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  • Published in Conference 2013

Report from the members of Counterfire in the North East

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Newcastle Counterfire began at the same time as the national organisation, i.e. March 2010, with only a few members. We now have a dozen members, the majority of whom are more or less frequently involved in activity. Our most important field of political activity has been opposition to austerity, but anti-war and Palestine activism has also been a constant thread since we began: one Counterfire activist is co-convenor of Newcastle Stop the War, another is secretary of the same group and chair of Newcastle Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

We have also had a great many Counterfire meetings - public meetings, theoretical courses, day schools - as a way of developing political education, recruiting and retaining members, building a cohesive revolutionary socialist group and involving a wider periphery beyond that. These meetings have attracted good numbers of non-members, partly through the website (and social media), partly through our activity in wider movements. The focus in this report is on our activities in the last twelve months.

Coalition of Resistance

The local Coalition of Resistance was formed in August 2010, prompted by the open letter from Tony Benn and many others calling for a nationwide coalition. Since then a key element in the group's work has been public meetings, bringing together a wide range of people to enhance anti-cuts co-ordination and provide a political focus. The biggest Newcastle Coalition of Resistance public meeting to date was in March 2012, attracting 160 people to hear Owen Jones and Lindsey German.

The excellent turnout last March was boosted by a number of union branches circulating the details; Newcastle RMT donated £100 and had a campaign stall. This sort of union participation has been a recurring theme for the local Coalition of Resistance group. It is useful to outline a number of examples, as it offers insight into how we can connect meaningfully with unions despite a low level of strike action overall.

A Coalition of Resistance public meeting in April 2012, focused on Greece, was addressed by Paul Mackney and two visiting Greek archaeologists. UCU regionally circulated details of the meeting and the branch secretary of Sunderland College UCU was added to the platform to talk about a lecturers' strike. The previous week we had taken Coalition of Resistance placards to a joint staff/student protest at Gateshead College, which also had an on-going UCU dispute.

Later, in June, over 100 attended a Coalition of Resistance public meeting addressed by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, which helped attract a number of local PCS activists. It was our launch pad for mobilising to the 20 October demo. The meeting gained an extra edge from being in the same week as a strike by low paid Metro cleaners; the regional RMT organiser spoke from the platform and a local paper published an 'anti-cuts meeting supports striking cleaners' article. It helped that a couple of us had been down to the cleaners' protest and produced a report and pictures from it for the Coalition of Resistance website.

September's Coalition of Resistance public meeting, addressed by Jeremy Corbyn and attended by 70 people, again had RMT support (and speaker). As the big 20 October demo approached, Newcastle trades council publicised the Coalition of Resistance coach while Newcastle Unison made a donation towards the coach (on the day we had 70 people on board). It's also worth noting that the Coalition of Resistance group has taken big labour movement events like a regional TUC demo at a Lib Dem conference, May Day and the Durham Miners' Gala seriously, with a good profile at all of them.

A new phase in fighting the cuts

In November 2012 we entered a new phase for the movement locally, when the local press reported that Newcastle City Council was proposing to close 10 of the city's 18 libraries. By just two days later we had liaised with campaigning author Alan Gibbons to produce an open letter from 50 authors condemning the plans, booked Alan to speak at a Coalition of Resistance public meeting to launch a campaign, produced a flyer for the meeting (thanks to Mick Wattam, a comrade in Doncaster), informed the hundreds of contacts on the local Coalition of Resistance email list of the meeting, and created a Facebook page and twitter account for the campaign.

115 people turned up, despite it taking place only 10 days after the first whiff of any plans to close the libraries. Popular children's author David Almond was among the speakers, as was the Newcastle Unison branch secretary, and it was covered prominently by the local paper.

Thus Save Newcastle Libraries was born. The co-ordinating meeting a week later had over 50 people, then over 100 people marched through the snow to lobby the council, and a libraries-themed protest (Turn Starbucks into Starbooks) marked the recent UK Uncut day of action.

We then took the risky decision to have a big public meeting just one week into January, allowing ourselves very little run up once the politically dead festive period was over. 'Billy Elliot' writer Lee Hall was booked to speak and we organised it around him. Over 300 turned up, making it one of the biggest left-wing public meetings in Newcastle for many years. It was simultaneously huge, broad, radical and combative, with Lee Hall talking explicitly (and brilliantly) about libraries as a class issue and calling for creative direct action involving as many people as possible.

Save Newcastle Libraries has involved co-operation with Newcastle Unison. The branch secretary spoke at the public meetings last November and again this month, expressing praise for CoR from the platform on both occasions. The branch donated £500 to the recent event and invited David Almond to speak about the libraries at its protest lobby outside a council meeting. But this co-operation hasn't in any sense limited the radicalism of the campaign: speeches by Lee Hall and a couple of others went somewhat further politically than the Unison branch secretary's speech at the recent event, plus direct action and occupations are part of what's in the pipeline.

