Lambeth People’s Assembly launched
By A World to Win’s reporting team
A ground-breaking inaugural meeting of the Lambeth People’s Assembly on Saturday pledged to fight every cut being made by the Coalition government and become a permanent rallying point which would link up with others around the country.
The 130 or so present were inspired by the example of young people around the world, in particular the Real Democracy movement presently occupying squares in Madrid and all around Spain.
A wide range of individuals and people from local organisations, including disability campaigners, librarians, pensioners, transport and health workers gathered in Lambeth Town Hall, recently the scene of an occupation by local people in an effort to stop the council voting through a cuts package.
They voted to “establish the Assembly as a focal point for the struggle, to reconvene on a regular basis and to link up with assemblies in other areas”.
John McDonnell, introduced by Stuart King from Lambeth Save Our Services as a “rare butterfly threatened with extinction” in the shape of a socialist MP, told the Assembly:
“There has been nothing resembling the current cuts since the 1930s, a time when recession turned into a full-blown Depression. Then people said, ‘Never Again’ and hence the welfare state was set up, but now this is being axed.”
McDonnell noted that Britain was one of the richest countries in the world, and yet in his own constituency people were now relying on food packages to survive.
“It is important to share and compare experiences and decide on what actions to take,” he said. “It is crucial to visualise the kind of society that we aspire to.” He called for a build-up of actions to bring down the government.
Lambeth Councillor Kingsley Abrams was cheered when the audience heard he was the only Labour councillor in Lambeth not to vote for making cuts. As punishment, the Labour Party had suspended him for three months.
Sarah Tomlinson of the Lambeth National Union of Teachers said that under conditions of rising unemployment trade the trade unions right to strike was being challenged. Unison member Ruth Cashman denounced drastic cuts to Lambeth’s library services.
Rail Maritime and Transport union member train driver Arwyn Jones spoke of his victimisation and summary dismissal after a strike on the Northern Line Underground. But due to solid support from his union and colleague they had succeeded in turning the tables on management.
Anita Wright of Lambeth TUC warned of the “free schools threat”, which heightened inequalities between rich and poor students, by taking resources away from the state school system.
Performing Arts student from London Metropolitan University, Eshe Asante, who had taken part in the student occupation against closure of her course, said that university authorities had suspended her and she was in danger of losing her first year completion status, and possibly her place at the university.
She and other students were furious that courses in Afro-Caribbean culture and history were being closed down and a unique archive was being destroyed.
In the discussion devoted to “organising communities under attack”, Richard Farnos from Queers Against the Cuts, said that gay and lesbian people were often disproportionately dependent on services and GPs for their health needs. Disabled people were being demonised. Communities should not be divided to “fight for the crumbs from the table”, he said.
Roger Lewis from the Lambeth Disability Forum invited people to a public meeting on June 2 at 336 Brixton Road. Bringing solidarity from the Lewisham Anti-Cuts Alliance, Bill Jefferies noted that whilst destroying services, some council leaders were paying themselves huge salaries.
Ellen Lebethe from the Lambeth Pensioners Action Group and Older People’s Alliance spoke on behalf of thousands of elderly citizens who rely heavily on day centres for social contact. They would soon be taking to the streets, she said.
Direct actions such as occupying a high street bank and turning it into a doctor’s surgery could be constructive and a lot of fun too, said Molly Solomons from UK Uncut.
“The harsh reality is that our health is determined by whether we are rich or poor,” Gill George of the Unite union’s health sector said, in a hard-hitting speech. She said that £20bn of cuts meant up to 50% cuts in hospitals were in the offing. Cameron’s health advisor Mark Britnell, also head of health for KPMG accountants, had warned that “no mercy will be shown to the NHS”.
“But we should do better than fight to defend the health service. Let’s build a better world while we are about it,” George believed.
Former Lambeth council leader Ted Knight, who led an historic fight against Thatcher’s government when the authority refused to make a cuts budget in 1984, said people were resisting the cuts and would “do whatever it takes to win”.
The reason for the Coalition was the economic crisis which resulted from the collapse of the banks and the huge budget deficit. After the last election, top civil servants and the Bank of England had warned that unless a government was formed quickly, and started cutting public sector jobs and living standards, the money markets would strike against Britain.
“We are facing a reactionary government that has no mandate,” he said. “No one voted for a Coalition of the Tories and LibDems. No one voted for the spending cuts that Cameron and Clegg have imposed. But they are ideologically-driven by the crisis of capitalism. When the election produced no results, it was the state that imposed the coalition, to make cuts. And let’s not forget that Lambeth is Labour controlled. Labour leaders are not standing against the government – all they want is slower cuts,” Knight said.
Working people were denied a voice at local and national level. That’s why the building of a People’s Assembly that linked up with others around the country was vital.
The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and other countries were an inspiration, he said. So too was the occupation of squares throughout Spain by young unemployed.
“Assemblies can give people a chance to discuss the alternatives – not just to the cuts but to capitalism itself. Because the crisis is not going away – it’s going to get worse. Another banking crash could well be around the corner if Greece defaults on its debts.”
That would plunge the global economy into an outright slump worse than what happened in the 1930s. “Capitalism had a ‘solution’ then – fascism and war. Let’s not allow that to happen again,” he added.
23 May 2011