North London People’s Assembly Fighting Austerity Conference: Report. (Paul Atkin)

This conference (held in a former community school converted into a lively Greek Cypriot community centre in the 1980’s- instead of luxury flats or a free school as it might be now) was a big success; bringing together several hundred local activists from many unions, community campaigns and political currents (from Labour to Greens to far left) while being a front for none of them. It was a confident and lively conference combining grey old hacks like me with a growing group of very capable young activists. This model for the viable mass anti-austerity campaign we need was supported in speeches by Jeremy Corbyn MP, Lindsay German and Andy Bain (Islington Hands Off Our Public Services) amongst others.

Context

The continued ferocious assault on living standards, conditions of work and union rights from the government and individual companies (Grangemouth).

A domestic economic “recovery” based entirely on debt based consumption (the same pattern that led to the crash in 2008) that still requires most of us to have declining wages for the foreseeable future. Maxing out the credit card (or taking a loan from Wonga) suddenly seems to be virtuous in practice, while the government’s rhetoric still proclaims the need for sound money - a wonderful example of Orwell’s notion of “doublespeak”- the ability to believe two contradictory things simultaneously and promote both with complete conviction. Of course, the complete failure to invest by either the government or the private sector means this is going to end in tears.

A recalibration of class relations so that new jobs are increasingly unskilled, insecure, low wage; the children of everyone bar the wealthiest 10% projected to be worse off than their parents as the new norm for all the advanced capitalist countries. The same pattern as here is taking place in supposedly successful Germany and most other European countries; and has been the norm in the United States for thirty years. This will have big political implications as it works itself out, not automatically positive of course. We have to have at least a continental perspective to respond to this, as country by country resistance will find it difficult to cut against more culturally ingrained and media promoted national insularity.

Issues discussed included

·         Resistance to attacks on pay and conditions by unions (NUT/NASUWT, UCU, FBU, CWU) raise deeper issues about, for example,  what education is for, what and whose purposes it serves; that require broader community campaigns not just traditional industrial disputes. In our case, the shift in the economic structure to more and more insecure low wage jobs in a context of social immobility underpins Gove’s curriculum reforms; which are designed to construct a series of ever higher hurdles for the least advantaged (to keep us in our place; while convincing us that that’s all we deserve because we haven’t made the grade).

·         Resistance to attacks on hospital services (partial successes in Lewisham and at the Whitt) also require mass community mobilisation.

·         Resistance to privatisation of local services by “easy jet” Tory councils like Barnet leads to mass initiatives that put solutions based on solidarity on the agenda (occupying and sustaining local libraries for example) and can expose and bring down some of our enemies (Brian Coleman of blessed memory).

·         Resistance to attacks on legal rights (facility time for union officers, legal aid).

·         Resistance to war (success in heading off Syrian intervention partly down to ten years of campaigning since the Iraq war).

·         Building networks between all these campaigns is essential, as is taking broader initiatives that bring them together, like the November 5th day of Action.

How do we win?

I’d like to flag up the contribution of the speaker from PCS (the Civil Service Union) who have one of the best records of active campaigning in the trade union movement, both in the immediate interests of their members and making wider campaigning links. This was one view. There were others, but I think this is clear, concrete and looks reality in the eye without self delusion. I paraphrase.

There are two strategic choices in responding to the government’s attacks in the movement today.

1.       Waiting for Labour. Keep our heads down and hope Ed will sort everything out after 2015. This has two pitfalls. It makes us passive in the meantime and disarms us against the continued “austerity lite” economic framework of an incoming Labour government.

2.       Actively mobilise and resist now. This is not the same as presuming we are all in a position to have an all-out offensive all the time. We are in a defensive situation, we need to pick our battles and we won’t win all of them. But we will win some; and every time we resist, we build up organisation and hope. Part of this has to be about using new communication technology, innovative campaigning techniques, seeking alliances and common demands, so we can act together, and looking beyond the unions to make links with and mobilise the communities we work with and for. These fights, in resisting this government, are also shots across the bows of the next and should shape demands to put upon it. The scale of the hospital mobilisations helped produce Labour’s commitment to repeal the Health Act, the scale of mobilisations against war year in year out helped determine Milliband’s refusal to give the government a blank cheque and ensured Cameron’s defeat in the Commons in August).

 

Last word to Ken Livingstone  on what we’re about at a deeper level (again I paraphrase)

Being rich doesn’t make you happy. I’ve known a lot of rich people. Robert Maxwell, even before he was stealing from the Mirror pension fund, was miserable as sin because Murdoch was richer. Tony Blair, worth £63 million and haunted by his failures...

Or, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez put it, “the opposite of solidarity is solitude.”

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