Wednesday, 30 April 2014

You don’t create a financial crisis by building hospitals- you do it by employing too many bankers.

The Hope Centre is a large evangelical church located on Upper Huntbach Street in the city centre of Stoke-on-Trent. It shares premises with an NHS mental health centre and so the entrance is somewhat fortress like.

When I arrive at around half past six on a grey spring evening a cheery red and green leaflet fixed to the reinforced glass doors tells me this is where the North Staffs People’s Assembly is holding its inaugural meeting. A trail of similar posters guide me up to the room where the meeting is to be held, its early and I’m almost the only person there and there is a palpable sense of concern as to how many people will actually turn up.

I wander around the room looking at the posters on the wall describing the church’s work with charity groups overseas and, more tellingly with the local food bank and am reminded that the left and the more socially active sections of the church have always been linked. The fight against austerity has, if nothing else, given both an opportunity to let down their often self-created barriers and engage with the wider community.

There are also stalls representing CND and local anti-racism campaign group NORSCARF. In one corner a group of women from Wool Against Weapons are showing off the long bright pink scarf they have knitted as part of a national project to be unrolled between two nuclear weapons establishments. It is a brilliantly day-glow riposte to the most deadly military braggadocio of them all.

Later in the evening Anti de Klerk of the People’s Flotilla Against Austerity will talk about the treatment of people living on the canal system following the sell- off of British Waterways by the coalition. Describing as she does so treatment so prejudicial it is hard, or rather we’d like it to be for our own peace of mind, to imagine it happening here; but it all too sadly is.

By a quarter to seven there are around fifteen to twenty people in the room and by the time the meeting proper starts this has risen to around thirty, not bad for a political meeting in Stoke.

The atmosphere is friendly, most of the people present seem to either know each other or at least to be comfortable with having a shared perspective. That could be somewhat insular, but on this occasion is more positive and thankfully free from the sensation that a bitter split over some issue that will be incomprehensible to anyone outside the loop might break out at any moment.

The meeting is introduced and chaired by Jason Hill, a long time campaigner against austerity representing the local Trades Council. He gives a brief overview of the impact government austerity policies have had on the local area since 2010, saying there is a ‘massive task’ ahead to reverse the damage done by a systematic attack on public services.

Jacqui Howard of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity outlines the origins of the movement as a response to the effect austerity has had on working people and the public services. The movement originated in London and there are now a hundred local groups around the country, all working to coordinate efforts to campaign against austerity and to promote the belief that it is possible to create a society based on social and economic justice.

She is young, articulate and clearly has a passionate engagement with her subject. All of which makes for a refreshing change from the usual run of semi-robotic aspiring politicians, most of whom though adept at engaging with the media tend to be animated by the fire of their own ambition rather than a zeal to do good for society.

Next to take to the podium is James Meadway of the New Economics Foundation who in his contribution aims to ‘peel away’ the ‘rhetoric’ surrounding the government’s austerity policies. He launches into a spirited attack on Chancellor George Osborne, currently being hailed as the author of an economic miracle, although most people are yet to feel the benefits of the supposed recovery.

He says the government have convinced the public that the last Labour government were wildly profligate with their money, despite the inconvenient fact that up to 2008 Labour spent just 39% of GDP on public services, the Major and Thatcher governments spent, respectively, 40% and 41%. The resulting push to reduce the deficit at all costs has caused a decline in living standards of a severity not seen since the thirties and is part of a politically motivated attempt to rebalance the economy in a way that benefits the wealthy few rather than working people.

What is needed, he says, is a concerted effort to challenge all and every cut, with exceptions perhaps for obviously unnecessary exceptions such as scrapping Trident, and a determination to propose and defend an alternative economic model. One where decent, secure jobs can be created through increased investment in public services.

Most people in the hall accept this as a fact, many outside it would agree with what James Meadway says on an instinctive level, but they have had a hugely effective snow job done on them by a largely right wing media. A constant drip of stories about ‘scroungers’ and threats that the left wants to spend, spend, spend until the country is bust have somehow persuaded the people most likely to lose out if public services are chopped down that they should help to swing the axe.

Sarah Honeysett of the local CAB takes to the stage to outline the impact of government ‘reforms’ to the benefit system on local people. The loss in income following changes to the benefits system equates to £108 million, it would take, she says, ten thousand jobs paying the minimum wage to make up the shortfall; and they’re hardly likely to materialise any time soon.

She also highlights the cruelly contradictory nature of the new benefits regime with the ‘bedroom tax’, unreasonable methods of assessing whether people are fit to work at all and aggressive ‘sanctions’ combining to trap claimants in a nightmare worthy of Kafka.

You get the impression from listening to someone with wide experience of how the reforms are being implemented on the ground that a benefits system intended to help people facing adversity is being remodelled into one designed to punish the poor. Which sounds dangerously Victorian and should scare witless exactly the same people who are being whipped into a frenzy by the tabloids over ‘scroungers’ living high on the benefits hog.

The gaps between speakers are filled in with poems from former Birmingham Poet Laureate Stephen Morrison-Burke. Political poetry is sometimes derided as being overly earnest and maybe a little bit silly, as he rolls beats effortlessly and name-checks a roll call of radical icons from William Blake to Rosa Parks this talented young man shows that in the right hands it can also be funny, entertaining and even profound.

The crowd for this event was undeniably smaller than the organisers must have hoped and also much less diverse, getting people motivated in a city where political life has atrophied due to years of Labour hegemony is a struggle. It was though a positive evening, it brought people with a shared purpose together to combine their efforts and may, in the long run, give some much needed hope that austerity can be resisted.

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