Saturday, January 29, 2011

On a cold night, cuts protesters turn heat on Lib Dem minister

IT was not quite on the scale of events elsewhere, though one small home-made and hand-written placard said hopefully "TUNIS...CAIRO....LONDON!". But about 150 people braved the cold night air last night to turn out on an anti-cuts demo in the London Borough of Brent, just one of the many going on around the country.

Timed as most people were getting home from work and shopping in busy rush-hour traffic, this demo, organised by umbrella anti-cuts campaign Brent Fightback and Brent Trades Union Council, started with two feeder marches, one setting off from Central Middlesex hospital, in Park Royal, to join another from the College of North West London.

They converged for a rally at the Jubilee Clock, in Harlesden, where there was the Red-Green choir with songs for the occasion, and we were joined by a late but lively contingent from MENCAP. "Don't Cut Us Out!", their banner said.

The particular target for the night was Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central, Sarah Teather, who not that long ago was happy to speak at rallies opposing health cuts. But then she was in opposition, and her party was in the council, fearing it might have to take on services that the health authority was shedding. (For its own part, the Lib Dem led council managed to close Carlyon Print, a council-backed enterprise that provided employment and training to disabled young people.)

Now the Lib Dems are in the government, and Sarah Teather is Minister of State for Education. When Brent Fightback tried to get her to debate the government's cuts, despite adequate notice and offers of alternative dates, the MP could not make it. So last night Brent TUC president Pete Firmin led a deputation of her constituents in to the MP's surgery to express their concerns to her.

On one point, postman Pete had already ascertained the MP's views, having approached her on behalf of the trades council and his own union, the UCW, to oppose Royal Mail privatisation. He discovered Sarah Teather is all in favour, and that was before she became a minister. In line with her liberal beliefs, I suppose, though I don't know whether it figured large in her election campaign, nor how it squares with the campaign which local Lib Dems ran some years back against closure of neighbourhood post offices. But that was yesterday, and the responsibilities of office are different from the requirements of winning council seats.

On the day that Sarah Teather's Tory senior Michael Gove had said all new schools in London will have to be 'free schools' or academies ( a bully definition of 'freedom'!), yesterday evening's rally began with a speech from Brent NUT secretary Hank Roberts, warning against Gove's plan to take education away from elected local authorities, and reported moves involving two schools locally. Hank, who led resistance to a new academy in Wembley, and made the news exposing excessive head's bonuses at Wembley's Copeland school, said the government's real aim wasn't to hand control to parents, but to hand schools over to business. Pledging his union's opposition to all the cuts and attacks on people's living standards to pay for the bankers' crisis, he said what was happening was "class robbery", and we had to fight it.

After disabled rights campaigner Simone Aspis warned that taking away mobility allowances would leave disabled people prisoners in their homes, while other cuts would deny people care, we had some more songs from the choir, tunes familiar but words directed against the government and the council. Then another local teacher spoke about an issue specific to Brent, highlighted by several colourful placards, some showing kingfishers. A nature study centre at the famous Welsh Harp reservoir is facing closure. Each year this facility is visited by some 3,000 children and used by 800 teachers in the borough. "For many local kids it is their first taste of the countryside. For the disabled kids it's their only chance to get close to a tree".

"Cuts cost Lives", read one big hand-painted banner, erected across the road. "Cuts ruin Lives", said another.

Pete Firmin announced that two Labour councillors had joined the rally, then told us the arrangements for people to call on Ms. Teather. After more songs, and speeches from a worker at Brent Law Centre, an activist in Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group, Carole, an RMT delegate to Brent TUC pledging her union's support, and retired teacher and vetran SWP activist Sarah Cox, we moved up the road to the Methodist Church, where Teather was holding her surgery, and while the delegation went in we took up the chants -"No 'If's, no 'But's, No Education Cuts", "No 'If's, no 'Buts', no Public Sector Cuts" , and "Sarah Teather, Shame on You! Shame on You for turning Blue!", as well as some calling for the MP and minister to resign.

Brent Fightback and Brent TUC are urging people to join the TUC's March for the Alternative on March 26.

Meanwhile back at the Unison branches...

Around 100,000 jobs across the public sector have been cut in the past six weeks alone, according to a dossier published by public service union Unison last week. "This dossier of Con-demned jobs makes very grim reading", said the union's general secretary Dave Prentiss.

"Behind every statistic there are families desperate to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table and the dignity of a decent job. With unemployment up to 2.5 million, the coalition's cuts are blighting lives and wrecking the country's chances of recovery. Sacking workers and closing down essential services will not put the economy back on its feet."

The jobs lost over the past six weeks include 1,600 at the Heart of England NHS Trust, 1,200 council jobs in Hampshire, 1,000 in Norfolk and 400 in East Sussex. Unison said this showed that the £20 billion NHS "efficiency savings" demanded by the government have translated into job losses and "nail the lie" that health funding is being ring-fenced.

He called on the government to adopt an "alternative political vision to boost economic recovery" and keep people in work.

>With thousands more council jobs threatened, and the government's plan to chop up and effectively privatise the NHS, Unison will have to do something better than wishful thinking that the Tories and Lib Dems are going to change course. Especially when Labour in office was not exactly willing to listen to its union backers or tell the bankers where to get off.

Yesterday came news that should help Unison adopt a more adequate response. An Employment Tribunal ruled that the union had acted unlawfully in excluding four activists from their posts. The four - Glenn Kelly, Brian Debus, Onay Kasab and Suzanne Muna, - were all members of the Socialist Party, and many people in Unison and other unions suspected this was the real reason they were picked on, rather than the charges that were trumped up. All four are also committed to defending jobs and services and protecting workers' rights, against whatever government.

Anyway, the Tribunal has ruled that all four should be re-instated in their union positions and that Glenn Kelly be allowed to resume his place on Unison's national executive. Supporters are planning to lobby the executive on February 8 to honour the tribunal's decisions.

This looks like a good opportunity for Unison to adopt an "alternative political vision", and to back its members who want to fight the government, instead of the union fighting them.

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