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Protest and Babylon

Author: joe

Tuesday, 30 November, 2010 - 19:10

I went to today's teach-in at Bournemouth University, where 150 students and staff spent two hours discussing the planned fee rises and associated education cuts; I reported back on the CoR conference - in summary, I said:

We have to see the cuts in a wider context. It's easy to be taken in by the rhetoric, largely unquestioned by the media, that tells us that cuts are inevitable, and that we have to have pain now so that we will be in a better position down the line. The cuts are not about some piece-meal slap-dash emergency measures trying to deal with a unexpectedly large deficit.
 
The cuts are actually targeting the poorest, most deprived, most vulnerable people in society - the unemployed, the council tenants, the sick, the users of social care like support for adults with learning difficulties, mental health services and medicine for long-term conditions. It is a concerted attack on civic resources, pensions, healthcare, housing benefit, child benefit, legal aid, libraries, fire-services and day-care.
 
It is an attempt by a cabinet full of millionaires to open up welfare to predatory private sector companies whose motivations are profit rather than well-being - so that speculators can profit from hardship. It is a systematic attack on the welfare state which is wholly ideologically driven.
 
The important response is solidarity - not just to fight fee rises and defend education, but to fight every cut and defend every service; not to pick and choose which cuts we want to fight, but to defend the principle of a welfare state which tries to prevent poverty and provide a safety net for the most unfortunate in society.

To be fair, that's probably a more succinct and eloquent version of what I really said, but hey. And obviously I repeated Tony Benn's anecdote (see the end of this post) about the boy in the mine shaft, because it's great.

What was really heartening was to see that so many people showed up to talk about what can be done. Can we emulate the student occupations elsewhere? Can we write an open letter to our VC asking for a clear rejection of the current HE proposals? Will the union support the students? How do we make the arguments? "What is to be done?" the trot inside me was thinking.

What was really worrying, though, was to hear that the cops had been calling up individual students on their mobiles, wanting to know what they were going to be doing in their protests, warning them that they might get arrested, and clearly trying to intimidate them and warn them off.

But that's the Babylon for you: there is no such thing as an impartial instrument of the state, and the fuzz are not good guys. I really hope the students here grasp a moment of political opportunity, and don't let the state scare them back into silence.

Categories: babylon, protest, education, cuts, solidarity, dayx2, bu,
Comments: 1

Coalition of Resistance Conference, 27th November

Author: joe

Monday, 29 November, 2010 - 09:51

On Saturday 27th November I attended the Coalition of Resistance conference. Here are my notes from the day.

Opening Plenary

The speakers opened with praise and applause for the recent actions of students and school-children in the protests on the 10th and 24th November. Amy Dunn, a girl who was trapped in the police kettle on the 24th November demonstrations in Whitehall spoke first, and started the conference off by asserting that resistance to the ConDem government will be incited and led by a new young generation of activists.

Claire Solomon, president of ULU then continued outlining the momentum which has begun with the student activism, noting that while young people are certainly protesting about the cuts proposed to education, they are not concerned with education alone and are linking their protests to other issues such as the war in Afghanistan; the line on the government is - "we're all in this together - but we're not with them!" She listed some of the achievements of the ongoing university occupations, including: South Bank university has agreed to the occupiers' demands; the SOAS occupation has attracted considerable support; and members (including the president) of UCU have supported protesters at Millbank and Whitehall.

Paul Mackney formerly of NATFHE was up next and spoke of how inspiring the example of Greece was - in particular the slogan, "Europe, rise up" - international co-ordination would be very important in achieving aims. The student unrest we've seen recently in the UK is already as big as the protests in 1968, and the message to the Met Commissioner (who has said "the game has changed") is "you haven't seen anything yet!" He referred to the senior Lib Dem leaders as Nick Pledge and Vince Fable. The response to the ConDem coalition's cuts must be militant and audacious - up to and including civil disobedience. Previous protest movements unseated the governments of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher and we must do it again now. He praised Claire Solomon's performance on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, especially when, accused of not answering a question, she replied, "but Jeremy, you're not asking the right question" - which ought to be, not about how to bolster up the ConDem coalition and the present system, but how to replace it and build a better world. We need more than Royal Weddings and happiness surveys to be pacified! CoR may be starting as a pressure group, but it must become a mass movement. Its focus should be mobilisation, not programmatic eloquence or dissipating all its energy amending statements to please everyone. He concluded by arguing that unemployment (the inevitable consequence of the cuts) is the cesspit in which the mosquitoes of racism breed.

