Minutes of the March CPA meeting

There follow the minutes of our March meeting, with a report on our February demonstrations attached. Our next monthly meeting will be held on Wednesday 6 April at 7.30 p.m., at the wheelchair-accessible River Lane Centre, River Lane, Cambridge CB5 8HP.


Cambridge People's Assembly, 2 March 2016

  1. Agreement of the agenda
  2. Apologies for absence
  3. Approval of minutes and matters arising
  4. Secretary's report
  5. Treasurer's report
  6. Report on county cuts protests, 13 and 16 February
  7. National demonstration, 16 April
  8. Response to the murder of Giulio Regeni
  9. Women's Day, 8 March
  10. Junior doctors' action, 9 and 10 March
  11. Rally on budget day, 16 March
  12. Trades Council anti-austerity event, 7 May
  13. Other business and announcements
  14. Next meeting

The venue was the River Lane Centre, at 7.30 p.m. Present were Neil (secretary), Nicki (treasurer), Richard M. (acting chair), and Steve. Names may have been changed.

1. Agreement of the agenda

The meeting agreed to add a discussion of the latest industrial action by junior doctors as a new item 10, and a discussion of the anti-austerity day proposed by the Cambridge and District Trades Council as a new item 12. Otherwise the meeting accepted the agenda Neil had circulated.

2. Apologies for absence

Hilary, Martin B., Maud, Owen, and Tom had sent apologies.

3. Approval of minutes and matters arising

Neil noticed he had failed to record that Nicki had volunteered to help with the Cambridge People's Assembly (CPA) Twitter feed. Otherwise the meeting approved the minutes.

Nicki was willing to take over as treasurer after Maud's resignation (see item 6 in the minutes for February), and this had to be properly communicated to the group's bank. Neil had made enquiries and the bank required an application form with the new officers' details, as well as letters giving the consent of the former officers and the new officers. Neil would circulate the form and organize the letters.

There were no other matters arising.

4. Secretary's report

Neil reported that the CPA had 226 subscribers to its mailing list (unchanged from last month), while 839 Twitter users followed it (810) and 558 Facebook users liked it (557).

5. Treasurer's report

Nicki as incoming treasurer reported a collection of £14.50 at the February meeting. Maud as outgoing treasurer had confirmed that the only items of expenditure were £7.50 for the venue hire and the group's monthly donation of £5 to the national People's Assembly. This left the CPA's overall financial position at £217.57 (its bank balance would be lower: see item 5 in the minutes for February).

6. Report on county cuts protests, 13 and 16 February

Neil gave a report on the February demonstrations (attached below), and shared his clippings of newspaper coverage.

Steve endorsed Neil's report. The demonstrations had aimed to expose the cuts rather than to stop them. He added that as part of his work on the People's Assembly national committee he was presently reviewing the campaign's strategy for local authorities. It would focus on Labour-led councils, trying to help co-ordinate their actions so that they could not be easily picked off if they set needs-based budgets. The key idea would be that of two budgets: the legal budget, and the realistic, needs-based budget. The gap between the two would become a focus for campaigning.

Steve believed that nationally, the People's Assembly was playing an important role in pushing trade unions and Labour councillors to voice their opposition to austerity cuts. Building alliances would be a focus for the People's Assembly over the rest of the year.

Richard suggested that one reason the CPA was able to get local press coverage was the perceived inability of the government's austerity programme to solve national economic problems. He was interested to know about protests in other areas.

7. National demonstration, 16 April

The CPA would provide transport as usual to the national demonstration on Saturday 16 April. Neil had found a coach hire company, A, with a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, which would cost £550 to hire on 16 April. He believed the group could expect to pay £450 to hire a non-wheelchair-accessible vehicle from the company B it had used previously. The meeting agreed that it was more important to have an accessible vehicle than the cheapest. Neil would make a booking with company A.

To fund the coach the group would seek donations from local trade unions. Neil as secretary would prepare an appeal letter and a model motion. Richard reminded him to approach the unions that had supported the CPA's February demonstrations.

