The police, as an arm of the state, seem determined to destroy legitimate political dissent. As their tactics become more violent, so the reaction of demonstrations will become more volatile. Images like mounted police batoning strike pickets in the 1980s may become more frequent in the age of austerity.

We cannot predict what will happen over the next four years. But with the resistance to the cuts getting more support by the day, with more outspoken union leadership and with campaigns such as the Coalition of Resistance and Education Activists’ Network working alongside each other for a common cause it is looking like this decade may become the our generation’s Thatcher years, only this time, we’re seeing former miners linking arms with their sons and daughters to move the goal-posts back to the left.

UCL and Plymouth Occupations Continue – Porter Endorses Campaign. Day X2 Not Far Away Now…

The NUS have over the past couple of weeks come under criticism for perceived lack of action after the 10th November demonstration. Many feel the NUS, and in particular its president, Aaron Porter, have been too slow to support the occupations of uni buildings across the country. This has weakened the campaign.  However, Aaron Porter has finally come out in his recognition of the legitimacy of occupations and walk-outs and spoken at the UCL occupation.

In his statement, Aaron Porter apologised for his ‘dithering over the past few days’ and admitted the NUS had been ‘spineless’ in its lack of support – an apology which was received warmly by students at UCL, and indeed in other universities and colleges.

Meanwhile, the University of Plymouth occupation also continues in the Roland Levinsky building. I give my full support and solidarity to these students and hope to visit them over the next week if the occupation continues. Trade unionists are being invited to speak and offer their practical support in terms of food, bedding and company. This truly is becoming a united movement.

Students in London are also uniting with rail workers and members of the RMT and TSSA unions, led by the respected comrade Bob Crow. Over 100 sites are being picketed, and students launched a campaign a couple of days ago in support of the workers’ industrial action against mass firings and the subsequent impact on passenger safety. The Facebook page of the campaign can be found by clicking here.

Sussex University students published their list of demands to the university heads yesterday, calling for the university to oppose the cuts and for solidarity between workers and young people fighting against forced austerity.

The Education Activist Network and NCAFC are working together in anticipation of the second Day of Action, dubbed Day X2. Students from Truro College, Green Party members, Labour activists, trade unionists and other pressure groups will be demonstrating as part of Day X2 in Truro, in opposition to the budget which aims to cut spending by over £110m. I am informed by councillors that Truro Council are unanimously against the cuts, regardless of party differences, and a large percentage of the Unitary Council oppose the budget. Our presence there at 8am on Tuesday may therefore be what is needed to successfully persuade councillors to reject the unfair budget and aim for a fairer and progressive alternative for Cornwall.

Student protest and occupation in Ireland

Video: Student protest and occupation in Ireland | Coalition of Resistance Against Cuts & Privatisation.

Students in Dublin have been protesting in the thousands over the past week about massive cuts to education. This video highlights a frightening level of police brutality, but illustrates also the strong feelings of anger and disgust that they are feeling – that they are being attacked and not the bankers and millionaires who caused the financial crisis.

As we see student protests in the UK over the next week, momentum will build and build against student fees and Osbourne’s axe. The potential is there to successfully tackle the government’s plans, but either way, we have to make our voices heard.

The coalition of resistance, started by Tony Benn earlier this year, is at the forefront of the fight. Hopefully the movement will spread to Cornwall soon.