Bristol People’s Assembly Report Back
By Julie McCalden and Naz Massoumi. Photos by Louise Whittle
“Not even standing room” was one of the first tweets of the evening. Another city, another evening and another packed out rally in support of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. This time it was in Bristol, where over 350 people crammed into the Malcolm X Centre in St Pauls. And the atmosphere was absolutely electric.
Paulette North, a local radio presenter on Ujima radio from Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC) set the mood with an inspiring opening, describing how the black community were feeling the sharp end of austerity, with cutbacks to organisations being three times as large as the average, with 30 job losses at the Black Development Agency and cuts in funding for the Malcolm X Community Centre where the rally was being held. But she also stressed how this had sparked a massive campaign, and the fight back had been fantastic with the latest campaign organising to save the local adventure playground from closure.
Joanne Kaye, the Regional Secretary of Unison in the South West, followed by talking about her working class background in Sheffield and how her generation had got used to the idea that their lives would be better than their parents, but that their children would be worse off than them. The key for the People’s Assembly was unity and solidarity: we would have to accept that we have our differences but that we had to unite over what we agree on in order to defeat this government.
Laura Welti, from the Bristol Disability Equality Forum said there was overwhelming evidence that welfare reforms have nothing to do with saving money everything to do with political dogma. She argued for the need to fight against the stereotyping of disabled people as scroungers or fraudsters had fuelled discrimination – in a survey of people with learning difficulties 90% of respondents had experienced abuse.
She said that life for disabled people was 25% more expensive because of the adaptations needed to live in our society, yet they are hit by multiple cuts making them some of the worst affected by the governments austerity programme. The cuts to disability living allowance were literally killing people – 32 a week. If this wasn’t bad enough, advice and legal aid cuts meant that there was no support to get what you’re actually entitled to. The situation was even worse for refugees who were disabled, with lack of access to benefits or accommodation with wheelchair facilities.
Vicki Baars, Vice President of NUS, argued how this was a new beginning for an anti austerity movement, that would turn the tide on a ‘rich, male, pale, stale government.’ She described the overwhelming response to the call for the People’s Assembly and how opinion polls showed that 30% of people rejected austerity outright. There had been some powerful demonstrations recently ignored by the media – thousands had marched to save local hospitals, community centres and swimming pools.
Comedian Mark Steel had the audience rolling with laughter and received a warm response when he said that resisting and complaining about the cuts – even when it didn’t feel like winning – was better than doing nothing, because it empowers us and gives us hope. He argued for fighting to shift the so-called centre ground to where we want it to be, so that the idea that the poor should pay for the crisis caused by the rich would became so abhorrent that in the future it would seem as absurd as slavery does to us now.
Columnist and author Owen Jones talked about the already huge meetings supporting the assembly that have taken place across the country and how it was rooted it in people’s anger against the government – they no longer wanted to just shout at the telly. He said there was plenty to be angry about – from food banks trebling in size last year to the forced choice of parents to eat or heat, from breakfast clubs and EMA being scrapped to 1701 applications for 8 jobs at Costa Coffee. What was missing was hope and to offer a coherent alternative to austerity.
Billions of pounds spent on housing benefit was lining the pockets of landlords charging extortionate rents, whilst tax credits were a lifeline for low wage earners because bosses weren’t paying their workers properly. He argued for a living wage, for tackling the ecological and job crisis together and for a war against tax avoidance, which got little media coverage in comparison to benefit fraud. These were common sense ideas ignored by the government and the People’s Assembly would give a megaphone to people who are otherwise ignored. We had all come to the realisation, he said, that it is unacceptable that we do not have a mass movement against austerity that can push an alternative. He received rapturous applause by ending with a call to stand together and fight together to win together.
There were inspiring contributions from the floor – Mike Campbell from Protect Our NHS showed how cash was leaping from NHS to private hands, around 8.7 billion pounds last year and Nigel Varley from Bristol Anti-Cuts Alliance about what had been done locally thus far against the cuts. Other contributions included a member from South Gloucestershire Unison Branch, a PCS rep and South West TUC chair and Suzannah, a local resident who had been subjected to the bedroom tax who called for everyone to join the Axe the Bedroom Tax protests on Saturday. Bobo, a local campaigner, got a fantastic response when he argued the poor had to look after each other as the rich would never know how it felt to be poor.
After the meeting many people inspired by the rally stayed in the hall to debate and discuss, whilst hundreds signed up to find out more about the assembly and financial contributions were made to help Bristol People’s Assembly to get off the ground, some of which will be donated to the Malcolm X Community Centre due to their financial strains as well as to subsidise getting people to the assembly on 22 June.
The meeting has already had a huge impact being picked up by the local press and community radio stations. These ripples have all the hallmarks of the start of a powerful and coherent anti-austerity movement.