People’s Assembly conference a success

People listening to a speaker at our conferenceAbout 100 people took part in our conference and after-party, bringing to life many of the issues facing ordinary people in Cameron’s Britain. The event ranged from talks on debt and austerity to discussions on how to tackle scapegoating of the vulnerable. Our final session drew up plans for the forthcoming months, and in particular the Bonfire of Austerity, a national day of civil disobedience on 5th November.

In the workshop on zero-hours contracts and the need for ‘living wages’, there was a focus on building people’s confidence to challenge unjust practices. Someone pointed out that, as the opponents of the minimum wage (currently £6.19/hour) have had objections proven wrong, the same can be true for the ‘living wage’, currently £7.45/hour. People raised the various workplace disputes that are ongoing: teachers, university staff at all levels, firefighters and Royal Mail staff will all be taking action in the coming weeks. As a group, York People’s Assembly will aim to support all of these, but we can only do that with practical support.

For the session run by Defend Our NHS York, the challenge presented wasn’t just preventing privatisation, but making sure that people are aware of what is going on. The imminent threat of a new EU/US trade treaty that would force open the NHS to American healthcare providers was raised – and will be a key campaign in 2014.

The education session brought together teachers, parents, students and more to discuss the various threats facing the sector and its staff. Those running the session aim to build solidarity with forthcoming strikes and to organise a public meeting calling for investment in education.

Both Austerity sessions highlighted examples of places where alternatives are already working, such as Iceland and Ecuador. James Meadway’s (New Economics Foundation) presentation made it clear that austerity isn’t working – even by it’s supporters criteria. What success the government has had has been very London-centric.The lack of a clear and simple narrative for the anti-austerity campaign was also highlighted. James suggested that society could be divided in to 3 groups: those utterly convinced of austerity’s benefits, those who totally oppose it, and those who see it as an unwelcome necessity. Our job, he argued, was to challenge the final group, showing that austerity isn’t just uncomfortable, but that it isn’t the only option.

There was an over-riding theme of mixing protest, education and practical solidarity with others. In the final session, people raised past events that they felt were successful, such as serving up tea and coffee outside Starbucks to highlight their ‘tax dodger’ status, or York Against the War’s open-microphone rallies that gave members of the public the chance to speak. Hopefully we can now incorporate both of these aspects and more into our plans for November 5th.

Amongst the very positive feedback, a Unite rep in our city said:

The ‘Global Debt, Global Austerity’ and ‘Austerity and Alternatives’ [workshops] were very informative and provided lots of food for thought. And the quality of the poets and musicians at the after-party far exceeded my expectations.

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