Alan Thornett reports that Saturday’s People’s convention — jointly organised by the Right To Work Campaign (RtWC), the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and the Disabled People’s Against Cuts (DPAC) — was a useful event, with some 500 or 600 people discussing how to fight the cuts for a day.
The morning session was dominated by an interesting if slightly ritualised debate on the role of councillors and local government essentially between the Socialist Party through its National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) through RTWC. There were 4 opening speakers to the debate: Charlynne Pullen, a Labour councillor for Islington, Michael Lavelette and independent socialist councillor from Preston, Dave Nellist and SP councillor from Coventry, and Barry Buitekant, a Labour councillor from Hackney.
Attempts by the SP to argue that the RTWC was ‘not against all cuts’ came to nothing as speakers from the RTWC made their position absolutely clear, as did speakers from the LRC.
There was more substance, however, in the debate around the role of Labour councillors — which appears to be an obsession with the SP. They seemed to be arguing for a fight back against the cuts led by Labour councils who have adopted deficit budgets and therefore in a confrontation with the government. If only! There were many references to Poplar, Clay Cross and Liverpool.
Just as at the NSSN conference SP speakers accused the RTWC of having Labour councillors on their platforms who, despite campaigning against the cuts, were not yet pledged to vote against cuts budgets in their council chambers.
There was a sharp debate around it. Charlynne Pullen, for example argued that whilst she was campaigning against the cuts, was mobilising for March 26th, and was doing everything she could to minimise the cuts in Islington in the end she was not prepared to vote the budget down. This, she argued, was because Eric Pickles would then take control and implement cuts which would be even more damaging to the poor and vulnerable than the budget proposed by the Labour Group an updating of the “dented shield” policy.
Barry Buitekant said that the good news he could report from Hackney was that a small group of Labour councillors, including himself, were not prepared to vote for the up-coming cuts budget. After prolonged applause, however, he said that the bad news was that they had not yet decided to vote against it!
Apart from these two speakers everyone else in the conference called on councillors to vote against cuts budgets when they came up. This included Darren Johnson (who is a Green Party councillor in Lewisham) who said that he had already voted against such a budget and intended to do so in the future.
There was a sharp division, however, over the attitude anti-cuts campaigners should have to Labour councillors who were against the cuts but not yet persuaded to vote against in the budget votes. The SP (who are clearly still on a leftist trajectory) argued that they should be denounced and kept off of anti-cuts platforms. Most others, however, including Michael Lavelette and the SWP argued that they should be drawn into the campaign which should seek to build up local resistance in order to give them the confidence to vote against when the budget came up. Thousands of people, it was argued, demonstrating outside of the council chamber on budget night would be the best way to give them such confidence.
This approach was set out most clearly by Pete Firmin from the LRC, who reminded the conference that we were in a very different situation from the 1980s as far as the level of trade union struggle was concerned and this put the struggle around local government in a different situation. Today, he argued, the number of councillors who have said they would vote against cuts budgets is minuscule and the pressure on councillors to do so from the unions as national level was none-existent. None of the unions at national level had urged their members who are councillors to do this and in the case of UNITE it had urged then not to do so. Barry Buitekant, when he replied to the debate said that he had not had a single approach from any of the unions in Hackney asking him to vote against the budget.
One very striking thing about the day was the role played by Disabled People Against Cuts, who are rightly outraged at the attack tacking place against disabled people in the course of the cuts. They brought most of the new material into the conference and made a number of the most effective speeches which included harrowing descriptions of the consequences of the abolition of the Disability Living Allowance, which is a whole subject in itself.
The elephant in the corner was the issue of the unity of the anti-cuts movement. In this the SP, unsurprisingly, were pursuing their own course. SWP speakers, however, called for it and it was the main theme of a very good speech from Andrew Bergin who gave greetings from the Coalition of Resistance (CoR).
Probably the weakest part of the conference, in terms of the cuts themselves, was on the NHS – given the scale of what is represented by the attack on the NHS which is taking place. Although it was referred to from time to time there was no platform speaker on it and no workshop.
There was no mention of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’s (TUSC) plans for the May elections. Dave Nellist was the only person to mention TUSC but there was no response from the SWP about it. Nor was there any TUSC literature on offer that I was able to find from anyone. This seems a bit if an omission with the elections only 12 weeks away.
The amazing events of the Egyptian revolution were rightly a theme throughout the day and it referred to with great effect by John McDonnell in his closing speech when he said that the issue on March 26th was not just how many people went on the demonstration, but whether they went home at the end of the day!