I arrived at the Coalition of Resistance (COR) conference into a crowd of energy, anger and passion. The 1000 capacity venue was packed out, with an estimated 1200 delegates filling the hall and overflow rooms. What I saw started to make sense of disparate meetings and conversations I had been having with friends, colleagues and acquaintances since the election of a hung parliament and the establishment of the coalition government.
In the months leading up to Saturday, friends of mine have become increasingly worried about their personal situations in work and out of work. Those in work were worried about their jobs, their colleagues and the people they served. Those out of work were becoming stressed, depressed and withdrawn after sending tens of applications per month and being met by silence. What actions like the student demonstrations, Vodafone closures and the COR conference have provided is a way to make the personal, political.
The delegates listened with anger as the dismantling of the welfare state was laid out before them; and in silence when one of the school students kettled by the Metropolitan Police spoke from the platform. In many ways this was an educational rather than a policy or strategy-making event. In the workshops, delegates heard from speakers (including myself) and debated matters around political strategy, organising methods, and specific issues around women, benefits, and climate change. What was clear to me was that the movement was understandably pulling in many directions to face the broad attack on social welfare, but where it needs to go is to support specific struggles at the local level against cuts and privatisations, picking its targets well and building a successful movement.
In the workshop I was speaking at (‘What Should Political Representatives do?’) the conversation ranged widely between altering the nature of political representation by campaigning for AV, the individual commitment of MPs such as Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and my own contribution which touched on the dilemmas of local government. What I tried to push and to impress upon the audience was that there are ways of resisting and opposing cuts in local government, but they will suffer the same fate as previous struggles unless it is part of broad and coordinated action such as with resistance to the poll tax.
Of course our movement, like any other, can improve itself. The workshop on women and the cuts produced a resolution asking for the national committee to be at least 50 per cent women, which seems only fair given that it is estimated that women will shoulder 75 per cent of the burden of the cuts. Similarly, despite the support of BARAC and great speeches by Lowkey and Lee Jasper, the movement needs to improve its links with ethnic minority communities. Hopefully in the time between now and the policy making conference being called for Spring 2011, these links can be developed along with building up a network of local campaigns
The elephant in the room was that, despite being united in opposition, we have yet to move towards a clear alternative. There was the start of such a programme in speeches calling for green jobs, in calls for a progressive taxation system and a welfare system which was about providing good jobs and training. Housing was barely mentioned in the sessions I attended – the delay to changes in Housing Benefit could well be the second point of weakness in the coalition after tuition fees. Civil society could draw upon the example of other European countries to propose and perhaps start a wide-ranging package of reforms to enable more social housing and to improve tenant rights in private rented housing. Once we have a programme then we can start to work with progressive politicians to bring it about. Above all, the message which came out from the conference was that turning the clocks may to before May 2010 will not be good enough. What we are seeking is beyond a change in government, it is a change of policy away from greed and towards justice.
Samir Jeraj is a Green party councillor in Norwich.