Hundreds attend Manchester Peoples’ Assembly

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peoples assemblyOver 600, maybe 700 people crammed into Central Methodist Hall for the Manchester Peoples ‘Assembly on Tuesday, one of a series of events organised in the lead up to the main assembly held in London next month. The largest attended People’s Assembly so far, the meeting was an enthusiastic affair with a variety of speakers.

The meeting was divided into two sections, with the first hour used as an open mic session to raise awareness for local campaigns. As a result the selection of topics was extremely broad, including fighting against the bedroom tax, cuts to legal aid, NHS privatisation, fracking and nuclear disarmament. Although each speaker was only allowed 5 minutes at a time, the sheer volume of speakers demonstrated to the audience the wide variety of action being undertaken by many committed activists.

The rest of the meeting was given over to the five main speakers. First up was the national convenor of the People’s Assembly Sam Fairbairn, who emphasised the need to link up the various campaigns and actions across the country. He called for building up the mass movement necessary to affect the political agenda and fight back against austerity. He also called for continuing People’s Assemblies across the country.

The next speaker was Maria Brabina, a bedroom tax campaigner and affected tenant. Giving a touching speech about how she had been left unemployed for two years and hit by the bedroom tax after caring for her mother, Maria gave the audience an insight into the terrible circumstances that those affected by the tax can find themselves in. She also referenced the recent tragedy of Stephanie Bottrill, and publicised the plan to hold a minute’s silence in remembrance at the next Manchester Bedroom Tax protest on June 1st.

Following this was teacher and NUT member Ashleigh White, who explained Michael Gove’s current attack on teacher’s pay as the rationale that has led to calls for regional strike action by the union. She also explained how plans to scrap rights to experience-based pay increases would encourage predatory behaviour by private schools who would try to pull the best teachers away from state schools.

Finally there were the two “headline” speakers, Mark Steel and Owen Jones. Mark Steel gave an amusing speech, pointing out many of the frustrating contradictions in the government’s discourse of austerity that blames the weakest and impoverished in society for structural ills that are maintained by the most powerful. He did not reserve his fire for the government alone however, blasting the role of the rightwing media in both failing to challenge this perception and also encouraging it. He also highlighted the current failings of the Labour party and emphasised the need for grassroots action that doesn’t just rely on established parties to act in the interests of the downtrodden.

Whereas Mark Steel took a more humorous approach, Owen Jones instead delivered a more fiery speech that highlighted the role of the government in both silencing the voices of those affected by austerity, and pitting sections of society against each other in an attempt to divide and rule. He argued for more events that give a platform to speakers such as Maria, creating a different discourse running in opposition to the government line. He also spoke of how benefits and tax credits are often given to the rich: housing benefit subsidises landlords whose rent is too high. Tax credit subsidise employers whose wages are too low. He outlined some clear policies for the future such as the nationalisation of the banks that were bailed out and investment in renewable energy jobs and rent controls. Finally he also demanded action on tax avoidance and for higher taxes for the rich.

The event was really successful, particularly in the numbers of people that it drew in. But there are a few lessons to learn for the future. Families were told that the event was child-friendly but there was no provision to keep children entertained outside of the meeting, save for the goodwill of proactive volunteers, so this is something we should learn from.

Overall though it was great to see so much enthusiasm in the room, both from the audience and the wide variety of speakers. The meeting raised several hundred pounds to help subsidise transport to the London People’s Assembly on 22nd June.

If you’d like to go, email Manchesterpaaa [at] gmail.com

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