Bristol Politics, Green Politics, NHS, Protests, Railways, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes, Uncategorized

The Green Heart of #Bristol’s #SocialMovements

I joined the Green Party back in October 2014 at the start of the ‘Green surge’. I’d became increasingly aware that they were the only party consistently talking about restructuring the economy in the interests of everyone to tackle not only climate change but also the spiralling inequality infecting our society.

Within a month I’d been co-opted into being the parties Trade Union Liaison Officer, and was busy organising support and ‘Solidari-Tea’ for the NHS strike that winter. Me and my colleagues in 13 different unions across the NHS were striking after the government refused to give us even the miserly 1% pay rise recommended by its own pay review board. After more than 6 years of a freeze on NHS pay, things are becoming increasingly tough for more and more health workers. Green comrades got up at the crack of dawn and came to join me and other staff on the picket lines bringing flasks of hot Soladari-Tea and coffee for everyone (very appreciated on a bitterly cold winters morning). The hot drinks and support helped contribute to the vibrant hopeful mood of the picket, and I knew I had found my political home.

In the little over a year I’ve been involved with the local party since then it has consistently put itself at the heart of movements for social justice across Bristol.

Anna on Workers Memorial Day

Green councillor Anna McMullan highlighting the plight of Bangladeshi Garment workers at the International Workers Memorial Day event in Bristol April 2015

We’ve brought Solidari-Tea to picket lines across the city. Joining the men and women of the FBU striking against unfair and unsafe pensions that would see 60 year old running into burning buildings, and the RMT fighting to protect jobs and services on the new Inter-City express trains. Most recently we’ve been out in force to support Junior Doctors fighting against unfair and unsafe contracts that could see them working more than 70 hours a week without unsocial pay enhancements for working on Saturdays or into the night.

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Junior Doctors and their supporters (including Green councillor Carla Denyer front and centre) picketing outside the BRI

We’ve sent support to workers at the sharpak Yate food processing factory fighting against the imposition of longer contracts, to teachers at the Winterborne academy fighting against unmanageable workloads and bullying management, to staff demanding their fair share from wage stealing bosses at Café Amore and much more.

Action for Rail

Greens campaigning for the Public Ownership of Rail at Temple Meads in Feburary 2015

We’ve joined the Bristol Trades Council in campaigns for the Living Wage, worked with Bristol Stop the War to build opposition to the bombing of Syria, and have been at the heart of the Bristol People’s Assembly and its resistance to cuts and austerity. We’ve taken to the streets to call for the public ownership of our railways with the Action for Rail group, and campaigned against the exploitative practices of rogue landlords and letting agents through ACORN the Community Union.

 

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Green councillor Rob Telford at an ACORN picket of Tobie Holbrock who was refusing to repair unacceptable mould in his rental properties

Its been my great honour to be at the centre of most of this activity, but it was my leading role in organising the Bristol rally against the Trade Union Bill last November that was one of the most fulfilling actions. This brought Greens, trade unionist and members of the local Labour Party together with hundreds of ordinary Bristolians for a rally and demonstration in the fountains against the draconian bill, and imbued us with the spirit to resist these unjust laws.

 

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Concord Health UNISON branch officer Mandy Robinson takes to the mike against the TU Bill, with me and Green comrades in the background. November 2015

Unlike the Labour party that won’t support strikes because it thinks it has to appear to be neutral to look like a party of government, the Green party is unashamed in its support of ordinary people trying to protect their rights and improve their lives.  Just as it is unashamed of its support for all groups trying to enact positive social change. On picket lines, marches and demonstrations across our city the Greens are an increasingly regular and prominent fixture. Both in the council and in the streets of our city the Bristol Green party is taking a bold stand for people and planet, and I’m proud to be a part of it

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Bristol Greens joining the thousands braving the wet weather for the Bristol Climate March last November.

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Some of the Greens at the Bristol People’s March for the NHS 2015

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Greens protesting government plans to Scrap the Human Rights act and other things at the Bristol Makes Some Noise against austerity protest last year

Some videos: –
me speaking at the Don’t Bomb Syria rally-  https://www.facebook.com/BristolPeoplesAssembly/videos/1678031245741863/~

Anna speaking at ‘How do we Stop the Tories in their Tracks’ –

Green Party deputy leader Shahrar Ali speaking at the Scrap Trident rally –

 

 

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Bristol Politics, Railways, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes

RMT Union First Great Western strike to protect jobs services and safety

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On Wednesday the 8th of July at 6:30pm, railway staff organised in The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) across the First Great Western franchise started a 48 hour strike over the threatened loss of safety, services and jobs on the new Hitachi Intercity Express Trains.  The new high-speed Hitachi trains are replacing the old diesel powered fleet that has serviced the South West since the 1970s. The main cause of friction is First Great Western’s decision to remove the train guard and buffet cart (and catering staff) and run driver only trains, as well as a reduction in station dispatch and maintenance staff (and the potential outsourcing of train maintenance).  All of which will reduce the cost of running the services and increase First’s profits.  On the other side of the equation passengers will receive a reduced level of service, with much depressed safety standards, whilst skilled staff are tossed to one side and thrown into unemployment (a daunting prospect in austerity Britain).

