The Tories are holding their annual conference in Manchester from Sunday 4 until Wednesday 7 October. Rick Lighten reports from a People’s Assembly meeting that took place in Manchester this week to begin planning for a series of protests and events around the conference.
Over 100 people attended the meeting to start mobilising and planning for Tory party conference in October. There was a healthy mix of old and new faces, quite diverse in age and gender, a bit less so in ethnicity.
Julie Hesmondhalgh (a local celebrity best known for her role as Hayley Cropper in Coronation St) opened with a very quick speech. She said she’d rather be “down there with you lot organising”, instead of up on the top table. It was interesting that she started her speech by admitting to feeling like we’ve lost a bit of momentum since the immediate brilliant response to the Tories getting elected in May. But she was really enthused by the massive march in London on 2 June and hoped we could build on that for October.
John Rees from National People’s Assembly spoke about his vision for Tory party conference. It was noticeable that national organisers are feeling some pressure from a mood amongst some activists that marching isn’t enough, and John constantly threw in positive noises about “direct action”. He said the “strategic goal” was to build and sustain a movement at a higher level than we have so far, a movement that doesn’t allow the Tories to stay in power for 5 years. We need to “intensify the level of demonstrations”, plus direct action, plus strike action. Working towards this strategic goal means that for Tory Conference we need actions every day: we’ll have the TUC demo on 4 October; maybe we’ll occupy a bank; throw the media spotlight on Boots tax evasion; drown out conference delegates with pots and pans banging on the ring of steel security cordon; Manchester cathedral will be opened up for two days to host anti-austerity events; Mark Steel and Francesca Martinez will be doing a comedy gig; we should disrupt delegates arriving at Piccadilly station…
There was some discussion from the floor, which was generally supportive of what was outlined by John. Some extra ideas were thrown in too, around solidarity with the people of Greece; anti-racism; putting forward what we’re for, not just against. There was a question about people from across the country staying in Manchester for the whole four days of activity, and what we could do to accommodate people. John replied that church halls may be available and that we should book sports halls etc, but really we need the universities in occupation. Another activist brought up the idea of putting up banners on every empty house in Manchester for the length of the Tory conference, to highlight the issue of homelessness. I thought this was an excellent idea that activists involved in the various housing campaigns in London might be able to help with.
We split up into groups of areas of campaigning interest (e.g. homelessness, climate change etc) or geographical areas. I joined around 10 other people in the Levenshulme group. We decided to set up a facebook group and local meetings to coordinate leafleting, door-knocking, possibly a night of music. It was a very positive and optimistic start for a local group.
John Hilary from War on Want summed up. He had rushed over from a UNISON NW meeting organising for the same event. He reported that UNISON NW pledged to put their all into it and be “front and center” in organising and supporting the demo. John spoke quite well on Greece and the EU, saying that we need to set the terms of the debate and not leave it to the right, and that we need to rebuild institutions of the EU “from the bottom up”. I may have missed something, but I wasn’t quite clear as to whether he was saying we should vote no when the referendum comes, but I think that’s what he was going for. Maybe he was testing the water, or encouraging abstention. It was also evident that he too felt the need to talk about going beyond single demonstrations, and he did so quite well: “we need to build in workplaces and communities to demand a better future”. “4 October is the next stage in building this resistance and we need to build town-by-town, street-by-street.”
The meeting ended early and lots of us popped down to Piccadilly Gardens where we’d heard some sort of protest was going on. We arrived to find a few people had climbed onto a shop roof and dropped a banner saying “WE WON’T PAY FOR THEIR CRISIS”! It all ended with an angry and edgy stand-off with the cops, who were being very heavy-handed, and an impromptu rave against austerity, with a couple of speeches and chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” I got talking to a young angry woman who made a very good speech against benefit cuts, and she said she’d come to next People’s Assembly planning meeting. We might find the police more keen to clamp down on political protest in the run-up to the conference. That’s certainly the pattern we saw in the months prior to another Tory Conference in Manchester a few years ago. So there could be opportunities to tie in civil liberties campaigns like Defend the Right to Protest with the planning and events around October.
I (and many other activists and groups) have been grappling recently with how to build and sustain a movement that can seriously disrupt austerity. In summing up, John Rees said that “we need to be organised and active so that we don’t get passive, isolated, and demoralised.” I would add to that being organised and active helps, but we desperately need activity that starts winning. And we need organisation that builds on victories or, in their absence, helps to explain why we’re not winning in a way that builds hope, sustains involvement, and leads to more successful activity. I’m worried that we don’t have that organisation at the moment, and that victories may not be around the corner. My aim in the coming months is to talk to as many others as possible about how we can build an organisation that sustains involvement, builds hope, and starts winning. We need to have this debate in the open, with people who are new to protest and with experienced activists. If we do this alongside those mobilising for and planning some excellent initiatives around the Tory party conference in October, we will be contributing something worthwhile to the ongoing efforts to build a movement that can win.
Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/503640606458747/