The meeting agreed that the coach should be free, but with suggested donations of £10 (waged) and £5 (unwaged). Passengers would book seats through the Eventbrite website: Neil would create an event on the site and supervise bookings. Eventbrite did not charge fees for hosting free events.

The meeting discussed publicity. Steve noted that there was an opportunity with the junior doctors' strikes, Richard that there was another with the Cambridge coach to the Stand Up to Racism demonstration on 19 March. Steve would create a Facebook event once Neil had sent him a link to the Eventbrite event.

8. Response to the murder of Giulio Regeni

Neil read a draft statement expressing the CPA's sadness at the murder in Cairo of the Cambridge student Giulio Regeni, who had been working on Egyptian labour organization, and its support for the open letter of protest by his academic peers. Nicki, Richard, and Steve made corrections and suggestions. Neil would post the corrected statement on the group's blog (see 'For Giulio Regeni', 5 March).

9. Women's Day, 8 March

The meeting regretted that the CPA had not had the resources to organize an event for Women's Day. It noted the valuable events organized in Cambridge for the Women of the World festival.

10. Junior doctors' action, 9 and 10 March

The meeting agreed it was crucial to continue to support the junior doctors of the British Medical Association in their struggle against the unsafe, unfair new junior contract that would now be imposed on them by the Conservative government. Nicki would be able to visit their picket line at Addenbrooke's Hospital on behalf of the CPA.

11. Rally on budget day, 16 March

Steve proposed and the meeting agreed to hold a small rally against the Conservative government's latest austerity budget on 16 March, outside the Guildhall in Market Square. Steve would prepare the text for a leaflet.

He noted that on the same evening, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group would hold an NHS consultation meeting at the nearby Central Library under the Fit for the Future programme of cuts and privatizations (spending more money was ruled out). The rally could move on to that meeting.

12. Trades Council anti-austerity event, 7 May

Steve explained that two anti-austerity events had been proposed at the annual general meeting of the Cambridge and District Trades Council on 17 February, and a small organizing committee formed, for which he and Neil had volunteered. The idea was to help anti-austerity forces in Cambridgeshire rearm themselves as a movement.

The committee had met for the first time on 22 February and had decided to hold an afternoon of skills-sharing workshops and an evening of comedy, poetry, and music on Saturday 7 May. (It had avoided Sunday 1 May as the last weekend of canvassing before local elections.) The event would focus on local organizations and the people behind them.

Another event would be held in October, which would develop a positive statement of what it was those involved wanted for Cambridgeshire.

13. Other business and announcements

Richard announced that the Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister tour would come to Cambridge on Tuesday 17 May. Steve had already booked a stall for the CPA at the event.

Steve announced that a rally against Turkey's attacks on its Kurdish population, Break the Silence, would be held in London on Sunday 6 March. He also suggested that the CPA should keep an eye on current regional devolution proposals. He thought it would be a disaster if devolution in the east of England followed the model used in Manchester, of making regions further responsible for cuts to public services.

Richard noted that Steve had spoken to 60,000 people on behalf of the national People's Assembly at the Stop Trident demonstration on Saturday 27 February.

Neil noted that he had spoken to 50 people on behalf of the CPA from the floor at Cambridge Stand Up to Racism's meeting on Islamophobia the previous day.

Nicki noted that the Conservative government's intended cuts to the Employment and Support Allowance disability benefit were before the House of Lords again. The Lords had already rejected the cuts twice.

14. Next meeting

The next meeting would be held at 7.30 p.m. on Wednesday 6 April, at the same venue of the River Lane Centre. Neil had booked the venue for April and May.


Report on two demonstrations

For a meeting of the Cambridge People's Assembly on 2 March 2016.

13 February, Market Square

We organized a solid demonstration on Saturday 13 February in Market Square against the latest and deepest round of cuts by Cambridgeshire County Council. It was publicized on our mailing list and those of friendly organizations, on social media, and on the street: Clément, Hilary, Lucy, Owen, Richard, and I (Neil) gave out flyers around a stall in Market Square on 6 February. The Books for Amnesty shop also took some flyers, and I spoke to mention the demo at the Trades Council's Heart Unions event on 11 February.

