On Monday the second of Feburary as advertised we returned to Temple Meads station to hand out leaflets in support of public ownership and continue our campaign to generate interest in the railways before the general election. It not being a national day of action and the planning being slightly haphazard we only managed to bring 10 activists. Six primarily from the Green Party (many are also members of FOBSR and other groups), and two each from both the RMT union and Left Unity. Though a far cry from the 30 activists we had last month this was still a good number and more than enough for our purpose. Once again people were generally very receptive. We managed to give out the 300 leaflets we’d produced in about half an hour as well as a few hundred copies of some RMT leaflets on staff cuts on the proposed inter-city express trains.
So far so good (though we needed far more leaflets for the action to be really effective). However, a fractious and slightly strained air was brought to the proceedings by the influence of the so-called lobbying bill of last year and what it means for broad front coalition campaigning between activists who are members of political parties and those of trade unions, charities or other 3rd sector voluntary organisations. One of the many reasons I joined the Green Party was because of its stance on public ownership of railways (and other essential services). To me it seems like such an obvious issue. As often stated privatisation has resulted in a doubling of rail subsides and increase fares by 23% more than inflation (with much of the money going straight into shareholder dividends, and the six figure salaries of boards of directors) without producing a better service. We pay the highest fares for the least reliable trains in Europe. Generating interest in Public Ownership right now before the general election probably will slightly benefit the Greens because of our strong stance on this issue. However, the overall influence of such actions on the general election are likely to be very negligible; and that’s not why Greens are supporting Action for Rail. Right now in such a tight election with would be MPs attempting to secure as many votes as possible the influence of our actions are magnified. We want to build public interest in and consensus for Public Ownership to generally try and put this policy back on the political agenda and hopefully eventually see it enacted. We could try and do this just as The Green Party but it would be wrong of us to try and claim this important issue as our own.
Public ownership is supported by such a broad range of people, organisations and political parties. Caroline Lucas’ bill is after all supported by the Welsh Nationalist and back bench Labour MPs. A long list of labour parliamentary hopefulls recently wrote a letter to the guardian expressing their support for public ownership. Polling by YouGov found that nearly 70% of people supported public ownership including a majority of conservative and UKIP supporters (the parties most ideologically opposed to the policy). In our own local campaign group as well as members of the Greens, Left Unity and the rail unions we also have activists from the Labour party, the Peoples Assembly, Unite and the Campaign Against Climate Change at previous actions or promising to come to future ones. To simply campaign as Greens would exclude all these people and those distrustful of political parties of any colour. Whilst we may be able to do some political point scoring by campaigning just as Greens and possibly take more prestige from our actions it would also greatly reduce the effect of the campaign. That’s why we support campaigns like Action for Rail.
However, the strict and draconian clauses of the so called ‘lobbying act’ past by the coalition last year (which does nothing to regulate the distorting influence of corporate lobbying but clamps down on trade unions and charities like Oxfam or the Trussel Trust) have made attempts to form broad coalition campaigns like this extremely difficult. Apparently there is alarm from the local TUC (who runs Action for Rail) that we’re trying to coopt the campaign which could leave them open to the charge of displaying a politics bias and advocating us. At the January 5th demo the national Action for Rail Facebook was happy to collect and share pictures of campaigners taking Action for Rail with large banners from their supporting organisations. This time Paul from the RMT was concerned that some of us were wearing Green party badgers. Unfortunately he decided to focus the issue on Barbra from Left Unity who was wearing a hat with a large Green flower in it. ‘You can’t wear that people will see it and know you’re in the Green Party and think were advocating them’. Understandably as a member of Left Unity with a taste for knitted hats Barbra took umbridge to being labelled a Green Party member because of the colour of a flower on an item of cold weather clothing – and initially went to leave.
She didn’t in the end, but the negative vibe created by the whole incident made the attempted planning meeting for March’s action largely fruitless. Our Left Unity comrades put Paul’s actions down to the bureaucratic ‘control freakery’ we on the left are prone to characterising trade union officials with. Maybe their was an element of this, but from what I know of Paul and the numerous emails I have exchanged with him he seems like a decent and honest kind of guy generally committed to the interests of his members – which would not be served by falling foul of this act. This is the whole point of this legislation. To stifle the ability of activists to campaign on issues critical of the government and instead have them fighting among themselves. Trade unions and charities can’t be ‘perceived’ to be advocating political parties or showing a political bias or they face harsh penalities.
Hence why they’re so scared to be working with activists who support their aims but just so happen to also be members of political parties. This is insanity, but it is the disturbing reality of Coalition Britain. We’re clearly members of a broad range of parties and organisations advocating Action for Rail, not trying to get Action for Rail to advocate our narrow sectional interests. Yet this act is curtailing our ability to organise together and stifling our freedom of expression. We don’t have the luxury of a voracious right wing media and wealthy corporate backers to spread our ideas and influence the political agenda like the interests we’re arraigned against. That’s why we have to come together in broad campaigns to work together to get our voices heard and challenge the status quo that enriches and empowers a privileged few at the expense of everyone else. The lobbying act attempts to clamp down on our ability to do this. We can’t let it succeed. If enough people and groups ignore the act and organise around it we can make enforcing it unworkable. Nationally supporters of Action for Rail aim to hold demonstrations on the 27th of Feburary (in support of Caroline Lucas’ Rail Bill) and the 1st of April (to oppose the renewal of franchises). I hope in Bristol we can support these national actions and continue to hold monthly actions in support of public ownership.