Saturday, 26 October 2013

Birmingham Peoples' Assembly

I wasn't well when I attended the inaugural meeting of Birmingham Peoples' Assembly on Thurday night, and can't really do justice to it. With great daring and a small revolver, I feloniously kidnapped one of Adam Yosef's pics to illustrate the meeting; I'm sitting in the front row, in the green coat, and the Birmingham Clarion Singers are playing.

I went with nightmare visions of nobody turning up, but when I arrived an hour before it was due to start, I found there was already a buzz, and I was soon sitting at the door registering people. In the event, we got around 250, which isn't bad for Birmingham, as it lacks a radical Left tradition.

We had a notable array of speakers, including Paul Nowak, TUC Assistant General Secretary, Salma Yaqoob, Doug Morgan of the NUT, and Lee Baron, CWU Regional Secretary. If I heard right, there are now nineteen Peoples' Assemblies round the country, some in Tory constituencies. It seems we've started something, and there's no knowing where we're going to end up. That's no bad thing; if we set out with a fixed agenda, we'd be in danger of becoming nothing more than another Left splinter group. As it is, we've got space to grow organically, and develop new ideas for the new situations which have developed over the last generation.

I think we've started something vital, but we can't stop there. We need regular gatherings where we can talk about issues in detail, in a democratic, inclusive way where everyone can bring constructive points. We can't afford to fall into the old Left model of having shouting matches over each others' visions of some  imaginary socialist paradise, or different strategies to bring it about. From now on the only witches we hunt need to be on the political right. We have to reach a new, much wider audience or we're going nowhere.

One of the root problems which have led to our current democratic deficit, and the apathy it breeds, has been the lack of grassroots discussion forums for political issues. The media have been virtually taken over by the Right, the parties have abolished whatever democratic structures they once possessed, and the elite, whatever label they wear, effectively rule by fiat, with nothing between them but nuance. Andy Burnham promises to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, but says nothing about undoing the damage the Tories will already have done by then, or reversing that which 'New Labour' did before them. Nothing to say that the stealth privatisation of the NHS won't continue by a thousand cuts. Nothing changes but the style; gentle euthanasia rather than Cameron's bull in a china shop, and it's not good enough. A witches' bonfire would be too good for the lying bastards.

The Peoples' Assembly needs to become the forum we lack, and it has the potential for this. The idea has a grand pedigree, all the way back to the First Secession of the Plebs in 495 BC. The plebeians, or working people, of Rome left the city, and met together outside it. Effectively, it was a general strike - something we badly need if the unions ever have the bottle to call one - and changes resulted. Of course, the patricians remained in charge, like Old Etonians today, and those changes were only incremental. We need something more fundamental. We need to sweep away the rotten institutions of the old order before they bring the planet down about our ears. To do that, we need to replace them with better, and that's where we need these open conversations, lots of them. We have to pick up every last issue, pick it over thoroughly, and find a solution which is going to work, not just for a few wealthy individuals for the little time they have on this earth, but for everyone, and for the planet, for many lifetimes to come.

The centre which used to seem so secure has come apart; the falcon is wintering in Africa. Slow-thighed beasts, their hour come round at last, are slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.  We'd better make sure we're the midwives, and it's our beast that gets born, or the future could be  unspeakable. All the dystopian SF I used to read is waiting to return as reality.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Times they are a-Changing

We always knew that, eventually, we were going to win the battle over the Bedroom Tax. It's so badly thought out that it's unworkable, especially given the drastic shortage of one-bedroom flats in social housing. But there have been times when it's felt hopeless. We've never managed to build up the sort of mass campaign that brought down Thatcher and her Poll Tax. It could probably have been done locally, in Ladywood, and still could be. But that would mean holding meetings at least once a month, and putting a lot of time into supporting people. The support hasn't been there to enable this to happen. Other cities have been more successful, but even there it hasn't been on the scale it might have been.

However, we're making our mark. Back in May, we lobbied the surgery of Albert Bore, the Council Leader and one of my local councillors. Ladywood has more people affected by the Bedroom Tax, so we couldn't have found anyone more appropriate to discuss it with. The surgery was held at the Council House - an odd, intimidating venue to choose - and they really didn't want us there. They locked the door against us, and only reluctantly let a couple of people in.

Last Tuesday, we lobbied the full Council meeting, and couldn't have had a more different reaction. Cllr John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Social Cohesion and Equalities (seen above talking to campaigners), came out, all smiles, with an official, collected 1500 signatures on a petition calling for no evictions - the latest batch, since we've handed a lot in previously - and we had a good talk. They were furious about the way the government has effectively set them up to fail, leaving them to administer something unworkable, with inadequate funding. They wouldn't promise no evictions, but they did emphasise that there are a lot of legal steps to go through before reaching that point, and that the don't want to evict. I'm sure that's true, but Housing Association tenants are less secure, due to the different conditions of tenancy. A stronger lead from the Council would make it easier to help them.

The change is partly due to the pressure on the Council, which must be unbearable for those working in housing. They're not bad people, even if they don't have the bottle to fight until they're really pushed. A large part of it, though, is due to campaigning. We've kept the Bedroom Tax in the public eye, made people aware of its stupidity, and scored a real coup when we got Raquel Rolnik, the UN invesitgator, on our side. It made the news in a way other aspects of the campaign haven't. We've made the politicians feel our presence as well, and however threatened the Council may have been a few months ago, they now seem, hopefully, to be viewing us as allies. 

