October 01, 2020

Hello comrades,

We hope you are all keeping well. This issue we bring you news of militant Debenhams workers, the testimonies of three members on their personal and political journeys since the 2019 general election defeat, and a special report on the burgeoning rent strike movement in Britain’s universities.

The kids are alright. University bosses have locked up loads of students in cramped halls, after erroneously promising them in-person teaching, while charging them extortionate amounts in rent and fees… Could we be about to see a dramatic uptick in radical student activism? (Read our report below for a run-down of how the campaign for a nationwide rent strike is developing 👀)

Up the workers. When all Irish Debenhams stores were closed down in April, workers picketed their old workplaces to halt stock worth around €20m being removed from the premises – money which they believe should be used to provide them with a decent redundancy package, rather than line the pockets of shareholders. On Monday, ex-Debenhams staff in Waterford upped the ante by occupying their former workplace. The kind of worker militancy we love to see. Solidarity.

Until next time. Another year, another re-invigorating The World Transformed festival comes to a close. It’s sad we weren’t able to meet in person with comrades new and old, but there was still no shortage of carefully curated sessions that got us thinking about the world around us and how to change it. You can find Momentum’s workshops on how our groups are building power locally and the great work being done by tenants’ unions on the TWT YouTube channel.

Our friend, David. David Graeber was an acclaimed author and academic – but most importantly he was a comrade who could be found wherever the struggle for a better world lay. We will miss him. To hear more about his life, work and what he meant to our movement, watch Novara Media’s tribute featuring Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

  • Last week, we launched our new Eviction Resistance campaign. Together we’ve fundraised over £3,500 pounds so that we can set up thirty local action groups over the coming weeks. Why not get involved yourself? Check out the campaign hub here.

  • We ran open primaries to decide who Momentum endorses for Young Labour elections. Check out our slate by clicking here.

  • We are training up dozens of potential left-wing councillors as part of our Future Councillors Programme. In exciting news, seven Momentum activists taking the course have been accepted by the Leeds Labour Party on to the panel of potential council candidates. Good luck, comrades.

  • We gained hundreds of CLP nominations for the Grassroots Voice NEC candidates, including the NCG’s very own Mish Rahman. Grassroots Voice won 1667 nominations; the Right’s ‘Labour to Win’ slate won 932. Ballots for the NEC elections open on 19 October.

  • On the Volunteer Slack, members have been taking part in regular lunchtime skill share sessions – with a new Slack channel dedicated to discussing the Eviction Resistance campaign. Click here to get involved.

Every issue we will ask members to give their thoughts on different questions facing our movement. For this first issue we asked: “How did the 2019 general election defeat affect you personally?” Here are three of the answers we received.

“When I saw the exit poll I felt winded – the scale of the defeat was a dull thud that knocked the breath out of me. I’m a single parent working in the labour movement for not much money. I had everything riding on that election. I bristle a bit when I see people saying “the left must own this”. Most of us didn’t make any strategic decisions – we just knocked on a load of doors.

We shouldn’t apologise for campaigning for a better life for ourselves and other working class people. In fact we should be proud that we did it, and we should continue to do it, in Labour and beyond. We weren’t crushed by some overreaching hubris – we were defeated by the forces of reaction, from within and without. And we must never stop fighting them.”

Tom Williams, Momentum Southampton

“I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking in the time since and spent a long time divorcing my politics from electoralism so would be embarrassed to admit that the defeat crushed me, especially considering we knew it was coming. But the physical and mental effort we went to in coordinating so many people in Greater Manchester, to spend their own wages travelling on evenings and weekends to talk to people who hated us has exhausted me ever since.

I’ve been immensely angry that the participants of the death-dealing Remain alliance have never been able to admit how wrong they were, or that they played any part in the destruction of Corbynism hand-in-hand with the right. For better or worse, this has replaced the trusting openness that came with the positive policies and campaigns of Corbynism with a cynical distrust of almost everybody.

Organising in the aftermath of Corbynism has been more difficult than I imagined. Where there was once hope for a better world there is now a feeling that we just have to keep going and pretend it could get better. I hope that time proves my cynicism wrong.”

