[This article originally appeared in the print edition of the Morning Star on the 27th March.]
The citizens of Manchester, like their counterparts in towns and cities across the UK are struggling to come to terms with huge reductions in local authority funding. The city council recently approved £61m of cuts for 2012/13 in addition to the £109m of front-loaded reductions which took effect over the previous twelve months. The local independent media project Manchester Mule reports that unemployment in Greater Manchester rose 13.5% last year and that repossessions are now the highest outside of London. Many within the city are not however prepared to accept this situation as an unavoidable consequence of the global financial crisis. Since the general election in 2010, a variety of different organisations have emerged to challenge austerity at a local level.
Manchester Coalition Against Cuts (MCAC) is one such group. Formed in January 2011 with help from the Manchester Trades Council, it acts as a central organising space to bring different groups together and provide advice and support. MCAC organised a march of three thousand people during the first round of budget cuts, in addition to supporting various anti-cuts groups in the city focused on saving specific services from closure.
Christina Purcell, joint secretary of MCAC, is clear about the role of local authorities: “Whilst it is central government that has reduced funding to local authorities, it is Manchester Council which is voting to cut services”, hence their focus on directly lobbying the meetings where these budget decisions are taken.
Purcell points to the precedent set by local authorities during the 1980s and stresses the urgency of the fight: “Labour councillors say that they have no choice but in the 1980s councils such Lambeth stood up against the Thatcher government and refused to set a cuts budget. If Manchester council made a similar stand it could mobilise Manchester residents and unions behind it in a militant struggle against the government. The alternative is that we wait for a general election by which time much of the damage to our communities will have been done”.
The network of loosely connected groups has chalked-up a number of significant victories during eighteen months of campaigning. Levenshulme Baths, initially earmarked for closure, was saved thanks to regular and persistent opposition by residents acting through groups such as Save our Baths. This astonishing u-turn culminated recently with the announcement of plans to create three new swimming facilities in the city.
Another substantial success occurred in February as part of a campaign to save services provided by the 39 local Sure Start centres, which the council were planning to significantly scale-back. Parents and activists staged a series of protests using various tactics, including a 300-strong rally in Albert Square. Such vocal and widespread opposition again proved invaluable in forcing the council to re-think many of their plans, particularly in wards where the Labour majority has been just several hundred votes.
Unfortunately, some struggles have not enjoyed a similar level of success. Despite the strenuous efforts of Access 2 Advice, Manchester Advice, which provided free assistance to 80,000 residents on matters such as housing support, debt management, mental health and domestic violence was reduced to a skeleton staff by the council last year, pending a further review this year.
Purcell is clear about the need for unions and anti-cuts activists to work together in opposition: “The danger is that by saving one service, other services will be hit harder, which is why we want to bring anti-cuts activists together to oppose to all cuts rather that just fighting their own corner”.
She also highlights the role of groups such as MCAC in supporting service users themselves. She points out that some groups “are not in a strong position to fight against cuts to services they rely on. For example, users of mental health services, or services for older persons. That’s why an organisation like MCAC is important, especially where the workers supplying these services feel unable to speak out, which, shockingly, we are finding is increasingly the case”.
Mark Krantz, a local campaigner and anti-cuts activist, also stresses the importance of the trade unions in fighting the closure of services and highlighting the impact of austerity at a local level. He suggests we may be entering the beginning of a “new and constructive organisation of the trade unions” particularly that given several are now openly questioning their support for the Labour party.
Krantz – who is running in the May local elections under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition – argues that residents have “tended to vote for the best of a bad bunch” in recent times and that given the absence of an anti-cuts opposition he feels as though a political vacuum has now opened up. Anger at the destruction of public services, which will only grow as the cuts bite, increasingly has nowhere to turn to for an alternative, something which Krantz hopes his campaign proposing an end to cuts can provide to the residents of Chorlton just south of the city centre.
Interestingly, the response to the cuts can also be observed in the increasing drive to create radical social spaces. A previous space, The Basement on Oldham Street, was closed following fire damage in 2007 but another, the OKCafe, has operated from various squatted locations across the city since the late 1990s. More recently, plans have emerged for a new permanent social centre. Mark Haworth, a member of the group, describes their vision of a space “owned and run by the community” providing a venue to stage events, as well as “free internet access, a radical library, low cost healthy food” and “a place of our own to socialize and meet other like minded people”. Haworth also sees the centre as a place where local residents “will become exposed to new ideas” and get more involved in the grass-roots activities taking place. A much needed “hub” for the people of Manchester.
With so many pressing issues for campaigners to contend with it can sometimes be hard to know where to begin. A range of existing tactics have proved effective, yet campaigners must be prepared to adapt to a political narrative which is constantly evolving. The unions are beginning to recognise the need for lawful civil disobedience and are also initiating schemes to expand their support base, Unite’s community membership being a great example of this.
Noam Chomsky once wrote that isolated protest is not always enough to affect the status-quo. It can be absorbed by politicians without concession. However, what those in power are not so easily able to suppress are “organisations that keep doing things, people that keep learning lessons from the last time and doing it better the next time”. The anti-cuts activists of Manchester are out to prove him right.