Minutes of the May CPA meeting

There follow the minutes of our May meeting, including an introduction to the new education campaign, and with a report on the national demonstration of 16 April and a development of its demands attached. Our next monthly meeting will be held on Wednesday 1 June at 7.30 p.m., at the wheelchair-accessible River Lane Centre, River Lane, Cambridge CB5 8HP.


Cambridge People's Assembly, 4 May 2016

  1. Agreement of the agenda
  2. Apologies for absence
  3. Approval of last month's minutes and matters arising
  4. Secretary's report
  5. Treasurer's report
  6. Library service cuts
  7. Teachers and parents' campaign on education policy
  8. Doctors' campaign against the new junior contract
  9. Report on national demonstration, 16 April
  10. Convoy to Calais, 18 June
  11. Other business and announcements
  12. Next meeting

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

1. Agreement of the agenda

The meeting accepted the latest draft of the agenda, which added a new item 10 to the draft Neil had previously circulated.

2. Apologies for absence

Ally, Emma, Eva, Martin B., Maud, Mick, and Olivier had sent apologies.

3. Approval of last month's minutes and matters arising

The meeting approved the minutes.

Neil reported that he had donated £30 on behalf of the Cambridge People's Assembly (CPA) to the solidarity fund for its friend Angela and seven others who stood trial in April for disrupting the DSEI arms fair in autumn (see item 11 in the minutes for April). He added that the defendants had been acquitted of any crime, an unexpected verdict given that the case was before a magistrate and not a jury. The magistrate ruled that they had acted to prevent the crimes of torture and genocide, and therefore with lawful excuse (see the CPA article 'Court Report', 20 April).

There were no other matters arising.

4. Secretary's report

Neil reported that the CPA had 254 subscribers to its mailing list (last month 237), while 880 Twitter users followed it (860) and 590 Facebook users liked it (561).

He reported that he had finally obtained all the signatures necessary to register the CPA's new officers with its bank. (Note: he was wrong.)

5. Treasurer's report

Nicki reported a bank balance of £129.57. The CPA had received donations towards the cost of coach hire for 16 April of £669 from passengers and £250 from a trade union, and the collection at the April meeting had raised £16.67 (the latter not yet paid in).

It had spent £1,045 on the hire of two coaches for 16 April, £7.50 on the hire of its meeting venue, and £5 on its monthly donation to the national People's Assembly.

6. Library service cuts

The meeting agreed to prepare information for the web and perhaps letters to local newspapers on the latest library cuts that were beginning to take effect. Nicki noted the need for comparative information on the national situation; Jon suggested the long-running Library Campaign as a source. Neil suggested the broad direction for the CPA's work on this issue should be the mobilization of library users.

Owen noted that elsewhere, Cambridge University Library planned to close its bindery and lay off its staff of eighteen, as it moved increasingly from providing print to providing electronic resources.

7. Teachers and parents' campaign on education policy

Jon introduced this campaign.

In March the Conservative government had published a white paper on children's education, Educational Excellence Everywhere, with three key points.

  1. All schools in England would become part of multi-academy trusts. Existing individual academies would be linked through chains.
  2. Parents would no longer be required on school governing bodies (they were not being excluded from governing bodies, although some statements by the education secretary Nicky Morgan would imply it).
  3. National agreements for teachers as employees – on matters such as sick pay, maternity leave, and so on – would end. Terms and conditions would be left for individual schools to negotiate, and this could be expected to worsen conditions for teachers.

The 'sting in the tail' was the abolition of qualified teacher status (QTS). All training would be given on the job and head teachers would decide what was required, even though they would lack detailed knowledge across all subjects.

Jon considered these proposals to amount to an attack on comprehensive education in England. If they could be put into force, it would be a major setback for children, parents, and teachers. However the proposals had provoked a lot of opposition, like the earlier proposal of baseline testing, under which all children would be assessed in the first six weeks of school. There had been massive opposition to this dubious idea from parents, unions, and 99 per cent of education academics, which left the government isolated. Because of this, and the fact the government had no way to compare the results from the different companies contracted to provide the tests, in April the testing was made voluntary (so in practice, abandoned).

This episode, and the two recent fiascos of test papers being published online, suggested that the government didn't have a grasp of what was happening in schools. The white paper ignored the real crisis in education, of pupil places, funding, teacher retention, and a narrow curriculum. All unions and teachers' associations (with the exception of the secondary heads' association) opposed the government's education policy, although only the National Union of Teachers (NUT) had so far prepared to ballot for industrial action against its effects on pay and conditions.

Jon said that the NUT was now keen to join broad-based local campaigns with parents, educationalists, and other teaching unions across the country. There would be a meeting at 7.30 p.m. at the CB2 Bistro on Tuesday 10 May to agree the basis for a Cambridgeshire campaign. Before then, the Cambridgeshire NUT association would hold a stall in Cambridge on Saturday 7 May.

