Alternative voices take opposition outside Westminster

Yvette Huddlestone.
Yvette Huddlestone.
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A new anti-austerity campaign group has been set up with a branch in Yorkshire. Yvette Huddleston reports.

WITH talk growing in recent weeks about the lack of effective opposition from the Labour Party, the idea of an alternative political debate may appeal to those who disagree with the Government’s policies but feel their voices are not being heard.

The well documented rise in support for UKIP is one indication that voters on the right are seeking to make their feelings known to Westminster, but what about those on the opposite side of the political spectrum?

Well, they could find some solace in the apolitical, though left-leaning, campaigning group The People’s Assembly Against Austerity (PAAA).

It was launched earlier this year by, among others, Old Labour grandee Tony Benn, film-maker Ken Loach, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, author Tariq Ali, journalist John Pilger and a number of trade union leaders including Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis of Unison.

Their aim, they said, was to “bring together campaigns against cuts and privatisation... in a movement for social justice” with the purpose of playing “a key role in ensuring that this uncaring government faces a movement of opposition broad enough and powerful enough to generate successful co-ordinated action”.

The idea was to create a coalition of its own to mobilise broad-based opposition representing a wide range of opinion, but united in its objective to raise awareness of the effects of recent cuts in welfare, health care and the public sector to provide a strong voice of opposition to the Government.

Around 4,000 people attended the launch event which took place at Westminster in June, and delegates were encouraged to spread the word in their area.Since then local groups have sprung up around the country including the newly-formed West and North Yorkshire branch.

Leeds-based public sector worker Dick Hebbert, a member of the PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union), has been instrumental in setting up the local group. He was at the launch and was impressed by the sense of solidarity and purpose.

“There was a tremendous buzz,” he says. “It took the form of a number of workshops and a 
panel of speakers. A lot of 
people are saying enough is enough and the immediate aim 
is to try and get the Government to listen. The first thing to do is to let them know that many of us don’t agree with what they are doing.”

The West and North Yorkshire branch has received backing from a range of organisations – including some of the larger unions such as the NUT and Unison – as well as campaigning groups like War on Want, Keep our NHS public and CND. Two political parties are lending their support – the Communist Party and the Green Party – but otherwise the PAAA declares that it is essentially non-political.

“There was a fear that you would get various organisations of the left jostling for position,” says Hebbert. “But that certainly hasn’t happened in our local branch where the co-operation so far has been outstanding.”

What might also be some cause for optimism is that, in the West and North Yorkshire branch at least, Hebbert says there are a number of young people involved – which could bode well for the movement’s future development.

One key speaker at the London event was Owen Jones, a newspaper columnist and author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. Jones will be coming to Leeds next week, at the invitation of the West and North Yorkshire branch, to address a public meeting of the PAAA at Leeds Metroploitan University, sharing a platform with local activists. Future events include a peaceful demonstration at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester at the end of September protesting against what the PAAA refers to as “the accelerating sell-off of the NHS”. Hebbert says he would be disappointed if “we didn’t get 10,000 to come along.”

The question remains whether the PAAA can mobilise enough people to become actively involved in their campaign but, according to Hebbert, the signs are promising. “There is a move away from mainstream politics,” he says.

“You can see that through the success of groups like 38 Degrees which campaign on single issues. What we have to do is persuade people that there is a lot tying those issues together and find a common cause. We have to let people know that they don’t need to suffer in silence – they do have a voice and the PAAA provides the megaphone for them to shout through.”

Owen Jones will be speaking at Leeds Met University on September 3.

For more information visit: www.wnypeoplesassembly.org.uk