On Monday 18th of May we packed into the City Road Baptist Church for one of the most lively political meetings I’d ever been too. The organisers had originally envisioned this being an open meeting for activists to discuss the anticipated hung parliament and the possibility of pushing a minority Labour administration to reject austerity, attracting a crowd of 40 or 50. Anger against the victory of a Conservative government elected on such a slender majority (receiving only 18% of registered votes across Bristol) set to accelerate austerity prompted 4000 to take to the streets last week, and around 300 to come to the meeting.
The meeting started with speeches from the panel chaired by Naz Massoumi (Bristol Peoples Assembly), with James Meadway (economist and writer), Jess McLean (Bristol tenant and ACORN member fighting revenge evictions), Steve Turner (Unite Assistant General Secretary and Chair of the People’s Assembly) and Rosie, Millie, Ellie and Megan from Bristol Against Austerity (the group of students who organised last weeks demonstration).
James Medway began, reflecting on the election and how ‘getting 24% of registered voters to support them doesn’t give the Tories a mandate to accelerate austerity… 900 people in 8 constituencies made the difference between a hung parliament and a Tory majority government’. In a very animated speech he concisely made the economic case against austerity explaining how and why it had failed in its own terms of eliminating the deficit (as George Osborne claimed it would back in 2010) within the last Parliament.
He went on to explain how the Conservatives have used a global economic crisis (started in the American housing market and caused by reckless speculating in a deregulated financial sector) to attack public spending and sell the myth that austerity is the answer. “The austerity lie represents nothing more than a smash and grab of our collective assets by the richest in our society”. Articulating a feeling common in the room James said “the challenge we face is huge, it would be depressing if it wasn’t for the 1000s of people protesting and meeting in reaction”. As James said “We have each other and we can fight this”.
Next we heard from the truly inspirational young women from Bristol Against Austerity. They spoke of their experience organising the march, how it started with them venting their despair on twitter, deciding to hold a protest in the centre and “we put it on facebook, then 4 days later 5000 people were in the fountains”. Since the protest they’ve received lots of press attention which has all “focused on us being young, and isn’t that fantastic. But it’s not about us, it’s about the issues, about all the peoples whose lives are going to be affected by austerity”.
Going into their plans for the future, they explained how they were still doing A-levels, so couldn’t get involved in everything, but they want to start fighting the social consequences of austerity as “we need compassion not cuts”. One such idea is to hold a protest through the centre on the day of Osborne’s emergency budget to collect for local food banks (a pertinent move as that budget will likely drive more people to food banks than ever before).
Jess McLean spoke about the harrowing experience of her and her children by unscrupulous landlord Jess property. Jess rented a house in a state of dilapidation, because the rent was cheap and she was promised a long term secure contract. She worked hard improving the house, turning it into a home. After she had improved it Jess property decided they could be getting a lot more for the house. They tried to increase her rent and when she complained they tried to evict her.
With the help of a sympathetic Lawyer and ACORN the Community union Jess has resisted eviction, and is fighting to stay. It is a story all to common in Bristol today, as immoral landlords and letting agents (seek to exploit the housing crisis for their own financial gain. Reflecting on the need to mobilise and stand together to have a chance of pushing back against this Jess ended on a rousing not “People Power is what’s needed again in this country. See you in the streets on the 20th of June”
Finally Steve Turner, started by thanking everyone for coming and for making this happen, and the women from Bristol Against Austerity for inspiring so many to take action. Following the lead of the others, Steve outlined how its not enough to just protest and march – these things all help – but we need to build a mass movement against austerity. “We need to mobilise our communities against austerity. We need to occupy properties to stop eviction. We need to be united together in everything we do”.
Steve said to meaningfully resist austerity we’d need radical action. “The history of progress is the history of civil disobedience. You don’t change the world by writing letters. You change it by standing up and fighting. United we stand. Divided we fall”. We need targeted protests, peaceful direct action and civil disobedience to disrupt the government’s narrative and help build the social movement we need to stop this. Steve ended with an urgent appeal to the crowd “If not you, who? And if not now, when?”
The majority of the session was then opened up to 1 minute contributions from the floor (kept short to enable more participants). We heard the experience of a host of people experiencing the sharp end of austerity, and a range of innovative and thoughtful contribution on how we build this movement, and how we start resistance austerity. The People’s Assembly was live tweeting these and will collating them to use as suggestions for a plan of action in future meetings.
One thoughtful contribution outlined how there are key pressure points throughout the parliament such as attempts to pass contentious bills (like the bill to treble tuition fees in the last parliament that nearly failed to pass as students demonstrated outside), and to form a credible resistance and really disrupt the Tory austerity agenda we need to hit these hard, suggesting protest, occupations, and road blockades. Another key point was how solidarity is going to be key ‘we need local action, but we need a national movement too have any chance at reverse these vicious cuts’.
One important point raised was the need for any anti-austerity movement to work with local councillors to resist cuts. “We only have 16 conservative local Councillors. We have a chance to do things differently in Bristol. Our Labour and Green Councillors work for us, we need to hold them to account”. Sadly due to a clash with the Green Party’s monthly business meeting few Green Councillors were able to attend, but newly elected Easton Councillor Anna McMullen skipped the Green meeting to come and was the only Councillor from any party there.
We then decided on some immediate actions, stalls and fliering to promote the national demonstration, days of action against both the official opening of the new parliament and Osborne’s emergency budget in July. More concrete plans should come out of the People’s Assembly planning meeting next Monday that everyone’s invited too. Having heard some fantastic speeches, and some inspiring stories, and having had my confidence restored by seeing so many others passionately opposed to this unjust and immoral social policy I left with my determination and resolve restored. Politics doesn’t start and end once every 5 years with the general election, it happens when people get together determined to make change.