Over 700 people last night crammed into Manchester’s Central Hall on Oldham Street to hear Owen Jones, Mark Steel and a host of others speak out against the coalition government’s crippling austerity measures and call for unifying action in opposing them.
Numerous campaigns, trade unions and activists were represented at the event under the banner of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, an initiative designed to ‘develop a strategy for resistance to mobilise millions of people against the Con Dem government,’ which will culminate in a mass movement at Westminster in London on the 22nd June.
As the hall quickly filled up, the first hour of the assembly was dedicated to an open mic session, where local people had the opportunity to give voice to their own campaigns and grievances. High on the agenda, inevitably, were bedroom tax and NHS privatisation. Some speakers shared personal, often distressing stories with the audience while others, such as Wow Petition and Living Wage Campaign used the opportunity to garner support.
In a demonstration of the attention focusing capabilities of the People’s Assembly, the first hour also saw members of unions Unite and Unison, as well as representatives of The Green Party and CND, leading calls for strike action and civil disobedience which would ‘cross political boundaries,’ – to resounding applause.
By the time the main session was due to begin, the audience had swelled to the point where seats had to be made available on the stage, alongside the main speaking panel, much to the amusement of Owen Jones and Mark Steel.
Comedian Steel soon had the audience in fits of laughter with his take on the causes of the economic crisis and the current government’s punitive reaction to it.
“From day one of this government it’s been ‘the debt, the debt, the debt! We’re in so much debt! We need to get this money back because we’ve overspent… and who’s got all the money? It’s obvious!
“Yet it gains a sort of logic when they say it’s the poor who’ve got the money, when they say there isn’t an alternative and that [the poor] are the people to blame:”
“It’s the immigrants who are to blame, it’s the lollipop ladies. Do you know who caused all the debt? It’s the people in A&E … and particularly those people in comas … who caused the economy to collapse. So it serves them right if we take their trolley away. on and on it goes…”
He goes on to express his dismay at the ineffectual Labour Party and describes “poor Ed Milliband [as] the amiable chap you meet at a service station who talks to you for a little longer than you want him to … a Sellotape salesman. … Surely there is someone who can get up and articulate that anger, that ideology … in a way that doesn’t [involve] looking over their shoulder and worrying about what the Daily Mail says.”
Steel’s sarcastic, stand-up style contrasts nicely with next speaker, Owen Jones, who delivers a forthright and impassioned indictment of ‘the politics of divide and rule,’ before issuing a plea for ‘a grassroots movement in every single town and city in the country.‘
“It doesn’t matter how angry people get. It doesn’t matter how scared people get. Without hope, people don’t fight back. They yell at their television sets, their anger is directed against their neighbours, but they don’t have the confidence to fight back. That is where this [assembly] comes in.”
Jones would later tweet that the event had been ‘the largest political meeting in the city since the miner’s strike.’
Perhaps star of the event, however, was Salford resident Maria Brabiner, a former council worker who had to give up work some years ago to care for her mother and since 2010 has been unable to find work. She has become a potent voice against the bedroom tax thanks to national news coverage. She began:
“I’m just an ordinary 47-year-old lady affected by bedroom tax. I’ve lived in the same [two-bedroom] home since October 1978. I’ve worked all my life, since the age of sixteen. I’m not the stereotype ‘scrounger’ that the government wants to portray. How dare they call me that.”
“This government has declared war on its own people. I never thought in my lifetime I would see any legislation worse than poll tax but the bedroom tax is the most evil and vicious legislation … the government should be ashamed. It deliberately targets the vulnerable, sick and disabled. The bedroom tax must be abolished. It is not a case of won’t pay, it’s can’t pay!”
Maria concluded: “To coin a phrase, ‘the lady is not for turning,’ – well, this lady is not for turning either!”
Cue rapturous applause.
For more information visit thepeoplesassembly.org.uk
Neil Harrison is studying Social History at MMU. He is an aspiring journalist and a terrible guitar player, you can follow him on Twitter @looseriver