Thursday, 7 October 2010

Building an anti-cuts movement in Lambeth

An interview with Dan Jeffery, Assistant Branch Secretary of Lambeth UNISON, originally printed in the Solidarity newspaper. Dan was speaking in a personal capacity.

How did Lambeth Save Our Services begin, and how has it developed?

Save Our Services initially came out of Lambeth UNISON, GMB, NUT and UCU thinking there needed to be an anti-cuts campaign in the face of the huge cuts from both the Tory/Lib Dem government and the local Labour council. We then got various community groups and activists to come on board, produced 10,000 newsletters for the Lambeth Country Show and have organised several anti-cuts demos and lobbies. This resulted in saving over 50 jobs and stopping union-busting in the One O’Clock clubs and Adventure Playgrounds. We are now trying to stop the housing ALMO, Lambeth Living, cutting up to a fifth of its staff, including all the caretakers and much of the front-line services.

We are currently building for a demonstration in Brixton on 30 October and will hopefully have a Lambeth wide anti-cuts assembly soon.

What are the campaign’s strengths and weaknesses?

The strengths are that it has a very active base of trade unionists behind it as well as some community campaigns such as the Lambeth Pensioners Action Group. We are gradually getting others involved as well who aren't just the "usual suspects".

The weaknesses are that we need to become a far bigger campaign and also get more community groups and TRAs involved. Also, as with all the local anti-cuts campaigns, we need a national umbrella group.

The trade union bureaucracy is another big obstacle, with words not being followed up by action. In UNISON we have faced severe witch hunts against left-wing activists, with whole branches being shut down and taken over by regional bureaucrats. Combined with the anti-trade union laws this is a real problem and hopefully a big anti-cuts movement will mean union members can get rid of the current set of leaders with people who will really represent our interests and take a workers wage. We will also need to take on and break the anti-union laws, including the ban on secondary, solidarity strike action.

Another weakness is the total sectarianism coming from some quarters, which doesn’t help, including the SWP setting up a separate anti-cuts meeting long after Save our Services was established. However, hopefully unity will prevail!

What are the main issues and struggles in Lambeth?

There are a huge number of varied issues: cuts in the NHS, welfare cuts, massive cuts in Lambeth Council, thousands of job losses, cuts to funding for community groups. These cuts are already affecting almost every area of people’s lives, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. This is why it is really important we get as many different community groups, trade union branches, welfare campaigning groups and activists on board so we can give each other solidarity rather than fighting things cut by cut.

How do you see the relationship between unions, service-users and broader community campaigning?

I think they go hand in hand. We have been talking to different community groups, TRAs, the Tenants’ Council and others, and most people are of the view that our struggles are one and the same. The job cuts and service cuts will affect us all and we need a combination of strike action, demonstrations, occupations, lobbies and hopefully new and innovative ideas. We also need to empower people at a very grass roots level to take ownership of the campaigns both in local workplaces and in local wards and estates. No-one will be able to take on these cuts alone and if we don’t link up different trade unions and community groups for a joint action then we will almost certainly fail.

What are your views about relating to the Labour Party and LP councillors?

The Labour Party leadership is no friend of the anti-cuts movement. We cannot forget that Alistair Darling said that a Labour government would make deeper cuts than Thatcher. New Labour councils, including Lambeth, were already making deep cuts even before the Tory/Lib Dem announcements.

There are a handful of Labour Councillors who are supporting us, and Labour Party members such as Ted Knight. If councillors and MPs are prepared to genuinely put themselves behind an anti-cuts movement and oppose all cuts, rather than using our campaigns for their own political careers, then we want them on board. But personally I think that most Labour Party MPs and councillors are total careerists and are very far from the pro-working class representation that we need.

This reflects a wider degeneration of the Labour Party: “Labour Links” in trade union branches don’t function at all in the vast majority of branches, and large sections of the Labour Party are full of careerists. The link between local working-class communities/the trade unions and the Labour Party has shrivelled to almost nothing in most areas. In the unions it is essentially a link up between trade union bureaucrats and Labour Party bureaucrats for the most part.

What kind of national coordination would you like to see? What's your view of the national coordinating organisations that various lefties have set up?

As said above I think we definitely need national co-ordination. But it needs to be open, inclusive and democratic. So far Right to Work seems anything but this, and seems like just another front organisation (for the SWP) – so typical of the way the left currently operates in the UK. At both a local and national level it has been found wanting. They have recently put out a call for unity, but their actions aren’t backing up their words at the moment.

The only other national anti-cuts network I’m aware of is the Coalition of the Resistance and I don’t know enough about the ins and outs to comment much, but I think it has more potential to be inclusive and democratic. Hopefully they will get as many organisations and groups as possible on to their steering committee. At this point we need to let a thousand flowers bloom, and not be concerned about branding at a local level, but we do need a national organisation to co-ordinate things. We can’t take on these cuts just at a local level. This national co-ordination needs to go out of the hard work that is needed to get local anti-cuts organisations off the ground at a local level. There is no substitute for this. Getting people on coaches to national demonstrations is not enough. We need far more empowering strategies that involve local workers, tenants and service users.

As long as CoR is open and democratic then I think it can have a positive role to play. However it’s still very much early doors. I’ve seen so much sectarianism on the left that personally I need to see action, not words, before I really say how things will develop.

Lastly, I'd stress that we need a positive perspective: not just resistance to the cuts, but our own answers to the crisis. I mean demands which serve people not profit - the "political economy of the working class" - and socialism. Socialists need to work to develop the anti-cuts movement politically.

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