The North East People's Assembly on Saturday 14 September was a remarkable success. Alex Snowdon reports
Saturday's People's Assembly was bigger, broader and more representative than any previous anti-austerity meeting in north-east England. Attended by 500 people, the day of rallies, workshops and entertainment served as a platform for future action, as well as providing space for valuable discussion and dialogue.
Hundreds of people - representing a wide range of campaigns, trade unions and political backgrounds - gathered at Northern Stage, in Newcastle's city centre, to plan the resistance. They shared experiences of the effects of austerity, exchanged ideas and developed the connections that can shape a more powerful co-ordinated opposition to cuts.
An inspiring event
Speakers included Owen Jones, the TUC's new regional secretary Beth Farhat and representatives from major trade unions currently engaged in (or planning) resistance, including the RMT, NUT and FBU. There was keen discussion about the impact of austerity, the alternatives to it, and the tactics which can effectively challenge it. There was a strong creative and cultural dimension to the whole day, with fanatstic evening entertainment as well as local artists being involved in a number of workshop sessions.
It was an audacious event: two major rallies (one in the morning and another in the afternoon), 10 workshops in the slots between the rallies, and an evening show in the Northern Stage main auditorium. The rallies inspired people and brought everyone together, helping create unity and coherence. But the workshops were vital too, facilitating the active involvement of many different groups and enabling a higher level of participation.
The regional event builds on the extraordinary success of the national People's Assembly in Westminster in June. As with the national People's Assembly, Saturday's regional gathering was backed by various unions and a range of campaigning groups, creating a genuinely broad and diverse coalition. Locally-rooted People's Assemblies in areas like Durham, Sunderland and Teesside are now developing.
There has already been a wealth of campaigning activity throughout our region, responding to all sorts of issues from library closures to the bedroom tax, from NHS privatisation to cuts in youth services. This was a unique chance to bring it all together. The activists involved in those numerous campaigns were there. Many of them helped initiate the regional People's Assembly process.
United we stand
Unity was a key theme, with a widespread yearning to focus on what we have in common and pursue our shared aim of stopping the austerity juggernaut. The north east has been as savagely hit as anywhere by deep cuts to public services, jobs and welfare provision. We should be on the front line of opposition to austerity.
We will not be divided. The Tories and their media are determined to divide those in work against those out of work, private sector against public sector, immigrants against those who grew up here. This divisive rhetoric is too often echoed by Labour leaders too, but the North East People's Assembly provided the arguments to counteract racism and scapegoating of all kinds.
A wide range of issues were discussed the various themed workshops, including education, the NHS, housing and the links between cuts and war. The most well-attended, with well over 100 turning up, was the workshop called 'Alternatives to Austerity'.
Indeed a major theme of the day was that it doesn't have to be this way. There are alternatives: invest in job creation, make the rich pay their taxes, scrap wasteful spending on war and nuclear weapons. We need to continue relentlessly promoting the alternatives to cuts.
A call to action
Another running thread throughout was the urgent need for action. It needs to be co-ordinated, it must be on a large scale, and we need to keep at it until we win. The immediate priority is mobilising for the national demonstration defending the NHS. The North East People's Assembly was a boost to the mobilisation for the 29 September protest.
On 5 November there will be a nationwide day of civil disobedience - in our region we want this to be the biggest day of direct action since March 2003, when school student walkouts, sit-down protests and occupations greeted the launch of war in Iraq. There are also some fresh public sector strikes in the autumn and it is our task to create the maximum practical solidarity with them.
The regular co-ordinating meetings will continue and they should provide a way in for new supporters, especially those participating for the first time on Saturday. We are establishing more localised groups in different parts of north-east England, allowing the People's Assembly to become more rooted and active. These groups will promote local protests and activity against cuts, therefore building solidarity and widening the range of people involved in this growing movement.
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