Beth Redmond, Manchester Momentum

“I was excited to campaign. I knocked on doors three days a week and met many new great comrades in the process. As I slipped into the role more comfortably I started to realise how much I enjoyed talking to ordinary people about their issues and what mattered to them. It was also challenging coming across ways of thinking that were different to mine.

My best friend and comrade died in the summer of 2019 and it reminded me of the canvassing we did in 2015. When we lost I went through three stages. About six hours and two pints in anger – then the days of grief. Both a feeling of letting him down but also internalising the idea that I could have been better at convincing people.

Then the third stage: a realisation that working together over the coming years will do more to connect people to our message than any short campaign push will.”

Jonathan Mitchell, Momentum Southampton and Volunteer Slack

For future issues, we want to hear from you. The next question is an important one for our movement: “How should Momentum and the Labour left orient itself towards the Labour leadership?”

Whatever your thoughts, please do get in contact by emailing us at [email protected]. This section is all about hearing from our members.

This week we hear from Manchester Momentum Committee, who talk us through the group’s history – how it started, its achievements and what it’s been up to recently.

What did Manchester Momentum get up to in the early Corbyn years?

A lot, really. The left network in Manchester exploded over the last 5 years and we made sure we were at the heart of it. A lot of what we did focused on building a base ready to fight an election in marginals. This meant building a socialist focused student network, implementing our cultural strategy to bring new activists in and keep them engaged through discos, fundraisers and reading groups, and then hosting engaging political education events covering a range of topics from gentrification to housing.

This base building helped us become a massive electoral force. In 2019, we regularly brought 100/200 activists to the doorstep in 8 marginal constituencies, and phonebanked 2, 3 or 4 times a week in others.

Has the group been involved in any community organising over the years?

Definitely. Loads of our members are active across the whole Manchester left, including organisations like the renters union ACORN and the antifascist collective 0161. It’s massively important for any socialist organisation to help the community, both for the good of the area we live in and for building a base.

Recently, our chair Liam Smyth has been organising the Covid response in Fallowfield, and our VC Sarah Cundy has been organising relief for students trapped in their halls at Manchester Met Uni.

How would you best describe Manchester Momentum’s relationship to the local Labour Party?

The Labour Party is a dominant force in Manchester. From our 5 CLPs, to City Council, it’s wall to wall red. Our job is to exert our influence as much as possible through our members to try keep it left as possible, which isn’t always an easy task.

We have a solid network in CLPs across the city, with huge numbers of socialists turning up every time to CLP meetings and key votes.

This relationship isn’t always easy, and we have Labour councillors we’d call comrades and some we definitely wouldn’t. But we’ve spent the last 5 years connecting with councillors across the board on important decisions, whilst ensuring we get as many socialists elected as possible.

What is Manchester Momentum up to these days?

We’ve been all stations go on councillor selections the last few weeks. But down the line Sarah and Jack have been planning a really comprehensive political education programme for after lockdown; aiming at bringing together the left network, bringing a socialist lens to a range of issues and reaching out to new members who have been politicised by the state of the world but haven’t made that leap to socialism yet.

‘They are angry. Now let’s mobilise them.’

The inside story of a student rent rebellion

After bearing the stress of the Tory government’s A-levels blunder, and forcing a u-turn through their collective pressure, hundreds of thousands of first year university students now find themselves in the thick of another injustice. Having been made reliant on fees to survive under the marketised model of education, universities told students over the summer there would be in-person teaching which would require them to take up their places at their halls of residence.

But as predicted by just about all university teaching staff (their union, UCU, have been going hard on this since April), the number of coronavirus cases have dramatically shot up in student areas. Now, a growing number of students are locked down inside their blocks, often hemmed in by security guards, with very little pastoral care from the university and the chances of in-person teaching growing more remote by the day. It’s not hard to understand why there is growing anger.

In Glasgow, the backlash has already begun. When initially confronted by students questioning whether they could terminate their rental contracts and study from home instead, the university threatened to throw students off their courses – but the growing threat of a student rental strike led to a hurried policy reversal. Glasgow University is now offering a month’s rent rebate and £50 credit to all students in its residences.

