Ron Mendel of Northampton Save Our Public Services (SOPS) spoke to Vicki Morris about their anti-cuts and recent election campaigns.
How long has SOPS been going?
We became SOPS in April 2009 when we registered with the Electoral Commission, but the predecessor Save Our Services goes back to 2005–6 when we were campaigning against cuts in mental health and disability services within the NHS.
In 2007 we decided to run candidates in Northampton borough council elections. We stood in Old Duston ward — Conservative — and Lumbertubs ward — Labour. In Old Duston SOS finished in third place; fourth in Lumbertubs.
We continued to campaign around a number of local issues — proposed cuts to visually impaired people’s library services (we beat back that cut) — also the sale of playing fields and access to facilities under PFI schemes.
We decided to stand in the county council elections last year because the council has more scrutiny and oversight powers over changes in the NHS than the borough. In June we fielded three candidates: two as per 2007 — Dave Green, Harry Tuttle — and Norman Adams, who had been involved in the campaign to defend sheltered housing wardens, in Delapre.
All three had been very visible campaigners around local issues. In the elections we did remarkably well. Dave Green came within 61 votes of capturing the seat and scared the Tories.
How do you get new people involved?
We organise stalls, write leaflets — for example, on the issue of a school being targeted to become an academy; in that case we tried to get parents involved. But our outreach is rather intermittent.
When, for example, there were clear threats to provision within Northampton hospital, when there were proposed cuts to learning disability and mental health services, it was easier to draw people in because people saw a direct threat to their services and their jobs. But when that immediate threat dissipated, people dropped off. We have a core group of about 10 people who do most of the work.
We punch above our weight. We have committed people who go to cabinet meetings and ask awkward questions of Northampton council. We cultivate a relationship with the local press — they call us when there is an issue they think we will have an interest in.
For example, the Northampton Chronicle had a feature story on the revival of trade unionism. I spoke to them about an upsurge in labour militancy — I had to explain the meaning of all this, that most industrial action is not over pay but about terms and conditions, etc., and more militant stuff, for example, Vestas.
Northampton is special in this respect; were we a large city we would not have this relationship with the local media.
What party are your MPs, council? Do you have any relationship with the local Labour Party?
Northampton North MP is Sally Keeble, Labour; Northampton South MP is Brian Binley, Tory. The borough council is Lib-Dem and the county council is Tory.
We don’t have a relationship with the local Labour group; we have not been able or even tried to push them to the left. Other people involved in SOPS might have different views on that, but most of us who were members of the Labour Party have left it. I left after Clause 4 was cut from the constitution. I saw this as the writing on the wall.
However, if I had John McDonnell as my MP I’d be working for his re-election, or Jeremy Corbyn. They are exemplary Labour MPs. In Northampton, Labour MPs have never voted against the government. The CWU had to lobby Sally Keeble vigorously to oppose privatisation of Royal Mail until finally she came around.
What is the relationship between SOPS and the trades council?
I am the president of Northampton TUC. Although there is some overlap in the personnel of SOPS and the trades council we maintain a separation.
Many unions affiliated to the trades council have a close relationship with the Labour Party. There could not be any involvement of the trades council in SOPS’s election campaign. But we do have joint stalls for other campaigning work.
The trades council is campaigning against cuts, against privatisation as well — we have many of the same policies. But for very clear reasons we are independent of each other. I don’t see that as a problem. If you have a similar platform on issues, you can campaign together, but we draw the line at political intervention in elections.
When it stands in elections SOPS is running as an alternative to the Labour Party. Implicitly it exists because it sees itself as being in opposition to the three main parties. Our relationship to the Labour Party is shaped by that.
Did you expect to do so well in the county council elections? How did you fund your election campaign?
We didn’t expect to do so well. We expected to do better than we had done in the borough elections. That was because of the general dissatisfaction with the three main parties, the MPs’ expenses scandal.
