Wednesday 13 October 2010

Defending Newham's Services - A First Step

A meeting this evening at Durning Hall Community Centre in Forest Gate took the first faltering steps towards setting up a network to defend services for local people in Newham and to oppose massive cuts imposed on us by central and local government.

Now there are those who persist in saying that every campaign meeting, even one with forty people in attendance, is "brilliant". Everything always is. Inevitably this surfaced again tonight, but in my view it would be a considerable exaggeration. Two hundred people packed into Durning Hall's main meeting space, like the Save Wanstead Flats event a week ago, is what I call brilliant - tonight was a respectable start in testing the level of support for local campaigning against cuts, which is all it had been intended to achieve when we set out to arrange it.

Not everything we had hoped for worked out well. Although Sarah Ruiz and others from the voluntary sector were able to provide a wealth of detail about different groups facing a funding crisis and Tom Nixon from Unite spoke very well on his fears about the impact of cuts on local council staff, there was regrettably nowhere near enough testimony, based on people's personal or work experience, about the actual effects that cuts will have on the lives of Newham residents.

Instead there was a gap into which poured everything I often find so deeply disappointing about some sections of the British far left. I'm talking about long-winded rhetoric praising past struggles that I seem to recall largely ended in ignominious defeat and almost fetishist debate about the abstract merits of strike action. The considerable overoptimism that sees everything as "brilliant" was applied just as much to how angry (as opposed to worried) local people currently are and on the prospect of thousands rising up in protest against cuts. One or two participants seemed to have come along primarily to publicise one or other march taking outside of the borough. At times, it was extremely frustrating.

But there were useful ideas too - suggestions about involving the borough's many faith groups, organising street stalls, collecting and sharing information and encouraging local groups to defend their services by starting their own petitions of their members and users. One contributor, an experienced activist and SWP comrade, pointed out the very real danger that some local charities might actually benefit from decisions to shrink the number of services delivered directly by Newham council , if it decides to contract out to the lowest bidder. The division and mistrust that this kind of unseemly scrabble for limited resources can cause is something we'll all have to guard against. A number of people also emphasised how building up support for a broad campaign and spreading the message about a network that encourages mutual aid and solidarity always takes time and effort. Unless we can find both, we will continue to face an uphill struggle.

After an hour and a half of discussion, the meeting agreed to establish an e-mail list so that different people can share their skills, to set up a planning meeting and to persuade others to participate in the emerging campaign from the existing networks we are all involved in. It has no name yet, but I hope we will eventually chose something positive - 'Save Newham Services', perhaps, rather than 'Newham Against the Cuts'. That's up for discussion in three weeks time.

The first campaign planning meeting will take place on Thursday 4 November at 6.30pm at Durning Hall Community Centre. Everyone who supports the defence of services for local people in the borough is very welcome.

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