Year three in Cambridge

We present an unsigned review of the work of our third year. The Cambridge group was founded at the end of June 2013.


Year three

  1. Labour turns
  2. Against austerity and racism
  3. Taking back Manchester
  4. Local struggles
  5. Four or five demands
  6. A new situation

1. Labour turns

Near the beginning of its third year, the supporters of the Cambridge People's Assembly (CPA) had to come to terms with the realization of one of our hopes: in September 2015 the membership of the Labour Party elected the anti-austerity candidate Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. It was clear that Labour's new platform would often overlap with the policies demanded by the People's Assembly (PA), but we satisfied ourselves that there was still a role for our campaign as a vehicle in which Labour members could work together with those in other anti-austerity parties and beyond. (The PA is independent of all parties.)

As the local Left began to debate and reorganize before the consolidation of the Momentum network, Maud spoke for the CPA to explain its work and intended role at the Cambridge Left Forum called in the week after Corbyn's election by Left Unity and rs21. The CPA continues to stand, not behind, but alongside Corbyn and those he represents: in July 2016 we issued a message of 'solidarity and appreciation' to Labour under his 'anti-racist, anti-austerity' leadership, at the moment the party had to resist an attempted coup by many of its MPs.

2. Against austerity and racism

Anti-racism and anti-austerity went together for the CPA this year, as they certainly should have done earlier. The Conservative government's use of immigrants as scapegoats for its austerity policies was well established by the time the refugee crisis began to press harder in the summer of 2015, when hundreds of people were drowning in the Mediterranean in desperate efforts to reach Europe. It followed predictably that the government's response (as we put it in a later notice) 'was only to tighten border controls and drop more poison in our ears': the prime minister David Cameron spoke of 'swarming', the foreign secretary (now chancellor) Philip Hammond of 'marauding migrants'.

However it was only after the circulation in September of the deeply upsetting photographs of a drowned child refugee from Syria, the three-year-old Alan Kurdi, that the CPA discussed action in support of migrants and refugees in its October meeting. We published notes from a diary on austerity and immigration, and with the Cambridge Calais Refugee Action Group and Cambridge Stop the War Coalition supported a march under the slogan Refugees Welcome on 10 October; Neil as our secretary was invited to join the steering committee of the new Cambridge Stand Up to Racism (CSUTR) group, and spoke from the floor at its launch on 2 November.

In 2016 we've participated in two national actions called jointly by the People's Assembly and Stand Up to Racism: the 250-vehicle Convoy to Calais on 18 June, in support of the refugees camped outside the port (see the report prepared for CSUTR), and the London march No More Austerity, No to Racism on 16 July, called as an emergency response to the surge of racist harassment which followed the vote that Britain should leave the European Union. We jointly organized coach transport to the latter with CSUTR.

3. Taking back Manchester

We organized transport to three national PA demonstrations in all this year, the first being the Take Back Manchester demonstration at the Conservative Party conference on 4 October 2015. Reinforced by righteous music from Grace Petrie, Reg Meuross, Tony Phillips, and Red Velvet at the We Shall Overcome anti-austerity benefit gig the previous night – 200 were played across the country that weekend, this one organized by Red Velvet and supported by the CPA among others – 42 people met early on a Sunday morning to make the long journey to Manchester. (The coach was supported by the trade union branches Cambridge University Unite the Union, UNISON Cambridge City, and Unite GPM National Publishing and Media, to our deep gratitude.) Neil spoke on the coach from unpublished notes.

We're not offering violence, but the Conservatives will find themselves encircled in a hostile city: a city which rejects the degradation, withdrawal, and sale of public services; which rejects the erosion of low-wage working conditions and the attack on workers' organization; which rejects the 'bedroom tax' and the commodification of council and now association housing stock.

Steve spoke from the stage at Castlefield Bowl in his role on the Morning Star newspaper, and stayed in Manchester to help organize the next four days of demonstrations and events which (as he reported at the CPA's next meeting) worked 'to shift the focus from the conference centre, to the streets and the people harmed by the Conservative government's policies'.

4. Local struggles

Before the next national demonstration, the CPA threw its small resources back into local struggles. In late September the trust that stands as parent to our famous local hospitals, Addenbrooke's and the Rosie, had been placed in special measures by the regulator Monitor after being rated inadequate by the Care Quality Commission; our statement the next day noted that there were then 15 hospital trusts in special measures, and that 'inadequate care is a risk that follows from inadequate funding' under austerity.