When we set up stalls in the town centre asking people to sign petitions against cuts in NHS or local services, exposing the PFI scam, several people came up and said they’d never vote Labour again, Labour stalwarts; it was clear they were not going to vote for the Tories or Lib Dems. We had a sense that if we could tap into that general dissatisfaction we would do well, but we probably surprised ourselves given our limited resources.
We raised funds for the election campaign through donations; we raised some money in August from a festival where we sold cakes, ceramics, etc. Our biggest expense has been printing: for the last election we did two leaflet drops, printed thousands of leaflets. We don’t receive any trade union funds.
In your publicity, you don’t mention the EU, asylum seekers, etc. Do people you speak to when you are campaigning raise those issues?
Some people involved in SOPS might be sympathetic to ‘No to EU’, but some think it confused people — the EU has some progressive policies. But we never really discussed this inside SOPS.
Occasionally someone signs a petition on a stall and says that the reason why there is not enough council housing or why the NHS is contemplating making cuts is because of all these immigrants. It’s just a kind of common sense view that some people have, they are not necessarily BNP supporters. Obviously, when it comes up, you have to tackle it.
We have dialogues with people on the stall. I had one with someone who was wearing a Chelsea jersey — I asked him where his team would be without immigrants? If you make these points to people they can see things from a different perspective.
Brown’s slogan about British jobs for British workers is nonsense. One of the things we’ve done as Northampton TUC is outreach with migrant workers; we’ve done some leafleting at workplaces where we know there is a critical mass of workers from Poland, Lithuania. We’ve given them details for possible trade union contacts.
What campaigns are you involved in at the moment?
An anti-academy group in local schools; more longstanding campaigns around sheltered housing; we are still campaigning around access to playing fields and facilities being built through PFI projects because we recognise that the general public has been short-changed. For example, clubs find that they now have to pay a fee for facilities run by PFI schools.
We try to monitor what’s happening with the local health service — with district and community nursing, a move to quasi-private social enterprise provision for some of these is on the cards, we understand.
Will you stand in the general election?
We’ve had one or two discussions about contesting the seat held by the Conservative. What complicates that is the former Labour MP from Northampton South, Tony Clarke, was expelled from the Labour Party. He is an independent member of the borough council and has taken some positions that have been somewhat sympathetic to SOPS. He has been against market testing plans for, for example, street cleaning.
He has declared his intention to stand in that seat as an independent. Would we want to take votes away from him? In anticipation that the general election will be held in May we will have to declare our position.
What is the main purpose of SOPS?
The purpose of SOPS is to campaign to defend services against cuts; we try to draw together a coalition of people who are employed in the public sector with those who are depending on the public services. The TUC plays a prominent role in that because we can build on our ties with Unison/Unite/UCU/CWU. We can try to break this false dichotomy between the so-called producer and consumer. We see privatisation and outsourcing and cuts as bad for those who are providing the service and for those using them. Why not unite them in the same campaign? If you had to summarise our philosophy, that is it.
No matter what government is in power we will have to hold that government accountable for its actions. We are not against this or that party as such, we are against the government for their specific proposals/actions. When we campaign we don’t ask what political party people support when they come up to the stall. We are non-political with a small p.
Our political intervention flows from our campaign work, it builds on it. Without that we would not have credibility. In the elections people say “we know Norman Adams, he’s involved in sheltered housing and Defend Council Housing; Dave Green, he’s the person who spoke up about PFI.”
People don’t see us as just humdrum politicians who are trying to get their vote and that’s it. We’re more than that. We are an organisation trying to provide an alternative not just on election day but 365 days a year.
Solidarity wants to help build a network of anti-cuts campaigns around the country. Do you think this would be useful?
Yes, I would love to see a network of groups campaigning against privatisation etc. I’m not just talking about Barnet TUC sharing infornation about sheltered housing with the Northampton campaign, for example, though that’s good — I think you are talking about something less ad hoc, something more extensive than that, which would be good.