These new trains are being rolled out on both the First Great Western and East Coast Mainline franchises.  Along the East Coast Mainline there is no dispute and no strike; as the franchise operator isn’t attacking jobs and services to further engorge their own profits.  First Great Western on the other hand has no such scruples.  Something the mainstream press coverage of the dispute seemingly forgets.  Whilst the Tory press screams about out of touch union militants bringing the country to a standstill and the BBC attempts to trivialise the whole episode into one of commuter disruptions devoid of context; just remember these are workers striking and losing two days’ worth of pay predominantly to protect safety standards for passengers as well as their own jobs.

Obviously the disruption caused to commuters is an annoyance, but it is to protect those very commuters that is motivating these workers to strike.  Left to their own devices First Great Western will gouge passengers for everything they have. An open return between Bristol and London has increased in price by 246% since privatisation 20 years ago (far far in excess of inflation).  At the same time railways as a whole have seen their subsidy from the taxpayer more than double; between 2011-2014 First Great Western alone received £959.8 million.  Passengers are paying the most expensive fares in Europe (and the tax payer’s coughing up huge sums) for substandard services, whilst the First Group makes huge profits and their chairman has increased his pay by 243% in the last 4 years (to £1.6 million).  No wonder they don’t think they can afford to pay for safety critical train guards and maintenance staff (and for a catering service to standard class passengers) when their chairman’s taking such a huge kickback.

With such obvious injustices leading to this dispute I went down to the RMT’s Bristol branch meeting that Wednesday night (after the People’s Assembly budget protest), to pass on the local party’s solidarity and speak a little about the centrality of the railways in our plans for a fairer sustainable society.  I was very well received (quiet charitably too as I did not speak my best, and definitely should have prepared something to say a lot more), even more so when I passed on a £60 donation from the Peoples Assembly to support the pickets.  This was money collected at the budget protest from ordinary Bristolians eager to support the striking workers (I made a very short speech on the megaphone outlining the causes of the dispute and the need to show solidarity, and was mobbed by people keen to help).

RMT members enjoying a hot cup of Solidari-Tea 9/7/15

RMT members enjoying a hot cup of Solidari-Tea 9/7/15… that white powder in that bag is just sugar… honestly

I went down to the picket on Thursday morning to talk to the picketers and give them some Bristol Green Solidari-Tea and Coffee (still can’t think of an adequate pun…. maybe comradecoffee? no that won’t do).  It was an absolutely lovely day, and everyone seemed in high spirits.  Whilst I was there a semi-continuous stream of visitors/well wishers coming to show their support, and the response from the public seemed generally very positive.  Across the network around 2000 staff participating in the strike and reportedly First Great Western had to cancel 40% of their services.  There are reports that some of their other services were only kept running by forcing TSSA staff to do jobs “which they do not feel either qualified or confident to do” – which has led to the union also balloting its members for strike action. The RMT have just rejected FGW’s latest offer – which apparently still does nothing to address the key concerns for safety and jobs around the train guard and maintenance staff – and are planning future strike dates, and with the TSSA presently balloting for action, further strikes seem likely.

Should that happen we’ll be happy to support these workers taking a stand to protect their own jobs and all our safety, and we encourage everyone else to do so too.  In these hard times of austerity we need solidarity and compassion more than ever before.  Only by working together and magnifying the impact of each others struggles will we have any hope of resisting this repressive government’s attacks on ordinary people and our planet.

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Green Politics

Reflections on Peter Pinkney’s Green Party candidacy for Redcar and Cleveland

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Peter Pinkney the president of the Rail and Maritime Transport union has just announced that he’s standing for the Green Party in the Redcar and Cleveland consistency.  Peter joined the Green party last year after a meeting with our national trade union liaison officer Romayne Pheonix; but had initially not wanted to publicise his membership until after his term of presidency ended.  Evidently he’s changed his mind. Perhaps persuaded by the growing awareness of the Green party as a party of the left, committed to social (as well as environmental) justice and improving the lives of ordinary people. This has led to our membership surging to over 60,000 across the UK as people search for an alternative to the different shades of austerity offered by the Westminster parties and UKIP.

Peter’s reasons for standing for the party express the sentiment of many recent converts.  “I spoke at the Green Party Conference in 2013, and I was impressed with the ideas that were being put forward. The ideas of the Greens resonated with a lot of my beliefs. Obviously the Greens commitment to bring railways back into public hands struck a chord, but also policies to invest in the NHS, build social housing, institute higher taxes for those who can afford it, and put forward progressive policies on immigration informed my decision to stand.”

