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  • Published in Conference 2013

Henry Parkyn-Smith reports on the activities of the Counterfire group at Sheffield Hallam

A new year is beginning. Looking ahead the future seems uncertain, with crises dominating the political, social and economic spheres, and as these worsen it becomes clearer and clearer that we are also faced by a crisis for the left. The task of preparing Counterfire for the next year and beyond requires an understanding of the situation we are in organizationally in relation to the state of the broader movement and political dissatisfaction, I would argue our experience in Sheffield sheds some light on the ever-prevailing question of what is to be done.

Since September 2011 we have been slowly but surely building in Sheffield. We have gone from just me, to building a group of good activists who directly associate with or have joined Counterfire and beyond that a decent periphery and relationship with the union at Sheffield Hallam. Most notably, since we have been active, there has been a marked change in the political milieu at my university.

When I arrived there was, with a few small exceptions, no real level of political activity. We still have a largely a-political union, and a low level of demonstrations or student activism, but we have been at the forefront of building real, inclusive and broad campaigns, most notably the Fund Education not War group that Alex has done a great deal of good work in at the University of Sheffield, which is still a healthy campaign. We were also the only group to seriously build for the October 20th TUC demonstration, which earned us enough credibility to help build a genuine campaign along with our student union to fill a coach to the NUS demo in November, something that would not have happened the year before. The times we have been successful and have built have always been alongside regular organizing and theoretical meetings. These are both essential if we plan to build the movement and Counterfire generally.

We are now moving towards a position where we can hopefully organize a large and successful Coalition of Resistance group. This in my opinion is the most crucial task we now face as socialists. The success at the top of CoR must be mirrored at the bottom, and this means building local groups that unite real forces and activists together, not simply to protect us the assault from the ruling class, but also to cut through sectarianism. The mantra of ‘leading in practice’ has never seemed so concrete and important to me as it does now. I have seen first hand the effect of not engaging in in-fighting and bickering, moving past that and attempting to organize real activity, for which there is no substitute. Not only does it force the rest of the left into activity, it also accomplishes the even more important task of engaging and earning respect from those outside of the left.

Sheffield Hallam has a large proportion of students from ordinary working class backgrounds. Of the people I have come into contact with, it seems clear to me that there is still a great deal of anger about what our government is doing; cutting, invading and lying, which has resulted in a real tangible thirst for ideas. Counterfire is actually incredibly well equipped to deal with this. One of our major strengths is that we are innovative, creative and the events we hold are fresh and engaging. Notably, Firebox has an effect on new, angry and impassioned people that I think should not be understated. We need to see it as a lab for testing meetings and events, those that are successful we need to begin to export around the country so we can build elsewhere. One of the strengths of Counterfire at Sheffield Hallam is our film screenings, which offer an unintimidating, relaxed environment. Over this year we aim to hold more innovative and creative events, hopefully trying some that have been successful at Firebox.

In order to properly build on our strengths however, we face the important task of toughening up our organisation. Regular meetings are essential in order for our members to get to know each other, what’s going on and sharing ideas. As we face a lull in the movement, we have to prepare ourselves for the when it picks up again, which I am convinced will happen soon. This means one thing: caderisation. We have a wealth of great, seasoned activists with what is in my opinion the best theory on the left in Britain today, which continues to be reflected in the success of the website. We have to combine this with the energy of newer members so we can properly face the task of building the movement and the unions, engaging with campaigns where they are healthy and intervening where they could be better. This is crucial if we are to build and stop the advances of the ruling class.

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