Richard said that the government's retreat on baseline testing showed that it could not just do as it pleased: it was vulnerable. He hoped the junior doctors of the British Medical Association (BMA) and the NUT would be able to strike together on pay and conditions: the BMA, so new to industrial action, might be inspired by the NUT.

Neil volunteered to attend the 10 May meeting on behalf of the CPA.

8. Doctors' campaign against the new junior contract

The meeting discussed the junior doctors of the British Medical Association's campaign against the unsafe, unfair new contract to be imposed by the government, their most recent action having been an unprecedented full withdrawal of labour for nine hours on successive days, 26 and 27 April. (In four previous actions this year the doctors had continued to provide emergency cover.)

Hilary was concerned that the health secretary Jeremy Hunt was not going to budge. This action had been solid, but would doctors feel able to go any further? What could they do now?

They had to escalate again, urged Richard. As health secretary, Hunt was responsible for making sure that NHS operations could take place. Plenty of junior doctors were able to argue their case persuasively, and the campaign remained popular with the public.

The meeting discussed whether Cambridge junior doctors and their community supporters like the CPA should seek for local hospitals to leave national negotiations and agree their own contracts with doctors. This could allow a local escape from the government's junior contract, but after debate the meeting agreed that this tactic would fragment the struggle and ultimately weaken the doctors' position. Jon recalled that the abandonment of national negotiations was one of the policies that teachers were presently fighting (see item 7 above).

Nicki raised the possibility of an indefinite strike by junior doctors. Owen thought that was what escalation had to look like at this point.

9. Report on national demonstration, 16 April

Neil gave a report on the People's Assembly national demonstration in London (attached below). The CPA had sent two coaches, transporting 56 people to a demonstration of at least 100,000 for the basic social needs of Health, Homes, Jobs, and Education, and had raised just enough money to meet the hire costs of over £1,000. He was disappointed that the demonstration had been smaller than last year's, but thought the campaign had turned a corner in finding a straightforward language for a positive vision of the alternative to austerity.

Richard reassured Neil that a demonstration of that size was a good one. As for the Cambridge contribution, it always happened that people booked and cancelled coach places at the last minute: it was an achievement for the CPA to have transported so many.

Hilary was dissatisfied with the media coverage of the demonstration: for example, a BBC radio report had said it was organized by the 'People's Alliance'! Neil was happy enough with the coverage. Nicki mentioned that she had given two television interviews, to Sky News and a Spanish channel.

10. Convoy to Calais, 18 June

The meeting discussed what it could do to help with this joint action by the People's Assembly, Stand Up to Racism, Stop the War Coalition, Unite the Union, the Communications Workers' Union, the TSSA union, War on Want, Momentum, and the Muslim Association of Britain. It noted that there was a list available on the People's Assembly website of suitable materials for donation; otherwise, the aim would be to raise money and volunteers to join the convoy.

The meeting agreed with Richard that the CPA should seek to gather materials, money, and volunteers in the first place by appeals to its mailing list and online, co-ordinating its efforts with Cambridge Stand Up to Racism and other local groups. Richard stressed that among other things, the convoy was a demonstration to demand an open border: everyone seeking refuge or a new life in Britain should be able to come.

11. Other business and announcements

Owen advised the meeting that the Free Speech on Israel campaign had developed a motion on current allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party for organizations linked to the labour movement, supporting the 'Statement on Labour's Problem with Antisemitism' already published by the Jewish Socialists' Group. He suggested the CPA might like to add its name. He would send the text to Neil for circulation on the group's discussion list. (Free Speech on Israel has compiled online its model motion and variations: the one recommended by Owen was that passed by the Bolton West Constituency Labour Party and others.)

Dan advised the meeting that stalls at Strawberry Fair on 4 June would cost £50 this year. The meeting agreed this was probably too much for the CPA to afford, and welcomed Jon's offer of space on Cambridgeshire NUT's stall. The meeting agreed to organize the preparation of materials through the discussion list.

Nicki noted that a lawyer offering legal advice to the parents of Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge student murdered in Cairo while undertaking research on independent trade unions under Egypt's authoritarian government (see the CPA article 'For Giulio Regeni', 5 March), had been arrested in that city.

Neil showed the meeting the first three titles published for the Left Book Club, and asked anyone who was interested in joining a reading group to let him know.

12. Next meeting

The next meeting would be held at 7.30 p.m. on Wednesday 1 June, at the same venue of the River Lane Centre. Maud had booked the venue indefinitely for the first Wednesday of each month.


Report on the Health, Homes, Jobs, and Education national demonstration

For a meeting of the Cambridge People's Assembly on 4 June 2016.

