MATTHEW BROWN reports from the first meeting of a local People’s Assembly, where hardship and hope were much in evidence – unlike the Labour Party.
“I paid my rent just 10 minutes ago and now I have £22 left in my account.” The words came from a young man introducing himself to the first meeting of the Hackney People’s Assembly Against Austerity earlier this week.
The speaker was from Digs, a group attempting the near-impossible task of organising local private sector tenants to resist rocketing rents while offering support against benefit cuts and the bedroom tax. The bald statement of his own circumstances wasn’t made merely to elicit sympathy, however, but as an illustration of quite how austere living has already become for some in this east London borough.
Hackney’s council-encouraged gentrification, and the area’s ever-increasing house prices, have enabled private landlords to push up their rents at a rate almost double that in any other part of the capital. Inevitably, those struggling to make their payments are the numerous poorer tenants who have long been evident in what was once one of the cheapest parts of London.
Many are now being pushed out by more affluent workers, generally young professionals and entrepreneurs lured in by the glossy estate agents who seem to gobble up every available vacancy on the high street (those which haven’t already become pawn brokers, betting shops or trendy cafés).
“We are losing Hackney,” as the man from Digs put it. “The cap on housing benefit means working people in Hackney are being forced out as we speak.
“In Digs, we support people where we can and we’ve held demonstrations against the worst landlords and agents, but we can’t do this alone. We all need to come together to resist austerity.”
His words were met with a general murmur of approval from the 100 or so people who sat in a slightly dishevelled circle around him. The meeting had been called by local activists inspired by the national People’s Assembly that was launched by the likes of Tony Benn, Len McCluskey, Bob Crow and Ken Loach at London’s Westminster Central Hall on 22 June.
In Hackney the aim was to bring together the many individual campaigning groups which have sprung up in the area since 2010, to form some kind of loose network and agree a sense of direction and set of priorities. One by one, representatives stood up to introduce their organisation and explain some of the background to their cause.
A woman from a coalition against NHS cuts talked about the real impact of the Con-Dem’s health reforms on local services, which in one district has already led to the closure of a whole GP practice, leaving some 1500 people with no doctor. A local postal worker spoke eloquently about the CWU’s campaign against Royal Mail privatisation. And a woman told the gathering about her lone crusade against cuts to care for older people, prompted by the harsh experiences of her own mother, a lifelong Hackney resident, in a nearby home.
Inevitably, there were a few representatives from the usual far left groups, including one who chopped his arms in timeless ultra fashion while claiming that the real problem was a crisis of leadership in the Labour movement. If it wasn’t for our weak leaders, he said, this small gathering proved that “together we could not only defeat this government and their austerity agenda but bring down capitalism too”.
Thankfully, the general tone was rather more grounded, and gradually a sense emerged that the Assembly would work best as a hub for information and an open network for existing campaigns, while it could also spread a common message about the politics of austerity and its alternatives to help counter bias in the mainstream media.
The tricky question of exactly what those alternatives should be was not debated, of course, although a number of people pointed to the national Assembly’s ‘declaration and action plan’, drafted in June, which talks of opposing “any and all cuts” while calling for a day of civil disobedience on 5 November and a demonstration in spring 2014. There were one or two shouts for national strikes, too, but mostly the emphasis was on local work and staying relevant to the impact of austerity on people in the area.
It was most telling, perhaps, that Labour – our ‘official opposition’ – was barely mentioned, and never as a possible ally, or in anything other than disparaging terms. It seems, from this gathering at least, that Labour has long since ceased to be the place where such people look for involvement or support, let alone leadership and solidarity.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. The Royal Mail worker related with disgust a story about the opposition business spokesperson, Chuka Umunna, refusing to commit Labour to renationalising the post office even when he was told that such a statement would kill off the City’s current support for privatisation. One person from the local trades council commented, to general agreement, “I think we can write off the Labour Party now.”
Equally disturbing, it appears that Labour no longer regards such extra-parliamentary campaigns as any part of its business. There wasn’t a single voice or recognisable face from the local party, while the following day I received an umpteenth email from my CLP organiser urging me yet again to join them on the election campaign trail, to identify voters for next May’s council poll.
For some, who might hope to see Labour doing a bit more than canvassing votes – being at the forefront of opposition, for example, and on the ground leading just such a broad-based movement against austerity – these are worrying signs of the party’s drift and disconnect.
On the other hand, if the meeting in Hackney is anything to go by, the People’s Assembly could just become the basis of a genuinely open, grass-roots movement. Admittedly, the banner roll of usual suspects who issued the initial call for an Assembly back in February didn’t bode well for a campaign that could reach beyond the well-trodden boundaries of the left.
But then, few could listen to writer Owen Jones, a leading Assembly figure (and a Labour Party member by all accounts), speaking at the Leeds PA meeting earlier this month, and not think this movement just might grow some legs.
“There is plenty of fear,” said Jones. “But there is one thing missing, and that’s hope. People won’t fight back unless they have hope – and that’s where we come in.”
So maybe, given some space, and inspired by the likes of Jones, the People’s Assembly will now develop from the bottom up, from local networks giving voice and purpose – and hope – not only to long-in-tooth lefty activists, but to people who are just fed up or hard up, or both – people like the man from Digs who now has £22 to last the month.