The other major new development is a Newcastle 'Stop the Cuts, Save our Services' demonstration, initiated by Coalition of Resistance, on 16 February. The process of organising the demo already involves PCS and RMT at regional level, plus a few local Unison and Unite branches, and is backed by Newcastle trades council.

This demo builds on the mobilising power of the libraries campaign and broadens it out to provide wider opposition to cuts. It looks like it will mark a turning point in the local movement, with the radical left shaping something big which pulls the unions in. While we don't expect it to be on the scale of Lewisham's 10,000-strong NHS demo, there is a similar dynamic at work.

A few lessons can be drawn from all this. It is possible for socialists to dismiss the forms of union participation we have indicated, saying that what's really needed is strike action. Indeed it's true that we need more strikes. But in the absence of such action, we should do whatever we can to involve unions in a broad movement.

While the support of national leaders is welcome - and makes it easier to get grassroots activists on board - the most important practical work is at local level, building political relationships with trade union branches and activists. This kind of campaigning can increase union confidence to take strike action and also builds pressure for more co-ordinated national initiatives by the movement and the unions. The People’s Assembly on 1 June will be another important priority, as we will be aiming to get a range of local groups and union branches to send delegates. This tremendously important national event can in turn strengthen co-operation at local level.

Anti-war campaigning

Newcastle Stop the War has had four public meetings in the last year: on Iran (February), Syria (July), the future of the ‘war on terror’ (October) and Islamophobia (December). There have been other anti-war and pro-Palestine activities over the last year, from ‘naming the dead’ events over Afghanistan to well-attended PSC forums on a range of topics.

There's also an upcoming Stop the War public meeting which is jointly organised with Unison (with a Unison speaker) and a university-based group called the Martin Luther King Peace Committee. This is on 15 February and will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the biggest political protest in British history, as well as addressing current issues, with Lindsey German among the speakers.

The most important anti-war activity in the last year, though, was our response to the assault on Gaza. We ensured that a protest in Newcastle city centre was organised rapidly – it attracted over 150 people just three days after the bombing has begun. Jointly organised by the Newcastle STW and PSC groups, it was a testament to the networks we have built up over the years.

One week later we took a joint STW/PSC coach to the London demo, with 30 people on board. The successes of the local protest and the coach to London were a result of both long-term network building and an immediate, dynamic response from us and from other activists to a new turn of events. We could not have played such a role without our consistent, strategic commitment to both Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity.

Newcastle Counterfire

Counterfire meetings have taken place in this context. Local planning meetings have been crucial for strategizing and organising for the wider campaigns we have already outlined. Newcastle members have attended national members’ meetings and also the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and last August’s theoretical weekend. Particularly important, however, is the role of local political meetings: whether day schools, theoretical courses or one-off political forums.

We had day schools in June and December, covering major current political topics such as class in the 21st century, the Eurozone crisis and Syria. These were great for political and theoretical development, and a new member joined at December’s event. They were also useful because both were attended by a small number of Counterfire members from beyond the north east.

Last March/April we ran a theoretical course, Marx 101, over a number of weeks, which followed on from success we’d had in January 2012 with a short course linked to ‘Strategy and Tactics’. Both these courses benefited from a more interactive and discussion-focused format than a traditional public meeting. They were especially useful for exploring the legacy and relevance of the classical Marxist tradition. A few months ago we bought a healthy stock of Marxist books so we could have a bookstall at meetings and day schools – this is proving helpful in relation to political and theoretical development.

The most important thing we have done, though, is to hold political meetings on a range of important topics, helped by a number of visiting speakers. In the last year these have included A History of the World in 45 minutes with Neil Faulkner (May), Imperialism and the Arab Revolutions with John Rees (October), and a meeting on education with John Westmoreland (November). By far the biggest meeting – attended by over 30 non-members, mostly women – was Kate Connelly’s ‘From suffragettes to Slutwalk: the struggle for women’s liberation’ in July.

These meetings have played an indispensable role in establishing Counterfire as a distinct and independent, but welcoming and non-sectarian, presence on the local Left and in the movements. They have been much smaller in scale than the big movement events we’ve played a central role in organising, but are nonetheless the essential complement to those events. They have created a space for serious anti-capitalist discussion and made Newcastle Counterfire a radical pole within the broad movements.

We currently have these further events lined up within the next three months: a ‘Where next for the left? forum shortly after Conference, book launches for Lindsey German’s ‘How a century of war changed the lives of women’ in Newcastle and Durham (where we don’t have members, but we do have friendly relations with the radical bookshop), a Marx 101 day school, and a book launch for ‘A Marxist History of the World’ with its author. We are also primarily responsible for organising an Emily Davison Memorial Campaign public meeting, with Kate Connelly among others speaking.

Our biggest challenge is to recruit and retain new members. Although we have grown significantly, the number of regular activists has not changed as much as we would like. Recruitment and retention have lagged behind the very successful elements of our political activity. Our considerable influence – currently greater than ever in initiating and shaping major local campaigning developments – is not matched by hard growth in Counterfire. We need to change this if we are to turn Counterfire into the kind of organisation we want it to become.

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