The next month several CPA supporters assisted at the first organizing meeting for a new campaign, Cambridge Health Emergency, which quickly agreed three crucial demands for the Cambridge University Hospitals trust: 1. no financially-driven cuts, 2. no privatization, and 3. full funding of services. Our motion to the PA conference in December (see our delegates' report) proceeded from the special measures in Cambridge to call for a campaign for a fully funded NHS, uniting junior doctors and other health workers with community campaigns and informed by the successes of the Stop the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Sell-Off campaign.

At the end of October, Cambridgeshire County Council began briefing about the massive spending cuts it planned for the next five years, with a keen start to be made when it set its budget in February. The CPA announced its response with a statement in December that attacked 'the worst austerity cuts yet' in Cambridgeshire.

They are some of the sharpest: the council proposes £41m [later raised to £48m] of cuts for the budget year 2016/17, front-loading £119m of cuts planned by 2020/21. And they are the very deepest: after five years of Conservative-led austerity, only the most essential services still survive to be cut again.

In the new year the CPA led local protest against the cuts. We distributed in the streets a leaflet based on our December statement, and organized two demonstrations against the cuts: one in Market Square the weekend before the budget meeting, where (with Steve as master of ceremonies) we were joined by representatives of community groups, trade union branches, and the local Labour and Green parties, and one at the council's offices in Shire Hall on the day. Our statement had recognized that the cuts '[had] their root in Westminster, in the Conservative government's doctrine of austerity', but we also blamed the council for its collective failure (despite brave individual efforts) to stand up for people in Cambridgeshire.

Our object was to lay public claim to the vital services under attack; we realized our small group couldn't hope to reverse cuts of hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time. However three months later the council revealed a new austerity measure, nowhere mentioned in its February budget, in a reservation fee for adult library users. As we pointed out in a widely-noticed article (quoted in the Cambridge News on 9 May),

Users who are not able to travel into the centre of Cambridge but instead request books to collect at their nearest branch will in practice no longer have access to a free public library service.

A letter in the Cambridge News on 24 June announced our campaign for the council to drop the fee: 'Mean, unfair, and corrosive, it is not the worst of the measures it joins, but it points to a battle that we can win.'

The summer campaign we'd intended was derailed by the EU referendum and its effects (see below: the letter was published on the day of the referendum result), but we'll take it up again in our fourth year.

5. Four or five demands

Our next task after the February demonstrations was organizing transport to the PA's national demonstration in London for Health, Homes, Jobs, and Education – the 'four demands' that austerity could never meet – on Saturday 16 April. About a week before the demonstration, the realization that the leaked 'Panama papers' implicated the austerity prime minister in offshore tax avoidance inspired the PA to add the resignation of David Cameron as a glorious fifth demand.

By that time our coach was fully booked, but we had enough interest and just enough financial support to organize a second. (This time the coaches were supported by Unite London and Eastern, Cambridge and District Trades Council, Cambridge University Unite once again, UNISON Cambridge Acute Hospitals, and Cambridge University and College Union, to our equally deep gratitude.) We transported around 60 people to join an estimated 150,000. Before meeting the main crowd on Gower Street, our party gathered to rally for a photograph in support of Amnesty International's campaign for an investigation into the murder in Cairo of the Cambridge student Giulio Regeni and the disappearances of hundreds of Egyptian citizens under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

6. A new situation

As its supporters had opposed views as to whether Britain should leave the EU, the PA didn't take a position towards June's referendum. The surprise vote to leave finally forced David Cameron's resignation and crushed his second government, but also winded the anti-austerity movement. The PA and others had to turn our attention to the poisonous racism that the vote in part expressed and strongly encouraged, organizing for the emergency 16 July demonstration noted above; Labour MPs chose this crucial moment to attempt their leadership coup, plunging the party into factional strife.

From a three-week political vacuum there emerged a new Conservative government under Cameron's home secretary Theresa May, which, anticipating a recession that would undo its predecessors' ruthless efforts to lower the budget deficit, soon began to hint that it might 'reset' fiscal policy with its autumn statement. This would be a new situation for our campaign, which has always envisaged a grassroots, activist political reversal that would end austerity and follow through to attack the retrenchment of elite power since 2010. If the plebiscitary reversal of Brexit leads to the first without the second, what's the role of the PA? The meeting of the Assembly body on 3 September, where local groups like this one are represented alongside national supporters, is our chance to work it out.

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