People's Assembly

Report from Medway People’s Assembly

Saturday 14 September 2013
Sunlight Centre, Gillingham

Organised by Medway Trades Union Council.

Communists and Morning Star supporters were amongst trade unionists, local residents, Labour Party members and community and anti-cuts activists to hear keynote speaker Manuel Cortes (General Secretary TSSA) demand the re-nationalisation of Britain’s railways and a creation of a million new green jobs to tackle unemployment and climate change at Saturday’s Medway People’s Assembly.

Mr Cortes denounced the Tory-led government’s austerity policies as an attack on the most poor and vulnerable in society and called for a progressive Labour government to reverse the Con-Dem’s disastrous economic policies which brought misery and unemployment to millions.

Roger Lewis (UNISON Shop Steward, Disabled People Against Cuts Lambeth) denounced the Tories’ attacks on the sick and disabled and criticised the anti-disability hatred stirred up the government and its allies in the reactionary press. Mr Lewis told the assembly that disabled people “demand rights, not charity” and that DPAC had shown the way to fight-back, through direct action and making alliances with sympathetic allies such as trade unions, Labour MPs and Labour councils. “ATOS’ share price has plummeted and we were a part of that..” and through DPAC’s use of social media and campaign tactics it has made “workers too embarrassed to work for a company that demeans and oppresses disabled people.”

Attendees were invited to attend themed workshops on the subjects of: fighting back against benefit cuts and the bedroom tax; fracking and climate change; austerity and young people; mythbusting – workers, shirkers and immigrants, saving the NHS against privatisation and how unions can turn the tide.

Cllr Andy Stamp from Medway Labour group (Gillingham North) told of representing “one of the most deprived wards in Medway” and reaffirmed the Labour group’s no-evictions and anti-bedroom tax policy. Mr Stamp told how “it’s great to see local campaigns groups like Medway Against the Cuts putting pressure on Tory councillors at council sessions, showing public resistance to Tory attacks on the most vulnerable.”

Medway Citizens’ Advice Bureau chief executive Dan McDonald referred to Medway as “a pay-day loan hostspot” and explained that “only a tiny number of smaller properties are available for residents who wish to escape paying the bedroom tax.”

Matt Stanley (NUS NEC, MidKent College Students’ Union President) spoke of how austerity was adversely affecting young people through unemployment, poverty and falling living standards. Keen participants at the austerity and young people workshop decided to take discussion further into action by creating a local campaign group around issues affecting young people.

Paula Peters (DPAC Bromley, Campaign for Benefit Justice, Mental Health Resistance Network steering group) announced to attendees that the “Medway branch of Disabled People Against Cuts is now open!” Using the People’s Assembly event, local disability rights activists and trade union allies launched DPAC Medway to fight back against poverty, anti-disability hate crime and Tory-led attacks on the dignity and living standards of disabled people. DPAC Medway will link up with DPAC chapters up and down the country in sharing experience, solidarity and coordinating an active non-passive voice for disabled people.

“Tory MPs have referred to us as ‘disabled extremists’ in the House of Commons,” Ms Peters explained “well ever since then I have been proud to call myself a ‘disabled extremist.’ Because being a ‘disabled extremist’ means having a voice and not putting up with hate crime, media untruths and the poverty which creates misery and pain for disabled people.”

Attendees showed interest and support for the Morning Star as one of the few newspapers that gives trade unionists and disabled people a voice, compared to the Tory-supporting media in hoc to ultra-rich big-business backers. Copies of the Star (14 Sep) were all sold and back copies were made available for free to those interested in reading a daily socialist newspaper owned by its readers.

Communists from the Kent Branch staffed a Communist Party stall filled with books and pamphlets which gained interest, attention and dialogue from assembly attendees, some of whom showed interest in working with the Party locally.

The Medway People’s Assembly day session concluded with a final rally, for local residents and activists to discuss and plan the fightback against austerity.

Dave Banbury (CWU Kent Invicta Branch Secretary) attacked the Tories for “selling off the family silver” and demanded that a Labour government “reverse any privatisation of the Royal Mail and bring it back into public ownership.” Mr Banbury called for the election of a Labour government to reverse Thatcher’s anti-union laws which “restrict the human rights of trade union members” but warned the Labour leadership that his members “would be watching closely” and that a continuation of disastrous Blairite policies would force the CWU “to examine its relationship with the Labour Party.”

Cllr Tristan Osborne (Medway Labour group, PPC for Chatham & Aylesford) faced tough questions from the audience about the mistakes of the previous Labour government. “PFI is certainly where we got things wrong, there were some dodgy contracts which should never have been signed.”

Mr Osborne received a warmer response when he stated the Labour Party’s opposition to the bedroom tax as well as Labour’s policy of a large house building programme to tackle decade-long waiting lists. He criticised the Tory-led coalition’s policies as “a disaster for Britain and a disaster for Medway.”

Local residents’ contributions from the floor called on Labour to re-nationalise the railways, create jobs, protect the NHS from privatisation and to commit to a “massive” house-building programme to reverse the effects of Thatcher’s housing policies. There were also calls on the trade unions “not to give a blank cheque to Labour” and to keep them to their promises.

At the conclusion of the day session, Medway Trades Council gave a free buffet and free entertainment from local music performers, poets and comedians to the local community.