Hundreds gathered and marched in Coventry on Saturday 21 February in opposition to proposed massive £15m council spending cuts planned in the next year, with even bigger cuts in future years, threatening many public services and jobs in the city. The labour movement needs to mobilise across Britain in order to fight for a socialist alternative to this austerity.
Hundreds gathered and marched in Coventry on Saturday 21 February in opposition to proposed massive £15m council spending cuts planned in the next year, with even bigger cuts in future years.
The deficit for 2015/16 is £15.1m, for 2016/17 £44.2m and for 2017/18 £65.5m. One thousand jobs have already gone and another thousand job losses are in the pipeline. The plans threaten to close almost 100 centres across the city, including 17 local libraries, nine youth centres, children and family centres, as well as funding for school crossing patrols and reduced street cleaning. The campaign has already secured one year’s stay of execution on library closures – though some have said that this was probably to give the council time to reorganise.
The protestors – approximately 250 people – assembled outside the Transport Museum where they were given a rousing send off by Bill Greenshields from the People’s Assembly. They then marched to a rally in Broadgate jointly organised by Unison and Coventry TUC. There was an exuberant atmosphere and it was well-supported by local trade unionists, especially Unison, with many women workers bringing families and children, some in push-chairs, and home-made placards. Despite bitterly cold weather, people stayed to hear the speakers.
One woman told me: “The council doesn’t understand that libraries serve all parts of the community: the old, young children, people with learning difficulties, job seekers and others. It’s like a social service. If a local branch is closed, many will be unable to travel to a central hub and will just become more isolated.” Another bemoaned the closures of public toilets, with those in Broadgate already closed, so that people now have to walk to the Central Library.
The rally was ‘chaired’ by Socialist Appeal supporter Darrall Cozens, the Coventry TUC President, who gave facts and figures about how, even at this time of capitalist crisis, wealth has been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. For the rich there is no austerity. He gave the example of Tesco’s which last year “discovered” a black hole of £263m in its accounts; yet those in charge left with huge sums – the CEO Phillip Clarke with £1.2m and the finance director Laurie Mcllwie with £971,000. Now 9,000 Tesco staff are to lose their jobs.
Darrall also quoted the latest Oxfam figures, where in the UK the richest 100 families increased their personal wealth by £15bn between 2008 and now, an average of £150 million per family, whilst public sector workers have seen real wage cuts of between 15-20%.
Other speakers included local trade unionists such as Steve Price Hunt, the West Midlands FBU secretary; Nicki Downes, Coventry NUT President; Roger McKenzie and Richard Harty from Unison; Nuala Grocatt from the campaign to stop the closure of Earlsdon Library; ex-Labour MP Dave Nellist; and ex-miner and Socialist Appeal supporter John Dunn, who gave a rousing speech on the experiences of the fight waged by Clay Cross council between 1972 and 1976, and the 1984/85 miners’ strike. John ended by saying that if you don’t fight to protect what you have won, you will lose. If you do fight, you have the chance of winning.
Unison rep, Dawn Palmer-Ward, also said: “We’ve been told some libraries are not ‘fit for purpose’. We have no tin huts, though we have a wooden hut, which is superb. Libraries are a quiet place for children and adults to develop as human beings. We’ll fight to the bitter end to ensure that they’re not closed.”
Dave Nellist spoke about the local campaign and need to fight for every community centre. However, whilst he gave an excellent speech, the “solution” offered was mainly reformist: petitions, lobbying, writing to MP’s, voting against Labour councillors who support the cuts, etc.; and whilst some of that may be worthwhile, as explained by John Dunn, we need to always point out the limitations of such actions, even if temporarily successful, within the capitalist system and always raise the need for a socialist transformation of society as the only real solution.
In closing the rally Darrall said that when he had come to Coventry some 47 years ago it was possible for workers to take industrial action to gain a wage rise, which was then passed on by the bosses in price rises to protect profit levels. Everybody gained for a short period of time as the market was expanding and capitalism was growing. Today, it is far different. We are entering a period of “secular stagnation” that will be characterised by decades of crisis, job cuts, growing inequality and insecurity.
In this period the role of trade unions has to change. They need to become agents of social change by mobilising members to fight to change society, as all capitalism can offer is a race to the bottom. Unless we fight for socialism, all the gains of the past will be lost forever.