This effort brought out forty or more demonstrators in wet and very cold weather. I'd hoped for maybe twenty more, but I consider the number just satisfactory. It did seem that few passers-by stopped to listen, even though we were heard better than ever before thanks to the public address system lent to us by Richard.

Representatives of many friendly organizations made good speeches, and Steve was a brilliant master of ceremonies with the detail of current struggles at his fingertips. I want to note the deeper link we made on this occasion with the Cambridge Labour Party: its city councillor Dave Baigent, and its county councillors Sandra Crawford and Jocelynne Scutt all spoke, and other members attended. Previously we had only dealt with the Labour MP, Daniel Zeichner.

Our staging was fairly effective. We had the speakers face the square, and not the Guildhall wall; I've already mentioned the excellent sound equipment. It would have been good to have had two or three people leafleting, so that the demonstration reached out into the square. Something pointed out to me later was that the demonstrators with the People's Assembly banner faced the speakers; that is, the wall! We should have made sure the banner was behind the speakers.

The press releases produced between Owen and me caught the attention of the Cambridge News, which sent a photographer. The newspaper ran an article online the same day, 'Cambridge Campaigners Protest "Wrongful Policy of Austerity" in Market Square', and a different one with a prominent photo and a shorter text in print on Monday 15 February, 'Protesters Say No to Austerity'. Unfortunately in the printed article, the context of the imminent County Council cuts was lost.

16 February, Shire Hall

We organized another demonstration from 8 a.m. on the day of the County Council's budget meeting, on Tuesday 16 February outside the Council's offices at Shire Hall. Here I had hoped for ten people, and at our strongest we had just that many.

However I found it an awkward action. What was at issue that day was already decided for the councillors who were our audience: it was whether council tax could be raised by the extra two per cent allowed by the chancellor as a social care precept to a total of just under four per cent, as favoured by a Labour-led coalition on the Council. This would have lessened the damage to vital services and was the best option under the conditions, but our demonstration had to introduce the perspective of a fight to change those conditions.

In my view we failed. We were too timid. We didn't find a way to open up the situation, but adopted our perceived role within it as a protest for the two per cent precept. What we should have done was to prepare a flyer to hand to the arriving councillors, setting out our practical demands: in the present, certainly the precept; but in the near future,

  1. a protest to central government through existing channels,
  2. the preparation of a joint protest platform with other local authorities, and
  3. publicity to residents on a realistic, needs-based budget.

This could have been done in a few sentences or bullet points, and could have encouraged us to be more verbally assertive.

Yet in the press this demonstration came across well. A photograph of us was used in the Cambridge News of 17 February to illustrate its political reporter Jon Vale's main feature on the budget meeting, where the demo was reported in a generous boxout ('Councillors Run Gauntlet of Anti-Austerity Protesters') with quotations I'd given beforehand – the words I couldn't find in the moment. The same boxout was reused with a different photo of us in the free Cambridge News and Crier of 18 February, where there would otherwise have been no mention of the massive cuts. Three letters printed since by the News have criticized the cuts: among them one from Jocelynne Scutt, who spoke at our Market Square demo, and one from UNISON's Phil Gooden, in which he identified himself as a Shire Hall protester.

Conclusion

At its meeting the County Council passed a budget that will attack vital services without respite. The two per cent social care precept was introduced, but in place of the 1.99 per cent rise normally allowed. We had not expected to stop the budget, or even to influence a vote in favour of the four per cent tax rise necessary to limit the damage. Our object was to lay public claim to these services and so to hold open the argument on austerity, which the Conservative government wants closed and forgotten. Not every part of our programme worked, but with a solid demonstration before our fellow residents and serial coverage in the press, we succeeded in making out that claim. We held open the argument, and with it the space for continued struggle.

N.K.

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