Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be speaking to anti-cuts campaigners from across the country about what they’re doing and what advice they have for other activists.
First up, Steve Sweeney of Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts, who I spoke to outside the Coalition of Resistance planning meeting in London last week. Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts was set up back in March, before the general election – a reminder that cuts were taking place under the previous Labour government.
The campaign was initiated by the local Unison branch and the two trade union councils in the area – Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdon & St Neots. Other union branches have since got involved, and the group is reaching out to individual campaigns outside the union movement.
They’re now campaigning against a raft of cuts proposed by the Tory-run county council, including £4m off the libraries budget.
What is the council cutting in Cambridgeshire?
“We’ve got massive cuts to the budget imposed by Cambridgeshire County Council. The services they’re looking at cutting are typically things like adult care services, services for the elderly. We’re looking at day care centres, libraries.
“Youth services are being targeted – Connexions, they’re under real threat. The Unison branch in Cambridgeshire are trying to organise against the closures, there’s a petition up and running, they’re hoping to get enough names to force a debate in the council chamber. The Tories think they can get away by hammering young people, but the young people are angry – we’ve tried to get them involved in the campaign, and what we’re hoping is that if it does trigger this debate in the council chamber we’ll get somebody who’s affected, one of the young people, in there on the council floor, telling it like it is to the councillors. And hopefully they’ll listen.”
Does the council have any option other than to make these cuts?
“They’ve got reserve funds and they do have money. These are ideologically driven cuts, we know that. They’ve also attacked our trade union, they’ve cut our facilities time, which people are going to be without representation while these cuts are going on, while people are losing their jobs.”
How do you find out about local anti-cuts campaigns outside the union movement?
“Rooting ourselves in the community. Obviously we’re not just trade unionists and individual campaigners; we’re members of the community, so we’re living in the places where these cuts are happening. We’ve tried to make the campaign quite high profile: we’ve had rallies, we’ve had workshops, we’ve had marches and we’ve been through town as well. People know that we’re there, people know that we’re about, and we’re trying to get roots into communities, because the danger is that once closures start to happen, unless we are actually there, rooted in the communities, it leaves it open to exploitation, and groups like the far right try and come in. That’s another thing that we’re campaigning against.”
What activity is there in the rural parts of Cambridgeshire?
“These are potentially the areas that are the most open to being influenced by the far right, because there seems to be a bit of a political vacuum in those areas. It’s a very conservative area in a lot of ways, there’s not really an organised Left, and trade union organisation probably isn’t as active as it has been out in those areas, although that is changing now with the Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts campaign.
“Huntingdon & St Neots Trade Council is up and running again, risen phoenix-like from the flames, and we’re starting to get the more agricultural branches – so we’ve got Unite who are quite a key player in the agricultural branches.
“Cambridgeshire’s quite a big area. There are issues in these rural areas – libraries is one of the key things – and we’re trying to combine those, and linking the libraries campaign to the wider issues that follow on from that.”
What kind of reception have you had in the rural areas?
“We’ve been quite well received. We do have supporters that are out there that are key to getting these things up and running. Huntingdon & St Neots trade council – they’re the two main areas. Grouped around that are more rural areas, villages and the such like, so we’ve been trying to work in those areas, getting out and about as well. Things are moving.
“We’ve got to be realistic and come from where we are, and try and take it forward from there.”
How supportive have Labour been locally?
“In Cambridge itself, they’ve been reasonably supportive. During the general election, the Labour candidate was supporting Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts’ activities, he was at the lobby of the county council over the budget and he spoke on the radio about why the budget cuts were a bad idea. They’ve been fairly supportive in Cambridge and they’re continuing to be.
“Huntingdon’s a different matter. In Huntingdon the Labour Party are virtually non-existent – they had to parachute somebody in from outside during the general election campaign. The key issue of the day was the privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital and she fell on the wrong side of that debate. But they’re not a campaigning organisation – in Huntingdon they’ve got very few members, it’s a shell really.
“Two different CLPs, and two different experiences.”
Advice for anti-cuts campaigners:
What things have worked for your campaign?
“We’ve had a number of things that do work – going out, speaking to people face-to-face is one of the things that does work, and that’s absolutely key. Once you can get a group of like-minded people together that are opposed to cuts, that’s the starting point.
“Activity-wise, we’ve been going out, we’ve been doing petitions, we’ve been doing lobbies of council meetings. To get the ball rolling, things that are quite high profile – rallies, marches.
“But we’ve been doing nitty-gritty stuff as well, like door-knocking, getting involved and finding out about campaigns in our communities and getting ourselves involved in those kind of things.
“Linking things together, and making sure that we’re moving wider than the trade union movement, wider than the same faces that we get along to the same meetings. And it’s working, we’re getting people that we haven’t seen before, people that are coming along to meetings, speaking, getting involved, getting things up and running.
“Letter-writing to the newspapers – and it worked, it sparks debate, and we’ve actually swung the media round on certain issues. We’re positioning ourselves to say you don’t need to make these cuts at all. These cuts are ideologically driven, there are other things that you can do – the obvious ones being Trident, bringing the troops home, taxing the bankers.”
And what would you advise campaigners to steer clear of?
“Sometimes when we haven’t looked beyond our regular group of people, when we’ve kept it to ourselves. Sometimes we’ve had rallies in town that haven’t gone particularly well – I think it’s about choosing your moment.
“But as we’re building we’re finding our feet, we’re learning. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don’t be demoralised if you do. If you do hold a meeting and it’s not successful in terms of getting people turning up, don’t be demoralised by that, but just keep on, because part of that is a sign of the times that we’re in – people are used to defeats and people are used to setbacks. They think, what’s the point of getting up and doing anything about it? That’s one of the things we have to counter and that’s one of the things that could demoralise groups and think, well, it’s going to be a failure – but it’s worth persevering with.”
Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts – www.cambridgeshireagainstthecuts.org.uk/