Since the beginning of the fee regime in 2010, universities have been increasingly dependent on landlordism to balance the books. Universities have invested heavily in their estates, often doing deals with big developers and private finance companies to build new university halls with lots of units for maximum profits. But it’s also meant the lowering of living conditions alongside towering rents in both new-build and already existing accommodation. In response, student activists have begun to see university halls as an important site of struggle. The threat of a rent strike at Glasgow didn’t appear from nothing – activists have been sowing the seeds of a rent rebellion for years.

Back in 2016, a campaign emerged to resist a rent increase for students at University College London, eventually winning £1.5m in concessions from the university after withholding rent for 5 months. From that victory there grew a national network of students under the Rent Strike banner with campaigns slowly emerging across the country. Since then there have been victories in Bristol, Lancaster, Surrey, Plymouth, Warwick, UAL and Liverpool to name only a few. Rent strikes work.

Matthew, 21, a Rent Strike organiser who first got involved in rent strike campaigning in 2018, believes the tactic’s success has been down to “meeting students where they are”. “It’s an issue that is very tangible for students,” he says. “Because of that it is a lot easier to mobilise your average student around, than it is around the demand of free education. There’s also the fact that rents are just getting ridiculously pricey.”

As part of the wave of student rent strike activism, Cian Ireland, 20, and his fellow student activists at Stirling University set up Stirling Students Tenants’ Union back in 2018. It represents around 150 students now and won major concessions off the university back in March of this year. But from what he’s seen over the last few weeks, the rent strike movement is likely to only get bigger.

“The anger among students is palpable,” says Ireland. “They really feel like they have been misled and lied to by the university.”

He believes that the rent strike activist infrastructure built up over the last few years has real potential to tap into that anger. “A rent strike is a distinct possibility,” he says. “Students are pissed off – now we have to mobilise people to act. The response we’ve had so far from first years has been really promising. There is still a question mark over whether we have the organisational capacity to pull it off – but we’ve got lots of Whatsapp groups now set up and hopefully we can get something going.”

And it’s not just Stirling where things are beginning to escalate – at Edinburgh, Manchester Met and the University of East Anglia similar activity is starting to emerge. Even the National Union of Students – infamous for churning out Blairite MPs – has offered their backing to students withholding their rent. Led by left-wing president Larissa Kennedy, they are running an online training on how to organise a rent strike this Thursday at 5.30pm, with hundreds of first year students signed up and the number growing. Are these the seeds of a nationwide rent strike movement?

Serco

An outsourcing company that specialises in running public services (badly) for private profit

You know how some trends get out of hand? Things like baking sourdough bread during lockdown – it starts out as a hobby confined to your culinarily overconfident mate, then suddenly everyone and their mum is brewing a ‘starter’. Outsourcing is a bit like that, apart from instead of funny tasting bread, it results in a prolonged ruling class assault on public services.

Outsourcing is a kind of privatisation by stealth. Public service contracts are awarded, often by lightly-scrutinised tendering processes with plenty of space for the abuse of power, to private corporations in a race to the bottom. Firms that specialise in these kinds of contracts are usually only profitable because of the constant erosion of wages and working conditions via which they keep costs to an absolute minimum.

Enter SERCO, one of Britain’s big outsourcing firms. The Organiser doesn’t contain the kind of space necessary to lay out all our problems with the company – so let’s focus on just two.

First, Yarls Wood immigration detention centre, where the company oversees behavior which could fairly be described as evil: such as the sexual and physical abuse of highly vulnerable migrant women. Second, test and trace. SERCO have got a bundle of test and trace contracts, which could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds. They’ve taken over a vital healthcare function during a global pandemic – and completely bungled it, managing to trace less than half the contacts they should have by the end of July.

Screw outsourcing, and screw the bosses and billionaires who run and own SERCO.

That’s all for this month, comrades. We hope you like the new format. Any feedback you have and ideas for how to make it better are much appreciated. Don’t hesitate to send us an email at [email protected] with your thoughts.

In solidarity,

Casper

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