Peter Frost takes to the canal for the launch of new and unusual waterborne anti-austerity action
The National People’s Assembly recall conference in March this year brought together all shades of opinion and protesters from across British society ready to join the fightback against David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne’s vicious austerity measures.
One of the biggest ovations of the day was reserved for a woman from Milton Keynes, Anita de Klerk, who brought news and support from a newly formed, and most unusual, part of the vibrant anti-cuts movement.
De Klerk told the gathered delegates of her organisation, the People’s Flotilla Against Austerity. It was, she announced, made up of people living and working on boats on thousands of miles of our nation’s inland waterways.
She and her far-from-floating voters didn’t mince their words. Their aims and objectives are clear, strident and uncompromising.
“The People’s Flotilla believes that the ruling elite need to be overthrown in support of an egalitarian and socialist society,” she told a delighted audience, “with the eradication of a classist society without discrimination.
“We believe that narrow boats offer an alternative and imaginative approach to direct action by proposing to block the canal system to further the cause of the fight against austerity in an attempt to destroy the attack on the working class.
“We are committed to campaign for co-ordinated, sustained, political direct action in opposition to the ruling elite’s cuts agenda.
“We propose and call for local groups of narrow boats to form, from up and down the 2,000 miles of canal and river system, and support their local anti-cuts groups,” she concluded to applause from a surprised but delighted audience.
The idea of a floating protest certainly seized the imagination and the video of her speech was soon all over the internet.
As a canal enthusiast myself and a longtime boater, I wanted to find out more so I arranged to meet de Klerk at a canalside pub not far from her own mooring on the Grand Union canal near Milton Keynes.
She explained that today, the canal system is home to hundreds of boat-dwellers who not only live and work on the canals but hold the traditions and history of the canals close to their hearts.
These traditions are now under threat from the Canals and River Trust (CRT), a government-invented charity that replaced the nationalised body British Waterways in a particularly devious part of the Thatcher-inspired Tory policy of privatisation.
Nearly 3,000 miles of rivers and canals, along with associated docks, wharfs, basins and many historic waterside properties that were once owned by the British people have been gifted to this undemocratic charity.
Thousands of jobs maintaining the canals have been cut, with the work supposedly now being carried out by unpaid volunteers.
Some have argued that this might be fine for simple jobs like weeding lock-side flowerbeds, mowing towpaths and giving lock gates a lick of paint, but won’t be much use for major civil engineering projects like maintaining leaking historic aqueducts and the many miles of crumbling tunnels.
Major works, if they get done at all, will be hived off to private companies committed to maximum profits, not the future of our waterway heritage. De Klerk and the People’s Flotilla take a stronger view.
“We believe no volunteering is good,” she argues with real passion. “If there is a job, then it should be a paid job.”
The new, self-perpetuating management of the CRT has its own rather rose-tinted long-term vision for the waterways.
If it is to raise the necessary donations to replace the previous state funding it needs to convert the canal system to a playground for well-heeled middle-class leisure-boaters and other visitors.
There is no place in its plans for working boats, some of which are still eking out a tough living moving freight around the system.
The almost total cutback in dredging means these deeper-hulled working craft drag along the bottom and often go aground.
Nor does the new charity believe there is a place for those who want a permanent floating home on the waterways.
Posh houseboats on expensive dockside developments might be tolerated if the price is right, but ordinary people in ordinary boats are being harassed in a concerted action to make them go away.
Lack of affordable housing, the banking crisis and its effect on mortgages, as well as recent Tory policies like the bedroom tax, have all conspired to drive many poorer people to seek out unconventional housing. Many have turned to reasonably affordable boats on the waterways.
For other live-aboards, the attraction is not financial but romantic. Who wouldn’t want to be woken by quacking ducks outside the cabin window as the sun reflects off the rippling water doing a fair impression of a Hockney California swimming pool painting on the cabin ceiling?
The CRT moves these itinerate boaters on, and in some cases has threatened to seize and destroy the boats that are their homes.
Employees of the trust, along with officious volunteers, do all they can to discourage people making their homes on the waterways.
De Klerk says that they use discriminatory language, calling live-aboards “scum” and suggesting that “people should own their own homes before they should be allowed to own a boat.”
Finally, she tells me: “Resistance is in our history, and the canals run like veins up and down the country. We need to carry the activist methods from the past to all parts of the country to defend the nationalisation that the early canal campaigners won.
“The People’s Flotilla offers a co-ordinated and united front — a mutiny, if you will — to rise up and challenge the discrimination and hostility we face from CRT and the coalition government that put it in place. That is why the People’s Flotilla was formed. Together we will rise up again to defend everyone who uses and lives on the canals.”
From Morning Star