Rachel Newton of the People's Charter was the next to speak. She began by saying that CoR is important because there is, as yet, no British-wide anti-cuts movement. Following the 2003 anti-war march which failed to move parliament, there has been the suggestion that the 'age of protest' is over. This is not true - especially not now when the protests are against a weak coalition government. The People's Charter, she said, is part of a process of trying to create an alternative global movement, in the mold of the first Chartist movement. She outlined a number of stages which were necessary to develop a successful movement, from developing at local levels, all the way up to attaining global solidarity. Real life is more interesting than any theory or schema! However, planned stages in the development of a movement are necessary.

Jean Lambert, Green Party MEP, talked about how we should come out of the 'crisis': as a different sort of society (in which 140K people would not be made unemployed in the coming year), and with the welfare state intact. The ConDem coalition talks about Big Society, but is making it impossible for collective and community action at ground level - most organisations which are currently funded by local authorities will lose all funding very soon. The CoR should also support the demonstration organised to highlight the environment crisis on 4th December. The way to tackle poverty should be by redistributing wealth and closing the gap between rich and poor. Recently 26 charities collectively published a report showing that while the government claims that there is £1.5bn lost in benefit fraud each year, this is dwarfed by both the £16bn of eligible benefits that are unclaimed each year, as well as the estimated £30bn of tax evasion by the very rich each year. The movement needs solidarity, vision and action.

John MacDonnell MP for Hayes and Harlington said the aim of the conference should be to plan anti-cut action; the Daily Mail was likely to portray him once again as inciting riots. He said the current generation of young people were supposed to be apathetic, selfish and careerist: however in recent weeks they have taught the older generation that they have been too long on their knees. In coming votes on tuition fee rises in parliament, he said abstention by the Lib Dems was not enough - they promised to vote against it and they should do so. He mentioned that in the new year, the Tax Justice Campaign would be campaigning and naming the top tax evaders in the country. He suggested that if those named don't cough up, we should become citizen tax collectors and repossess their houses and occupy their premises. When people whose housing benefit is cut are threatened with eviction, we should occupy their houses and support them against the bailiffs. When we elect representatives they should make 'no cuts' pledges. If Labour policy really is a blank sheet as it claims, they should write on it now: no cuts! The CoR should organise a major cultural and musical event that makes Glastonbury look like a school concert. There should be international solidarity and a Europe-wide day of action, and if the government doesn't listen we should resort to direct action to bring them down. The slogan should be: "We are all in it together: against them!"

Andrew Murray, chair of the Stop the War Coalition spoke next. He said he was often credited with organising the biggest march of recent times; however he hoped that the next demo would be bigger, and relieve him of the title. The CoR must adopt withdrawing from Afghanistan as part of its demands. He said the army is currently openly boasting that it can pick and choose recruits because their prospects are otherwise so bleak.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union began by describing the current government strategy as political 'shock and awe', through attacking so many sectors of society simultaneously and so drastically. Resistance is made to seem futile, while attacks on the welfare state are designed to sow division between people with work and people without, through stigmatisation. As long as there are not enough jobs for all those without work, there should be no cuts to benefits. In the years after the war, national debt was double what it is today, and rather than implementing cuts, investment was the way out. There is an estimated £120bn lost to tax evasion and avoidance by the very rich. In that context we should only respond - "no cuts, no job losses". Cameron, Clegg and Osborne will not be persuaded - we must force them to change policy through mass strikes. Solidarity is essential. The NUT and the UCU will be co-ordinating their strikes over cuts to pensions. Today we should leave determined to fight.

Len McCluskey, newly elected general secretary of Unite, criticised the mantra that the media drip-feeds: that there is no alternative to cuts, and the cuts are the fault of the public sector borrowing. The history of the worker movement tells us that there are alternatives. Public and private sector workers should not allow themselves to be divided by the rhetoric. After 13 years of labour, British workers are still the worst-protected workforce in Europe.

Christian Mahieux of the French union Solidaires spoke with a translator. The French have been conducting a campaign of strikes over 6 months, and in that time were learning from what was good and what was bad about their work, in order to improve with each new effort - because there always be a 'next effort' in class struggle. There are some essentials in this process: trade union unity, cross-sector co-operation, and redistribution of wealth. Take away from those who steal wealth for their own benefit, use it to protect those most in need. European solidarity was essential, and we should all support the demonstrations at the upcoming G8 and G20 meetings.