Like many looking for an alternative to the economically illiterate and socially damaging austerity policies of the current government, Peter has been disappointed by Labour’s failure to offer real opposition.  Whilst certainly the lesser of the three evils of our political establishment, Labour have pledged to continue austerity and have signed up to conservative budget cut.  In essence they offer voters a slightly watered down version of Conservative economic policy.  As Peter said “Labour is no longer the working class party. They have betrayed us time and time again. They should remember that it was the unions who formed the ‘party of labour’ not deny our links.

“The radical Labour Party of 1945 is long gone. No longer do they champion nationalisation, social housing, the NHS, education etc, they are a sort of reddish Conservative Party.

“In my opinion the party of the left is now the Green Party.”

Social justice has always been a core pillar of green politics. To Greens the questions of how do we create a more equal society, and how do we restructure society so that we’re no longer destroying the environment, have always been two sides of the same coin.  Reducing our resource usage and consumption of carbon dioxide cannot be achieved by forcing austerity on the poorest who use the least of our resources; but must focus on the unsustainable consumption of the profligate super rich.  At the same time we need to ensure a more equitable distribution of the finite resources of our planet to enable everyone to live decent and sustainable live.  As Natalie Bennet has recently said we need to change society so that the green sustainable option is the easiest option, not concentrate on small scale individual change.

Recently the party has been making a more conscious effort to stress its social side.  This can be seen by conference resolution to support the labour movement; our increasing involvement in the People’s Assembly; the establishment of a trade union liaison officer (TULO) on the national executive, and developing regional and local network of TULOs; and the increasing prominence of social policy.  Greens are increasingly likely to be seen on picket lines, outside train stations and in the streets; supporting campaigns for fair pay, to protect pensions, to renationalise the railways and to end the housing crisis.  We still have a long way to go, but we’re making a promising start.

Peter’s candidacy reflects a growing awareness of the overriding similarity of the majority of the aims of Green politics and the labour movement.  The RMT have been attending our conferences since 2004. In recent years they’ve been joined by the NUT and the PCS – who’s campaign for 1 million climate jobs closely matches our own thinking on investing in a carbon neutral society to create jobs and security for all.  Individual Green local and even general election candidates (most notably Caroline Lucas) have received union backing and funds for their campaigns.   This growing involvement with the labour movement is very important to us. Trade unions represent over 6 million working people and through negotiating pay and conditions in many workplaces they indirectly represent million more. Though not perfect (no human institution is), they are the largest set of democratic organizations in the UK and do immensely importing work both in our workplaces and increasingly in our communities. Trade union campaigns for the living wage, for social housing, for renationalisation, and against discrimination match many of our own core aims and are central to improving our society.  Furthermore, the involvement of the trade unions is essential if the transition to a carbon neutral society is to be accomplished in a just and equitable manner; especially in high carbon emitting industries.  Whilst other parties take trade union money but give little in return, we support them because it’s the right thing to do.

There are still many decent and wonderful members, activists, and even a few MPs in the Labour party that do fantastic work supporting ordinary people; but their influence on the party leadership is completely marginal.  The influence of Blairite economic, social and political thinking that deregulated the financial sector (contributing to the financial crash) and oversaw spiralling inequality under the previous Labour government, still dominates party policy, and commits Labour to continuing austerity today.  Whilst this remains the case, Labour will continue to be a block to progress and be antagonistic to the interests of ordinary working people.

Pete surmised how this had led him and his union to abandon placing their hopes in the Labour party; and outlined the policies we need to make and more equal and more sustainable society.  These are the kind of policies that historically Labour would have supported (and some of its candidates still support), but has now sadly been abandoned by the party as it chases votes from the right and centre of the political spectrum.

“If Ed Miliband is [more supportive of unions] then he is doing a strange impression of it. He might say that he is to his paymasters at Unite and GMB, who make hefty donations, but our members will not affiliate to Labour or any other party ever again.

“The press calling him ‘Red Ed’ is a joke. A minimum of 75% of people want to see the railways renationalised. He has never once said he would take the railways back into public hands – not even East Coast.”

“We need to look after our elderly, build social housing, repeal anti-trade union laws, scrap bedroom tax, renationalise railways and utilities (and any profit reinvested), but most of all we should give the young hope.

“We are definitely handing on worse conditions than we inherited. My generation should hang our heads in shame for letting this happen. Instead of complaining about young being on streets, and using drugs, we should be asking why.

“Redcar and Cleveland has seen a massive decline in my lifetime. We need proper investment, and not just paper over cracks. I believe the Greens are only large party (as surely they can now claim to be) that wants to put things right.

