What challenges do you see in the near future?
Ellie Schling: The future feels threatening because of the changes they want to make to homelessness legislation where we won’t get council housing anymore, even if you have children, even if you have a disability, you will get private housing. What does that mean for us in London? Does that mean getting sent out of London to where private tenancies can be found within the housing benefit cap? Probably. So I think the importance of having groups where people are organising around their own situations is going to grow because these situations are going to become more common. In circumstances like that I can’t see what people are going to be able to do apart from fight, because for instance, for a family that doesn’t speak English that is rooted in their community, to be sent away and outside of London is something worth fighting.
Pragna Patel: Apart from fighting for our own survival we are very much involved in fighting legal aid cuts because they have such a devastating impact on the women that we are seeing. We are trying to work with women and trying to work with like-minded groups and challenge particularly the legal aid cuts that are coming in, which will leave people very vulnerable and without access to justice altogether.
Does everyone feel the same, is the future threatening?
Harry McGill: We are finding that recently rather than having a difficulty handing leaflets out, we might have a group of people stopping to listen to what is possibly going to be coming up ahead and how people are going to be treated in the future. Unemployed people are getting interested in standing up for themselves, as we can see from the last TUC march that we had on the 26th of March so I firmly believe that we are going to have a large impact in the future. We are going to do our best to increase our activities and see what we can do about that.
Ellie Schling: From my perspective of being involved in LCAP; we had reasons to organise about poverty before the cuts. The cuts have brought a lot more people to think about the things we have been thinking about for a while.
Jane Laporte: I feel like some things are starting to settle since the 26th of March. There is a realization that we do have to be focusing, not just on the cuts but on what we were wanting before the cuts were announced. I’ve been to so many meetings where people talk about, we need to think of a strategy, but its very hard to when there are so many different kinds of cuts coming in, and they are coming in at different times and at different levels of implementation, whether its local or national so its actually a huge thing to be trying to tackle. We need to try and work it out, but it’s very hard to find a strategy for all those different things. I get a sense, at least in the London groups, that we want to try and move towards looking at what do we want not what we are trying to stop
Lani Parker: I think one of the really good things about Islington Disabled People Against Cuts is that it is supported by a local disabled peoples’ organisation. I think that a lot of disabled people’s organisations have become de-radicalised even though there are people who are radical within them. So having that based there, using their offices and that kind of thing has made it embedded in Islington’s disabled peoples community and re-radicalised that particular branch.
How do we avoid co-option into the Big Society?
Jim Cranshaw: There were these local area committees [part of local democratic structures] which they have since abolished in Oxford, allegedly to improve democracy! One year’s worth of money was offered for a community group to run the library on a voluntary basis. Every single person in one local area committee meeting refused to take the money. Save Our Services put out messages saying lets show solidarity and not fight with each other to take this money. That has contributed to the Big Society idea being ridiculed in Oxford in the press. That is going to be more effective at maintaining funding in the future and keeping public services: take the hit now, show solidarity and then try to preserve public services for the future.
Helen Lowe: I think we are going to see more independent groups now because funding has been cut so much. They are giving out the contracts to such conservative organisations. I think we are going to see much more unpaid activism which will change things quite a lot. For those of us who remember way back when, before activism got co-opted into state services and woman’s committees and feminism became absorbed into the system, or a form of it did, you had self-help activity going on everywhere. It died out I felt when the Greater London Council gave lots of money to woman’s organisations. A lot of woman’s activism just seemed to disappear really, almost completely. I think we will see more ordinary people getting involved and saying this is the way we want to do it. Which has its good side. Obviously if we are losing money all over the place for services it’s not good but there is something positive in there that we can hold on to.
Pragna Patel: I think that there is more space now than there was before for groups and campaigns. Just from this table there seems to be a revival of direct action and campaigns which is fantastic. Maybe this is the challenge for us now: to bring all the direct action stuff together.
How can we do that?
Linda Burnip: I think we organise in different ways from some of the national coalitions who can be very top down. They all say things that sound like they are what we want but I think they tend to work from the top down and we work from the bottom up. I think one of the most useful things has been networking with other groups in the Defend Welfare network because that’s given us a national structure that we can build the national days of action around.
David Milner: In setting up any sort of coalition I think it’s essential to discuss and agree how to work together, and leave factional issues outside. In joint working we should beware of groups who use a campaign primarily to gain publicity for themselves, or as a forum for recruiting members to their own group.
Lani Parker: I think there is potentially a lot of opportunity to build useful relationships with people because there are so many local groups everywhere. Alliances enable us to share and see who has some knowledge or resource that we don’t have. I could just have a ten minute conversation with somebody and it could really make the campaign or the issue different. I think there is an opportunity for that because there is so much out there.
Jane Laporte: One particular relationship that I think is important to build, and that is starting to happen in Haringey is between workers and residents. When the Housing Action Group first started out we didn’t want to be in opposition to the workers in the Housing Office but inevitably there ends up being a tension. We wanted to try and say “We are not against you, we know there are policies that you have to enforce and you have targets”, but it was very difficult to engage them in any kind of positive conversation about the framework of housing cuts. Through the anti-cuts campaigns we have had greater contact with Unison housing staff on demonstrations and we have been leafleting the housing office from 8.30am to 9am with leaflets for workers and then doing the next hour with normal housing leaflets for people using the housing office. In Haringey there are four customer services offices and two of them are being cut and that’s the place where you go to ask for your housing benefit to be sorted out or whatever. That’s going to have a huge impact on workers and people who have to queue up and wait for their case to be sorted out. There will be a huge backlog. I do think it would make the campaign much stronger if those two sides could come together and formulate something.
Jim Cranshaw: I think we need to think about what spaces we have for forming these links between groups. Our group put on a conference call, two or three of them, for Save Our Services groups or alliances around the country who could then come to the call and discuss tactics. Maybe over time people will plan coordinated actions but this will happen from the bottom up with no one actually controlling the process. Conference calls could be something that would be really useful to do; you don’t have to go somewhere, you don’t have to take half a day. That could be a way to talk to each other and start to move forward.