Lindsey German (Stop the War and CoR) celebrated the example of the students' protests, saying that they have demolished the argument that no-one opposes the cuts. The fact that school-children were kettled on 24th November was, she suggested, an example of collective punishment which is illegal under international law. They say "we're all in it together..." but Cameron isn't, and Osborne isn't. It is breathtaking that a government that is bombing Afghanistan has the cheek to decry violence in London. Tax should be spent on education and welfare, not Trident, subsiding privatised rail companies and war. To those who say, do you think dinner ladies should pay tax so that other people can go to university, we should reply: No! Tax the rich to pay for education, not dinner ladies.

Ken Loach, film-maker, stated that if we lose "this one", we'll lose all that we've known as an integrated society. When the state attacked working people last time by dismantling the unions, we lost. This time we must mobilise quickly. To those who merely argue the cuts are too fast and too deep and should be softened, we should retort that there should be no cuts. But cuts are implicit in the system: banks will always take risks, and big businesses require unemployment. Despite this, Cameron has the nerve to talk about "rewards according to our behaviour", or that benefits are "lifestyle choices": we must articulate an alternative society. We lost all the things we owned - railways, gas, electricity: now we have to reclaim it. We must confront our enemies with a full-frontal attack - not just the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, but Labour too: Ed Miliband's position on so-called "irresponsible" strikes demonstrates that he is not part of the anti-cuts movement. However, we must have successes: people will only demonstrate for so long if they do not see successes.

Bob Crow (RMT) was the final speaker of the opening plenary. He noted how different it was 5 years ago and would we have believed, before the crisis that the banks would have been bailed out, the students protesting, (and Scottish referees striking)? Everything that the workers have achieved has been through struggle. After the war, people returned home from fighting the fascists and demanded a fairer society. We should not kid ourselves that if Labour had won, that their policies would have been any different. If you want examples of civil disobedience - the closure of the mines and the steel industry was civil disobedience by the ruling class. Just marching with placards will not achieve anything: the Jarrow marchers achieved nothing for all their marching until they started throwing bricks through windows. The anti-cuts movements must promise to do the same as the students - go out, take direct action and protest.

Workshop - Organising against the cuts locally

This session consisted of representatives and delegates from organisations around the country each speaking briefly and sharing their experiences of mobilising support in their local areas: Haringey, Cambridge, Medway, Newham, Leeds, Doncaster, Camden, Northampton, Plymouth, Brighton, Wigan, Tyne and Wear, Lewisham, Portsmouth, Andover, Sheffield, Manchester, Lambeth, Bristol, Redhill, Islington - plus a couple of other speakers whose regions I didn't catch.

The experiences described ranged throughout the spectrum: Some speakers reported that they were regularly influencing council meetings and competing in elections on anti-cuts platforms; some spoke of being on a steep learning curve, having only started getting involved in the last year; one woman said that her entire family were affected by cuts, and just as she was often forced to take food from bins to get by and feed her family, she was also prepared to steal laminate from skips to protect a poster which she could then place in a window.

Examples from the speakers included rallying at or speaking out at council meetings; starting or joining, and growing 'Save Our Services' campaigns; getting involved with trades councils; activity within unions; lobbying councils in favour of "a million climate jobs"; going out and leafletting and knocking on doors; and linking up with different groups to grow a support base and share experiences and meet other activists.

There were recurring topics of note: the role of unions was raised, with some delegates stating that unions really could play a role. This was in the context of other remarks in the opening plenary which were critical of the unions generally - and the larger ones particularly - arguing that the leadership of these bodies often seemed more interested in moderation and compromise, perhaps for the sake of their own careers.

Some speakers underlined the fact there were voices which were silent at the meeting - those very vulnerable, such as those with physical or learning disabilities, as mentioned by one speaker involved in Mencap. The cuts are being passed down the line from government, to local authorities, to care organisations, and directly impacting care centres and care givers - affecting people who are now also no longer going to be able to access legal aid.

