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Second Leeds Anti-Cuts Convention – a step forward

Ninety activists packed into the 16 February Second Leeds Anti-Cuts Convention, called by Leeds Against the Cuts. The gathering was a step forward for the movement, laying out some good campaign priorities and voting in support of a united, national anti-cuts convention and to call on the TUC to say “yes” to a general strike.  Four workshops – on the NHS, education, bedroom tax, and benefits cuts – planned action, while the meeting as a whole was addressed by two Hull councillors refusing to vote any cuts, and a Mid Yorkshire Hospitals striker.

The convention was the same size as the first held back in April 2011, but anyone who had attended both would have been struck by a difference the minute they walked in the door.  The room was decked out with union banners and posters from Unison, CWU, NUT and the FBU. While the audience was older than the last, which came right after the student revolt, the convention had the backing of not only the local trades council and various campaigns and unlike the last one, more than ten local union branches.  It shows that the desire to unite and fight the cuts has grown, and in part how a new layer of reps has come forward or been reenergised by the scale of the attack facing us.

The convention opened with a presentation from Richard Wilkinson, author of the book “The Spirit Level” about the corrosive effects of inequality on society, packed with statistics showing how inequality had increased since the 1970s in Britain. For instance showing how the rise in inequality since 1977 had seen the bottom 20 percent being £2000 worse off each year, while the top 20 percent’s share had risen by over £8000, and everyone in between losing out – no doubt the top one percent’s share would be massively higher.  However it did go on a bit too long (over half an hour), and due to the short time left for discussion the floor wasn’t able to really discuss the issue, or disagree with Wilkinson’s liberal conclusions.

Hull Labour councillors Dean Kirk and Gill Kennett, from Councillors Against Cuts, described the impact of their decision not to support any cuts.  Both took their principled stance because they were elected on an anti-cuts platform.  As Gill explained, “We won’t do the government’s dirty work”.  Both described the three hour interrogation by the whip that they faced in front of 50 Labour councillors observers to try to bully them into backing down.  Dean branded it “a trial of socialism within the Labour Party”.   In the short discussion, people rose from the floor to support their stance. One woman anti-cuts campaigner from Doncaster gave a moving speech on the plight of the poor there and how “we’re really suffering” as badly as in darkest days under Thatcher. Despite rising levels of domestic violence, up to 18 calls a day to the police, the womens’ aid group has lost its funding and will close.

Getting down to work

Workshops were well-attended and productive, and the reportbacks gave a sense that the anti-cuts movement, which has sagged in Leeds since the student revolt and 30 November pension strike, is reviving.  The report from the “bedroom tax” meeting in particular clearly has got a response. A meeting in Armley the week before had fifty attending, many new faces from the community with stories to tell about how the cuts were affecting them, the biggest local meeting in Leeds probably since the anti-war movement, so there clearly is an opening here to fight the government. Hands off our Homes, the group running the campaign, has hit the ground running with a series of meetings already organised around Leeds and a possible national day of action with demonstrations in local areas on 16 March.  Sheila Banks, Leeds TUC President, rounded it off with an appeal to attend the next Leeds Against the Cuts meeting and a lobby of the council on the 27 February, the day it will vote on its £50 million cuts budget.  With the TUC Mayday annual march to build for too, we have a lot of work to do, but the sense of the Convention was that the wind was in our sails again.

There was some controversy over the two motions Workers Power submitted to this last session, in support of the general strike and uniting the anti-cuts movement (see below). There was no agreement, or vote either way, at the main LAtC meeting a month ago on whether to take short motions, though we had agreed that the last session would take up such questions as the general strike, climate change, the G8 and European days of action instead of doing workshops on these. The subsequent organistional meetings since of 7-9 people were too small to make such decisions. Sheila as a seasoned chair did the democratic thing and put it to the vote on whether to take the motions. The SP and SWP predictably voted against taking them, but ironically given their arguments about putting people off, looking around the room it was mostly non-aligned and new faces who voted in favour, in a signifigant majority!  Then after being motivated both motions passed easily by large majorities – so what was all the fuss about?

Where now?

Without a proper political debate on strategy at the end – once again too little time was left for discussion – and Sheila’s short motivation, it felt like Leeds Against the Cuts was almost being sidelined or ignored.   Yet even with a successful bedroom tax campaign it is essential we build an anti-cuts body that can provide solidarity with strikes as they arise, organise actions like the council lobby, allow different groups and unions to coordinate and debate a strategy to build the anticuts struggle both locally and nationally. Ultimately that points to a delegate-based council of action capable of mounting mass anti-cuts action, and underpinning a general strike if we are to beat the cuts and topple the Tories.

Unison rep Adrian Malloy ended the convention on an inspiring note, with a stirring account of the Mid Yorks Hospital strike and the waves it was making in Unison and among health workers – even rightwing Unison leader Dave Prentis visited the pickelines! This is a struggle that Leeds activists can back and build solidarity for.  Closer to home the bedroom tax campaign is an opening to sink down roots in the working class community, and Jerry Hicks is coming to speak and launch a united local campaign to help elect him as a class struggle General Secretary to Unite, the biggest union in Britain.  Let’s make the Tories sweat that their nightmares about another poll tax debacle are about to come true.

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