The North London People’s Assembly met at the Haringey Cypriot Centre in Wood Green on 26 October. The main room was packed: all seats occupied and people standing around the edges, which is always a good sign. The opening session started on time, with a welcome from Elaine Graham-Leigh, who outlined the plan for the day. The speakers in the opening session were Andy Bain of Islington Hands Off Our Public Services (IHOOPS); Owen Jones, the well-known journalist,; Lucy Anderson, a Labour MEP candidate; Barbara Jacobson of BAPS; and John Rees, of the National People’s Assembly Against Austerity. Andy and Barbara spoke about the work of their organisations in Islington and Barnet, respectively, while Owen and John electrified the audience when they each addressed the issues that face us nationwide.
The audience split into groups for a series of hour-long workshops throughout the day. Unfortunately, your BAPS representative was unable to stay for the rest of the day and we all await reports of the closing session.
Below is Barbara’s speech in the opening session. The video can be watched here.
The Barnet Alliance for Public Services is a coalition of residents, workers, trade unions and campaign groups that has been working for about 4 years to protect the full range of our public services and our local democracy – because austerity attacks democracy. It is a people’s assembly.
Barnet is seen as the Government’s pilot for changing the nature of local authorities from being providers of services to being only commissioners. This means selling off the services and selling out the workers and residents to private companies, which, by definition, put profit before people. We have all heard the same rationalizations by MPs and local councillors, and we all know that they are ideological claptrap.
Barnet Council has a wretched record of outsourcing, in single projects, in its own Local Authority Trading Companies, and in its contracts with private companies to run its care homes and its parking enforcement. Now it has sold off 70% of Barnet public services in two bundled contracts for a minimum of 10 years to Capita. Jobs have been and continue to be moved out of the borough, scattered across the UK, to be dealt with by people with no real connection to, or knowledge or experience of Barnet, who are paid less and have poorer terms and conditions than the workers who have been made redundant and might struggle to find other jobs in their community. The new workers are exploited. The lives of the redundant workers and their families are blighted, the local economy is damaged, the quality of services will worsen, and the council may not make its promised savings. But Capita will profit … first.
Barnet Alliance protested the privatization. We leafleted, demonstrated, marched, held public meetings, attended council and committee meetings to raise questions and point out flaws in the proposals. We issued press releases and wrote letters to the press, and tried in vain to get coverage from the national press as events reached a critical point. We produced an animated film and wraparounds for the local press.
We raised 8000 signatures on a petition for a referendum, which the Barnet Tory Cabinet dismissed with contempt. We supported Maria Nash when she brought a legal challenge against the council. The judge ruled that Barnet Council had acted unlawfully by failing to consult residents about the mass privatization – but, oh too bad, the challenge was brought too late – a technicality that many feel the Cabinet manipulated. Win the substantive issue, lose on a technicality. That’s how the unlawful is made legal; how democracy and law are diminished.
Barnet Alliance will continue to scrutinize the privatised services, to fight the council’s plans for further cuts and privatisation, to campaign for the rights of residents. We will continue to actively promote alternatives and campaign for changes in the composition of the council in 2014.
You’re here because you too want to stop small bands of ideologically motivated politicians making life worse for you, your family and your community. You are informed and committed. Whichever issue is your primary focus, one of your biggest, hardest and most important tasks will be to inform and mobilise other people. You might find it relatively easy to gather a group of activists, but you need to reach the masses, the uninformed, uncommitted, cynical and apathetic. We are involved in long-term campaigns, and activists will always be at their heart, but we can’t do it alone.
When we leaflet, people often say, ‘We’re so glad you’re doing this’ We’re so glad you’re doing this!.We have to show them they can do something too: distribute leaflets to inform their neighbours; usue social media to spread our messages; write to their councillors and to the press; attend councillors’ surgeries to ask questions and make their views known. It is vital for people to make their voices heard.
While we have not won the major battle, yet, we have had small successes: we helped save Friern Barnet – now Community – Library , we helped remove a much-loathed councilor from the GLA and Barnet cabinet; we helped turn a Tory council seat into a victory for Labour. Barnet Council is very aware of BAPS and our impact. The more people we can encourage to speak up, the louder our collective voice, the stronger the campaign will be, and the more likely we will have more and greater successes.
Of course we would like more people to become activists or at least active. We try to attract them to our public events. For example, tonight we are hosting a gig at The Griffin Pub in Whetstone, starting at 7pm. When you’re finished here, come along and have a good time; the first 25 people through the door get a free drink. On 5 Nov we will have a bonfire of austerity & privatization in front of Hendon Town Hall, where a full council meeting is scheduled. On 14 Nov we are hosting a free public meeting on the alternatives to these twin evils; come to the Greek Cypriot Centre in North Finchley to hear the speakers and have your say.
If you live or work in Barnet, please join the Barnet Alliance and help continue the fight for our rights. If you are an organization elsewhere, please affiliate with us. Together we are stronger.