The question of unity and solidarity was aired in the context of whether activists from different organisations agree or disagree over other various cuts. Some groups' purpose may be a single-issue, such as saving libraries, or fighting tuition-fee rises, while such groups might not necessarily support other anti-cuts campaigns. The call was for groups to emphasise agreement and co-operate where interests meet, rather than argue about what anti-cuts campaigns they do not agree with. Therefore when students protest, other anti-cuts campaigns should join and augment such demonstrations; then perhaps when campaigns go forward on other issues, support might be forthcoming reciprocally. Solidarity in this context should mean "not a penny cut, not a job lost", regardless of the issue.

The role of the Labour party and Labour councils arose, with several delegates stating the many years they had been members of the party, until leaving very recently over the war in Iraq or other New Labour policies: some argued that no Labour council should be voting to implement any cut. The speaker (I think) from Lambeth said that a Labour council had called a meeting to discuss where the one third cuts they had to make should fall; his campaigners had attended and disrupted the meeting to demand that the other option of "no cuts" should be put forward. The general feeling seemed to be that Labour supporters should be calling for non-implementation, and voting out councillors and representatives who vote in favour of any cuts. The speaker from Islington suggested if we were serious about solidarity, we could even be courting disaffected Lib Dem supporters who felt betrayed by the policies of their party in government.

The other issue raised was the need to stay connected with local communities. The speaker from Brighton described how much momentum there had been in their local activities, and that they were planning to co-ordinate with other groups in nearby areas such as East and West Sussex. Despite this, though, it was important to keep the focus on the real local communities, rather than looking for answers up the chain. What was needed was people knocking on doors and talking people, either to raise awareness about locally planned cuts, or to develop support for campaigns - to the extent where they wanted a campaign group and delegates in every estate, ensuring the engagement of as many people as possible. Go back to communities to get 'society' out marching, not just the activists.

Workshop - Defending the Welfare State

I joined this session late after the lunch break, so missed the first speaker.

Jacky Davis of the BMA and the NHS Consultants' Association presented an analysis of the government's white paper on health-care reform. The paper is titled "Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS" - a nicely Orwellian wording. The cuts proposed in this white paper were not put forward in pre-election manifestos and have no mandate. The paper proposes making family doctors responsible for £80bn (80% of the existing NHS budget). Doctors, who have no desire or necessary expertise in procurement and accountancy, will be forced to turn to the private sector to manage healthcare procurement. Placing healthcare in the hands of for-profit organisations is tantamount to putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. Meanwhile the government will be able to blame GPs for any deterioration in services either from private sector driven efficiency savings, or funding freezes or cuts down the line. The (already iniquitous) responsibilities that NICE had - to decide which treatments should be made available through the NHS - will also pass to GPs. Once the £80bn budget is thus restructured, it will be open to competition within the private sector: part-privatisation will inevitably lead to competition. The cap on the number of private patients a service can take will be lifted, thereby creating pressure towards a two-tier system in which paying patients will be preferentially treated, while NHS patients will join increasing queues. To take a line from Blackadder, "the only flaw in this plan is that it is complete bollocks." Or, in the words of Voltaire, "may God make our enemies ridiculous", because it is essential that we stop the proposals in this white paper.

Eileen Short spoke on behalf of the Defend Council Housing Campaign. The government plans to raise council housing rates to within 80% of market value, insist that new tenants take on time-limited tenancies, as well as the much-publicised proposal to reduce Housing Benefit payments to job-seekers who have been out of work for more than one year. These proposals amount to devastating threats to tenants. However council tenants have a history of defying and defeating government policy. If the plans go through, the immediate impact will be that for the 1.5 million current households (half of whom are actually working, but need their low income supplemented by HB) there will be only 1 million council homes.

Chris Nineham (Stop the War coalition, Cor) spoke next. He noted that the current plans have echoes of Thatcherism, but Thatcher's attack on the welfare state was salami-sliced - picking off services, unions and sectors one by one, so that their ability to form defensive allegiances was difficult. The ConDem coalition plans, on the other hand amount to shock and awe, mounting a massive attack on all sectors simultaneously. This is not a piecemeal attempt to deal with the deficit, but an attempt at a whole-sale re-engineering of society in favour of the rich, and the destruction of the post-war settlement. The media is saturated with messages convenient to the government - discourses of inevitability. But these messages must be fought. The top 4 UK banks' combined assets total £5712bn - 459% of the UK's GDP. We shouldn't be pessimistic, there are (unreported) successes at local levels: under the radar, campaigns are winning. People power shapes the world we are in.

