a ripple in the storm

Joe Thorne reports on anti-cuts initiatives in Hackney

On the last day of June, nearly fifty trade unionists, socialists, and community activists met in an old church hall in Hackney, east London.  We came together to discuss the wave of public sector cuts which has already begun, and how we can organise to push them back.

Around the city, and across the country, equivalent meetings have been held or will be held shortly.  Many of them, such as ours, will decide to establish campaigns of one sort or another.  The real content of these campaigns, just like the content of the meetings, will differ widely.

But it is likely that these groups, where they exist, will become an important part of the terrain for class struggle activists, as long as cuts are still a live issue. Therefore, we need to establish a dialogue about the real nature of these groups, their activity, and the role which communists ought to play within them. We need to share our experiences and discuss ideas.

In Lambeth, a local meeting on the same day attracted 19, who agreed activities including lobbies of the council, distribution of an anti-cuts broadsheet produced by local trade unions, and to formally establish an Alliance. In Haringey, 15 had attended a meeting on 27th May: an Alliance was established there too; a blog, a conference and perhaps a bulletin are planned. In Southwark, a meeting is planned for 19th July.

In Hackney, the meeting was called by the local trades council, having been asked to do so by the local government Unison branch. After everyone introduced themselves, there were two very short presentations by delegate from the Haringey Alliance, and an organiser from a fairly new community coalition called “Hackney Unites”. (The nature of such “broad-based organisations”, of which the more well-known London Citizens is another example, needs a whole article to itself.)

This meant that most of the meeting could be given over to a discussion about what we need to do to fight the cuts. Some other local meetings so far appear to have been much more given over to speeches from councillors, including those who will implement the cuts. Because it blurs political and class lines, and because it is practically useless in terms of organising, we should argue against this sort of thing.

What do we need to do? There is no easy answer. Some speakers stressed the importance of demonstrations, both on a local level, and nationally – the SWP’s Right to Work campaign has called a demonstration outside the Tory party conference on 3rd October.

One speaker said that in order to resist the cuts, if we are realistic, we need organisation of the level last seen during anti poll tax movement, which organised in committees street by street, and workplace by workplace. In my view, we will need to organise demonstrations – and direct action besides – but the ferocity of the impending attacks does bear comparison with the poll tax: so our response must recognise that.

If this is correct, it implies that we raise our activity to a whole new level. Unless we are able to raise confidence and consciousness to produce mass direct action, including mass industrial action, then we will utterly fail, and no demonstration, be it 1 million, 2 million, or 3 million strong, will change that. We need to be honest about that.

One danger with such groups is that they seek to adopt a merely “practical” role. That is, shake buckets for strike funds, leaflet, hold solidarity meetings, provide legal advice, and so on. All these things are good. But what is really needed is the sort of organisation, confidence, and awareness which allows individual disputes to be more militant themselves, and more likely to spread. Insofar as these alliances can do that work they will be valuable; insofar as they do not, we will need to organise our activity in other ways.

What have we agreed to do in Hackney? One resolution was to produce an agitational bulletin – in our case edited by community member who volunteered at the meeting. Hopefully this will bring out voices from the community and workplaces, not simply carry slogans and official news.  We need to organise regular, mass distribution.

We have already leafleted the annual festival of a large Turkish and Kurdish community organisation.  It looks as though working groups are being set up for health and education – perhaps these will produce deeper rooted organising then we can expect from larger, less focused meetings.  But all this said, it’s early days.  We really don’t know what these committees will become, or what the best ways to organise are.  That’s why we need to continue this dialogue.

In Hackney, cuts have already begun.  Cuts to the local college are covered elsewhere in this issue of The Commune. There have also been cuts at the local waste depot, and a number of teaching assistants have been made redundant in primary schools.  These are not Tory cuts, not yet.  They are Labour’s last sigh in government, the first ripple in the coming storm.