Preparation

The People's Assembly Health, Homes, Jobs, and Education demonstration on Saturday 16 April 2016 was timed, I think, to arrive when the unity of the governing Conservative Party would be showing cracks in advance of the European Union referendum. In the event it arrived after four weeks in which the government had been stumbling at every step, beginning with the austerity budget on 16 March, its partial collapse two days later, and the immediate resignation of the welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith. After the leak of the 'Panama Papers' implicated the austerity prime minister in an offshore tax avoidance scheme, we added to our four demands a fifth: the resignation of David Cameron.

The Cambridge People's Assembly had agreed in February to organize a wheelchair-accessible coach to the demonstration. We approached local trade union organizations for funding and publicized the coach on our mailing list, on the lists of friendly organizations, on the web, and on the street with two weekend stalls.

Interest picked up sharply in the last ten days before the demo. With seven days to go we'd filled the coach, with 48 seats booked; with four to go we had a dozen names on a waiting list, and believed there to be more interest. Learning that Unite London and Eastern was not sending a coach itself but would be willing to contribute to a second CPA coach, and with an extremely kind offer by a long-time supporter to help us further with funds if necessary, we decided through the discussion list to organize a second. Now with three days to go, our only option was another big coach, a 49-seater from a different company.

The cost of hiring these two coaches came to £1,045. We eventually raised £650 from trade union organizations and £429 from coach passengers: a total of £1,079, just enough, although we had to borrow £150 (now repaid) from a second kind supporter to meet a bill that arrived before all the donations.

Action

By Saturday we had 64 passengers booked, and 56 actually attended. Dan, Maud, and Richard M. were stewards on one coach, Tom and I (Neil) on the other. Tom was in contact with the Cambridge University academic Anne Alexander, already in London, and arranged with her that on arrival our party would rally in support of Amnesty International's campaign for an investigation into the murder of the Cambridge student Giulio Regeni and the disappearances of hundreds of Egyptian citizens under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Annie Galpin, of the Cambridge National Union of Journalists (NUJ), used a photo taken of our rally on Hampstead Road to illustrate her successful motion on support for the campaign at the NUJ conference the next day in Brighton.

Next we joined the main body of the demonstrators on Gower Street for a march to Trafalgar Square. We were a dense crowd, and once we started marching after a long delay, never stopped or slowed. The Metropolitan Police estimated that 100,000 people marched, the People's Assembly, 150,000. This was a good demonstration but it has to be noted that we were fewer than last June, when the People's Assembly estimated 250,000 marched after the shock of the Conservatives' general election win.

Speakers in Trafalgar Square included the student nurse Danielle Tiplady, the steelworker Mark Turner, the junior doctors Yannis Gourtsoyannis and Mona Kamal, the trade union leaders Christine Blower (NUT), Len McLuskey (Unite), and Dave Ward (CWU), the activists and writers Owen Jones and John Rees, the party politicians Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party) and John McDonnell (shadow chancellor in the Labour Party), and the People's Assembly secretary Sam Fairbairn. The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, sent a video message. He and other speakers reminded us that austerity was a political choice, designed to give still greater wealth and power to those able to dominate the markets opened by cuts and privatizations. Owen Jones placed our campaign within a broad 'politics of hope', whose failure would abandon Britain to a rightwing politics of fear.

Reflection

So did the demonstration actually put any pressure on David Cameron as prime minister? I think not. Our timing was good, but not perfect: perhaps a week earlier a demonstration of the same size would have been fuel on the fire under Cameron, as one more sign to the Conservative Party and its backers that it was time to drop him. That fire had been damped by the time we took to the streets. Equally a huge demonstration on 16 April could have reopened the question, but in the event we were fewer than in 2015. For me, that's the nagging disappointment of the day.

Its value was that our campaign turned a corner in finding a straightforward language to put forward a democratic alternative to austerity: not just the Health, Homes, Jobs, and Education slogan itself, but the brief development of each theme that the national office used in its materials (see 'The Four Demands', attached below) was engaging and thoughtful. I think it's only if we can describe such an alternative that our campaign will find the wide resonance that finally shakes this government.

N.K.


The four demands

This development of the four demands under which the People's Assembly called its demonstration in London on 16 April 2016 is taken from the national event page.

Health

  • A fully funded and publicly owned NHS – end privatization
  • Invest in health workers – end the staffing crisis
  • No cuts or closures

Homes

  • Hands off social housing
  • Secure homes for all
  • Control rents

Jobs

  • Scrap the Trade Union Bill
  • Stop insecure contracts
  • End the pay freeze, a living wage for all

Education

  • Scrap tuition fees
  • Invest in our futures – stop cuts to education
  • End the marketization of education

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