A report from Andrea Gibbons of Lambeth Save Our Services
Above: the opening plenary
It was partially a day of misadventures I have to say. It began with me missing the opening plenary (many apologies), attending the housing session, being unable to get into the session on immigration and racism because it was too full (that so many people attended did indeed make me happy), being immensely frustrated with the regional meeting, enjoying some of the closing plenary before ducking out for pints, and the evening wrapped up when a man stumbled outside of the Sutton Arms where we were standing with blood pouring everywhere. Turns out he’d had a beer bottle broken over his head for being a Fenian, no one stopped the fight or the guy from leaving… I stood wearing Mark Steel’s hat and guarding everyone’s drinks (post of doubtful honour), while Mark and Niall ran in hot pursuit, Kevin and Helen gave some first aid as the cops showed up after far far too long, though what we needed was an ambulance which took far longer…he got away, and after being bandaged up, the injured party was well enough to ask for Mark’s autograph. We were upset, had a long talk on the train ride home about violence and sectarian violence and the left, but anyway, the assembly.
It was full, absolutely rammed full. Even with my limited experience, I’m sure it wasn’t just the ‘usual characters’ as I’ve come to hear people call them, and it was more diverse than I was fearing in terms of age and race and in all other ways, though I think we’ve still a long long ways to go. I got there just as the plenary was ending and people were pouring out of the overflow rooms where they had been watching it on screens. Over 4,000 bought tickets, and I well believe it
Part of the day’s misadventures involved forgetting my camera, so apologies for the terrible phone pics [not shown here], there are plenty of beautiful pictures elsewhere however. I loved the housing session and thought it was really great in terms of getting a feeling for what is happening around the country and how people are fighting against it. It was fine to start out with a panel of people talking about what they were doing, but everyone in the audience was also doing brilliant things, so it was a little ridiculous to come back to the panel for their comments on the 20+ speakers, and it really needed a way for people to connect up at the end which was impossible. I would suggest at minimum a sheet going around collecting names and organisations and contact information for everyone in the meetings that could be sent around after, but breaking up into smaller groups by what people are working on would have been good, even if for just a quick go around of who was doing what so people could put names to faces and arrange to meet/talk later. I’ve detailed the contributions in a separate post because I thought they were dead useful in terms of learning about what is happening, but it’s long and not everyone will be excited about housing.
Lunch should have been longer (half an hour for 4000 to find food in the desert of Westminster, though Firebox and the cafe were helping?), and to have had areas outside or tables set up under the subjects of the sessions or geography would have allowed people to chat to interesting strangers over lunch. I just chatted to friends myself, which was nice, but was a little late to the next session so didn’t get in. So I chatted some more with friends about movement and such. I suppose there’s rarely enough time for that, so I’m not complaining.
I do have complaints about the regional meetings. I know there was loads to cover, but to me this is the only place really meaningful work towards action could have happened. It should not have been one of five options. We also really needed planned smaller breakout areas for this where people could sit and talk comfortably, and given the event was in London they should have known hundreds of people from London would have been there for it. Belatedly we broke into South and North, South and Southeast. There were still too many of us, we went out into the hall but I couldn’t hear anyone at all, it is fine for me to sit on the floor but older and disabled people shouldn’t be requested to. People who aren’t sure of themselves or used to large meetings also cannot participate in such a set up where you have to yell to be heard, especially if you’re at all nervous about speaking in front of large groups of people you don’t know. Most of us are. Some one had to volunteer to facilitate that, and someone else came up with the idea of sending a sheet around for contact info…this should have been planned too. People seemed eager to meet. As Lambeth SOS we had already been planning an assembly here — we held one two years ago now and it’s been long over due. We had a leaflet with our contact information and our scheduled meeting with the Trades Council to plan it on July 4th which we passed around just to make sure everyone got one and who was interested knew it was happening, I hope it didn’t seem like we were trying to direct the meeting yesterday! Not that anything could. Some felt we needed an all South London meeting. Personally I think it would never work, it is harder to get from Brixton to Lewisham (at least two buses and over an hour) than to Central London, and people who aren’t already well involved and excited just aren’t going to manage that, especially if they have to manage childcare and/or long working hours. I was talking to the woman next to me from North Lambeth, and she said they would never even come to Brixton — resentments about how all services have been stripped from North Lambeth to be centred in Brixton, and hey, it’s just really far. So local meeting seem absolutely necessary to start, building to something bigger. The woman next to me wasn’t sure she’d be coming to any other meetings. That was a shame.
I left early, I couldn’t face shouting.
We couldn’t get into the main room for the closing plenary, when we made it into the overflow room I at first felt that was quite a shame, it looked quite historic! And to hear Len McClusky head of Unite say we needed to think about not following the rules around strike action was just a little exciting. The room was chanting strike before he got to that point, the moderator was a little upset about the heckling, but honestly, I feel that people with immense power who are standing on a stage talking at you really need a little heckling… he took it really well too. Humour will lead us forward. Francesca Martinez spoke really well and was quite moving about the struggles of the disabled, but went on too long, and John Rees was all right…and with those three we had had enough of being talked at, we already know why we’re there and why we’re fighting after all, so we were suddenly glad to be in the overflow room. We left, heading for some cheer and conviviality. I spent a wonderful few hours with some amazing people, had great discussions, and couldn’t ask for more for my evening. Until a fenian got his head smashed in. Violence is something that concerns us all, and how we better deal with it is a whole other discussion that needs to be had.
I’m looking forward to July 4th though, and hope to see lots of new faces and enthusiasm. I certainly felt more optimistic than not leaving the Hall…I am so glad it was organised, took place, was attended by thousands of people, and hopefully might kick something off! So thanks to everyone who made it happen.