“I am a left wing socialist, but I am pragmatic. I have seen what Syriza have done, and we can learn from that.”

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Railways

The ‘lobbying’ or gagging act and rail activism

image 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.

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Railways

Bristol Action For Rail – Join us for a Publicly Owned and run railway!

Fare-rise protest at Bristol Temple Meads railway stationOn Monday the 5th of January with about 30 others from The People’s Assembly, The Campaign Against Climate Change, the rail unions and The Bristol Green Party (who supplied the majority of the activists) we took to Temple Meads train station to protest yet another year of fare rises outstripping wages; and the whole iniquitous privatised system.  The clock had just struck 5pm and a great mass of people were rushing to get home from work.  At the pedestrian side entrance I was manning we were met by a solid and continuous stream of people; a great river of human beings rushing along their course.  We placed ourselves strategically to interrupt their flow.  After a long day’s work, as the light faded and the January cold set in you would think most people would be in too much of a hurry to pay much attention to a group of activists banging on about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different models of rail ownership – another obstacle between them and their home.  However, such is the strength of feeling against the current state of affairs on our railways that we were very well received.  We actually ran out of leaflets after an hour and a half – giving out around a thousand.  Only one person verbally refused me, explaining that she was ‘a conservative’.  Quite a few people even stopped to have fairly lengthy and engaging conversation with us – before rushing off for their train, or house.  Almost everyone seemed to regard us and our interruption of their commute positively.

According to recent polling by Yougov over 2/3rds of people support Public Ownership of the railways; including a majority of conservative voters.  It’s easy to see why.  In 1993 when making the case for privatising the railways then transport secretary John MacGregor told the House of commons that it would not only shift the cost of the railways from the taxpayer onto the user but would do so whilst not increasing fares, and that “in many cases, they will be more flexible and will be reduced” as the magic of private competition increased efficiency and drove down cost.  The reality (as it usually is) is far removed from this rose tinted neoliberal fantasy.  Since 1994 subsidies to the rail industry have more than doubled, whilst fares have risen far more than inflation.  Far from shifting the cost form the taxpayer to the user, privatisation has greatly increased the cost to both groups whilst allowing unaccountable shareholders and boards of directors (usually on six figure salaries) to line their pockets at the expense of everyone else.  First Great Western took to twitter to attempt to refute my claims that their overcrowded and overpriced trains were the perfect advertisement for why we need Public Ownership.  They repeated this tired argument that fares were rising as a result of shifting the cost to the user.  When I pointed out that this simply wasn’t the case they had no argument to reply with

FGWWe have some of the highest fares in Europe; for the least reliable service.  The only positive achievement the advocates of private ownership can point too is an increase in passenger numbers over the last 20 years.  It’s hard to see how the fact that the railways were now owned privately instead of by the state would be likely to influence the average person into using them and directly lead to this increase in passenger numbers as the advocates of privatisation claim.  Structural changes to our society have fueled this change – chiefly the spiraling cost of rent and general inner city living which has priced many out of homes close to work and forced them to rely on trains.  If the trains were still publicly owned during this period but the same structural changes to employment and accommodation patterns had occurred we would have seen the exact same increase in passenger numbers, possibly more so as Public Ownership can deliver fairer fares.  Research by Transport for Quality of Life has shown that if the railways were Publicly Owned we could have the same service as we have today but by eliminating the wastages and inequities produced by a fragmented privately owned system we could have it for £1.2 billion less.  That would be enough to cut fares by around 20%.

Even if you do believe that competition between private companies automatically increases efficiency and drives down cost (which I’m personally extremely skeptical of) you have to recognise that this is not applicable to rail travel.  Different providers can compete for franchises, but once established they’re the only ones operating trains along that line.  It’s not as if I have a choice of services between Bristol and London.  I can only ‘choose’ First Great Western or to not get a train.  This is why they’re described as natural monopolies.

The choice is clear.  If you want a wasteful, inefficient rail system that enriches the few at the expense of the majority then do nothing, and stick with the status qou.  But if you want a fairer service that puts the people who use it above shareholder profit then you have to join the campaign for Public Ownership.  Caroline Lucas has a rail renationalisation Bill currently going through Parliament.  Its second reading is on February the 27th.  Do everything you can to pressure your MP (your supposed representative) to attend Parliament that day and support it.  Unfortunately as none of the mainstream parties support Public Ownership (despite the wishes of their voters) it seems unlikely that the bill will become law.  That is why we need to mobilise behind campaigns like Action for Rail to show the strength of support for these measure, and come May, why we need to vote for MP’s and parties that support Public Ownership.

To raise awareness of and support for Public Ownership we will be protesting and leafleting at Temple Meads station on the first Monday of every month at 5-7pm for the foreseeable future.  Join us and demand the alternative to rip off fares and a failed, wasteful, and iniquitous privatised system.

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