Stockport Left Unity reports on a local campaign.
Left Unity members in Stockport have played an important part in the launching of a Stockport United Against Austerity campaign.
Our work began in April 2014 when UNISON branches in the NHS and local government called a public meeting to highlight the effects of swingeing cuts in community mental health services being announced by the Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust. The Trust had said that it was required to make “efficiency savings” amounting to no less than 25% of its budget! Stockport is the borough within which the funding of these services is already the lowest within Pennine Care’s footprint.
A campaign group, Stockport Against Mental Health Cuts was formed from the public meeting and several of our LU members joined in its activities, which focused on raising public awareness through street stalls and petitioning, demonstrations and lobbying of meetings of Pennine Care and Stockport Council’s statutory Health & Wellbeing committees.
The authorities nevertheless remained determined to proceed with the cuts. The scale of the fight we faced became very clear at a meeting of the campaign on 1 April 2015.
UNISON reps reported that an indicative ballot had been conducted in the integrated community mental health teams, on readiness to take industrial action. This had resulted in an amazing 100% support for action by the union’s NHS workers and 85% support by the local government workers.
Voluntary sector workers reported that Stockport Council was engaged in “recommissioning” its contracts for mental health services in that sector. This had resulted in slashing of service provision and notices of compulsory redundancy being received by many of the workers.
We reported ourselves that a notice of closure had been issued by the Council upon the town’s Wellbeing Centre, a much valued community resource which is used by voluntary groups providing essential support for people experiencing mental health problems. The centre provides a safe, secure, welcoming and stigma-free meeting point and resource centre. It is however, by no means a mental health services “ghetto”, with social knitters, ukulele players, tropical dancers and group singers also using the Centre. The notice announcing its closure with effect from 31 July 2015 acknowledged what users of the Centre were saying, i.e. that its existence has “literally saved lives”.
Plans were made for a public meeting on 23 July and for an open air rally on 27 June in the Bear Pit, an amphitheatre style public space in the town centre. We played a full role in these events. Our branch chair, herself a voluntary sector mental health worker under redundancy notice, MC’ed the open air rally and spoke from the platform at the later public meeting, which was attended by 100 people. Our Stockport parliamentary candidate in the previous month’s general election also spoke at the rally, alongside a wide range of contributors from the trade union movement and anti-cuts campaigns. We had a Left Unity stall at the rally and we were also instrumental in arranging a stall from the Unite Community branch.
One of our members who is active in the 38 Degrees organisation arranged an online petition against the closure of the Wellbeing Centre and a paper edition of the petition was launched at the rally. The online petition was presented to a meeting of the Council’s Health & Wellbeing Board on 15 July, whilst signatures continued to be gathered on the paper edition. Prominent local press coverage was obtained on the day of the petition presentation and shortly thereafter we learned of a success in the campaign. On 20 July, Stockport Council issued a statement announcing a reprieve of the Wellbeing Centre until the year end, whilst consultation takes place on keeping it open.
Then, at the public meeting on 23 July, the UNISON reps were able to report that Pennine Care had suspended implementation of the cuts in the community mental health teams in response to the threat of industrial action. This meeting helped solidify the basis for Stockport United Against Austerity becoming an ongoing project.
Our member who is the Unite Community branch’s delegate to Stockport Trades Union Council will be proposing a motion at the latter organisation’s meeting on 30 July, calling for it to urge its affiliates and all campaigning organisations and political parties which are opposing the austerity agenda, to support the united campaign. The Trades Union Council has not been holding regular meetings for over a year. The urgency of invigorating union actions in the fight against austerity in the local government sector was underlined at Stockport Council’s budget meeting earlier this year, when £15 million of cuts were nodded through, with Tory and Lib-Dem Councillors voting in favour and Labour councillors abstaining. There was no protest outside the meeting, despite the cuts threatening hundreds more jobs of council workers as well as many more in the axed voluntary sector contracts.
Alongside our work in the Mental Health Cuts campaign and in a very active anti-privatisation Stockport NHSWatch campaign, we were engaged in a five months long campaign of street work in support of our general and council election challenges. In that work we focused on anti-austerity propaganda, using both locally produced material and leaflets and posters supplied by the Party.
In 2016, a further £22 million of Council cuts are promised with little sign that the establishment parties will offer any resistance to Osborne’s axe. The Council’s Liberal Democrat Leader will be standing for re-election in one of the wards which we contested this year.
We have therefore taken the initiative of calling an open discussion meeting on 20 August, on the topic, “How can councils refuse to implement cuts?” We are very pleased that one of the party’s principal speakers, Felicity Dowling, who was one of 47 Liverpool Labour councillors who were disqualified from office in 1987 for refusing to implement cuts, will introduce the topic for us.
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