We may not have had a mass campaign on the streets, but we've had a major internet presence, and that's made a vast amount of difference. Without it, nothing might have happened anywhere else. We mustn't underestimate the importance of traditional campaigning; protests, stalls, leafletting, etc, all reach out to people in a way the internet doesn't, especially when we're talking about the poorest, who often lack internet skills and access. Sometimes they get us coverage in the media, though most of them are suppressing news about protest. The miserable reporting of the NHS march in Manchester said it all. The BBC was challenged over it's pathetic effort, and all we got from them was a complacent piece of self-congratulatory media-speak. When 50 000 people hit the streets, they all know something's going on in the grassroots, and the only thought in their heads is to suppress it and hope it goes away.

They probably remember the Stop the War protests. They went away; a lot of people dropped it once the war reached its premature official end, and eventually the numbers turning out faded. But public opinion changed just at that time, and that wasn't coincidence. Until then, there had been widespread support for Blair's neocolonial adventures; since, wars have been unpopular, and that has to have fed into the government's unprecedented failure to win a vote on Syria. The NHS is different, however. Most people hold it in deep respect, and as the Tories try to kill it off via the death of a thousand cuts, so the protests will no doubt rumble on, and probably grow. I don't think their successors will dare privatise any further, but they need to be pushed into renationalising the bits that will already have been sold off. The likely result is deep damage, and the final demise of the Tory Party as an electoral force. We don't have to change public opinion on that one, just channel it.

The Bedroom Tax campaign may be quieter, but we're making steady progress. The last poll I saw showed 60% wanting it abolished. There are still a few people out there who claim it's 'fair', but most people understand fairness our way. It'll take time, and people are still suffering, but we're well on the way to winning this one. What we can't do is allow it to become a single issue campaign. We need to support the victims of the tax, while at the same time using it to raise awareness of the wider situation. If the Bedroom Tax is unfair, so is expecting people on inadequate benefits to contribute to their Council Tax; so are arbitary benefit sanctions; so is the treatment being meted out to disabled people; so are zero hours contracts. And so on.

With Labour threatening to be tougher on benefits than the Tories - the mind boggles - we need to use this as a wedge issue to raise awareness of other abuses. Let's be in no doubt about it; things like the Bedroom Tax, constant benefit sanctions, and ATOS assessments are abuses, and serious ones. They leave people without money to live on, in the seventh richest country in the world. What kind of nation are we, to wilfully leave people without the means to but food or heat their homes? Mainstream politics gives us a choice between the Tories, Tory lite (the remnants of the once great Labour Party), the Lib Dems, who'll pimp themselves to anyone to get a seat in government, and UKIP if you consider it a mainstream party. I don't. Here's Conservative Home crowing because Labour is stealing their clothes.

This is why we need a new party of the Left. Right now, the electorate is visibly to the left of Labour, supporting, for instance, renationalisation of rail, of utilities, of the Royal Mail. There's a political vacuum in Westminster, and we need to fill it, fast. Not only to build a party, but to avoid the awful alternative of some sort of zenophobic national socialism borrowing garments from both us and the traditional Right. The would-be emperors are fighting over invisible clothes, their willies waggling in the breeze, and sooner or later something will replace them. We don't need a Mussolini.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Manchester NHS March in Pictures

Well done to everyone organising transport to Manchester on Sunday; it was a pretty slick operation. There must have been hundreds of them, and somehow everyone managed to end up in the right place.

Eventually we got moving. There were police everywhere at first, but they rather faded out as we left the commercial centre, apart from dogs outside the Tory conference venue. The high point of theiir operation as far as I was concerned was a horse which suddenly bolted, leaving its rider sprawling in the dirt.

After a bit we passed the Tory conference venue, accompanied by loud boos, while the police dogs remained at a safe distance behind a barrier. The odd man in a suit scuttled past, no doubt worrying about ropes and lamp posts.

Allegedly a BBC presenter was prevented from filming by the security there, but they weren't in evidence, and even if that is the case, it doesn't explain why they didn't film the rest of the protest, or just move across the road.

Funny how we felt so much more secure than they did! I wonder what they think they've got to be so scared of?

The march was quite long - I suppose it had to be given the numbers expected; on the day; on the day, the police were saying it was a mile and a half long. By the time it reached the press, that had shrunk to a mile. I haven't been well, and by the time we got to the park where the rally was held, I was feeling it.

We had music at various points to keep us going, though judging by the straggle towards the end, I don't think I was the only one finding it hard going.

Eventually I got the the park. I wasn't the first to get there by any means, but I did manage to get right to the front, and promptly met a photographer I know from Birmingham. So I spent an hour or so listening to some excellent speeches, which are slowly appearing on Youtube. I'll post them all once everything's up.

At the time, the police seemed to be estimating 55 000 people. It shrank later to 50 000, but they had a helicopter up all day, so it's a safe bet they'll have a very good idea of the numbers. They've got such a long record of grossly underestimating the numbers at protests that you can probably add another 20-30 000 to that. When I went looking for the coach, the tail end of the procession was still coming in.

 Andy Burnham swore blind they'd repeal the Tories' health act in their first Queen's Speech, but no more than that. If they don't keep their promises, they'll be forever discredited, but what about undoing the privatisation which will already have taken place; what about sorting out the PFI mess? There's far more to do than just a repeal.