Closing Plenary

There were 1300 written registrations at the conference, and 122 nominations to the CoR's national council, of whom 37% were women. The 50% representation remains an aspiration. A vote overwhelmingly agreed to defer decisions on amendments to the next meeting of the council which will be within 6 months. Tony Benn was unanimously adopted as the president of CoR by a standing ovation.

Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention was the first to speak. Pensioners have a responsibility to today's students, to try to ensure that they are not left in the same situation that pensioners are in today. The welfare state is not "for the poor" - it is a universal service whose function is to prevent poverty.

Chris Bambery of the Right to Work campaign said that RTW and CoR would take mutual places on the steering committees of each organisation. There should be no more games, now is the time for unity. At the coming day of protest on Tuesday 30th November, workers should go out and block roads in solidarity with students. In order to achieve our goals, we should shut down UK plc altogether.

Lee Jasper spoke on behalf of BARAC - Black Activists Rising Against Cuts. He said the cuts will hit the black community disproportionately - there is already a 16% unemployment gap between black and white. We should place equity at the forefront of the movement, and unite against a vindictive government pursuing a bloody class war. The BNP and the EDL will be looking for opportunities to exploit the social division that arise in communities hit by cuts, so we should stand in anti-racist unity against the cuts.

Alf who spoke next was raising money. Our job, he said, is to bury the Lib Dems and replace them with our own alternative. The violence was caused by the police horses and the cuts, not the students. Give generously! Pay now, or pay later under Osborne and Cameron!

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP, refered to Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine - the practice of using the IMF and World Bank to force neo-liberal policies onto 3rd world countries at the expense of providing welfare, heathcare, education or living wages. This doctrine is now being enforced in Europe. It is possible to fight back against these policies - examples of this are Venezuela and Bolivia. The media have perpetuated stereotypical images of Greece, portraying them as lazy, unemployed and work-shy, but recently they have shown that they are prepared to take to the streets to demonstrate. He was in Lisbon at the same time as a Nato meeting, attending a parallel peace summit, and reported the surrealism of world leaders agreeing policies on more nuclear weapons and extension of the occupation of Afghanistan, while outside workers were demonstrating and calling for a general strike. The key points to remember were: defend the principle of the welfare state, and recognise that the coalition government is rattled.

John Rees (Stop the War and CoR) spoke next. He said that the message of this government of Eton boys was clear: "know your place". The attack on education meant that the poorest parts of society would not be able to pursue their goals, and the elites were essentially telling them: "you can be a hairdresser, you can be a plumber, but don't even think about being a philosopher, an artist or a historian". These people want to turn the clock back to the 1930s, but we are going to stop them. To Cameron and co - "you wanted Big Society, well this is the Big Society - and the Big Society is coming after you!" We must make 26th March a crushing demonstration. Every great resistance movement - the Chartists, the Levellers, the Suffragettes and the General Strikers - all of these movements were a mosaic of small acts.

Lowkey, musician, rapper and activist was next to speak. He suggested that those MPs who got their higher education for free should retrospectively pay £9000 for each year of their degrees. Clegg had reneged on other promises too, such as an arms embargo on Israel.

Kate Hudson from CND said that the government's plans were an onslaught of the ruling class to smash the welfare state. The last Labour government had failed to defend its party's greatest achievement. All nuclear funding should be diverted. The few thousand jobs that would be lost in the nuclear industry would be more than compensated by the many more thousands of jobs that would be created in the green sector if the same money was directed at environmental technologies.

Tony Benn was the final speaker. He started by describing his career in the air-force. A young soldier with him had noted that during war there was full employment - and if we can have full employment for war, why not for peace too, in building hospitals, schools and housing? All the things that are most important to us are not about profit: we don't learn just for profit, we don't get healthcare on the basis of the need to pay. We need solidarity. He had anecdote about solidarity: in a closed-down mining village, a child falls down a pit shaft. The villagers gather at the shaft head, and throw down a rope, but it is too short; they throw down a second longer one which also is too short; a third, still longer rope, is nevertheless still too short. The child shouts up the shaft - "Tie them together!" That is the meaning of solidarity. As well as being about resistance, this campaign should be educational. We should be making the arguments and dispelling all the excuses used to try to dismantle the welfare state.


Categories: coalition of resistance, cuts, protest, conference,
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