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Poor turnout at anti-water charges demonstrations

16th February 2005

JM Thorn

A series of demonstrations against the Government’s plans to reform the Water Service and introduce a water charge were held across the north on Saturday 12th February. Demonstrations took place in Belfast, Enniskillen and Derry. They were organised by the Coalition Against the Water Tax, a loose grouping of trade unions, community organisations and NGO’s.

Despite water charges being a high profile issue, and opinion polls indicating that the vast majority of people are opposed to them, the demonstrations were very small. The one in Belfast attracted only five hundred, while in Derry there was only three hundred. The organisers blamed the poor weather for the disappointing turnout. While it is true that the weather was poor, and the promotion of the event was inadequate, these factors do not in themselves explain the lack of public support.

What the demonstrations illustrate is the passive nature of the opposition to water charges. The broad sentiment against them is not being translated into an effective campaign. Some people are resigned to the charges being introduced, while others believe it will never happen. The impact of the water charge may not hit the public until bills start coming through the doors. However, by that stage it will be too late. The Water Service will have been moved towards privatisation and the charging regime set in place. Groups such as Communities Against the Water Tax argue that this is the point at which the non-payment tactic can be most effective. However, for this to be effective a campaign involving tens of thousands of households will have to have been established beforehand. However, the evidence of the demonstrations, where community based support should have been most evident, shows that such a mass campaign does not exist. This calls into question the viability of a non-payment campaign. If it involves only a small number of households it is likely to be easily defeated.

So what type of campaign can win this struggle? In our view it is the one-day strike by Water Service workers the Wednesday before the rally that offers the best hope. It is the workers who are feeling the most immediate affect of the moves to privatisation with redundancies, deteriorating conditions and their pensions under threat. But they are also best placed to defeat it. The one-day strike shows the potential power that they have. Of course the level of action will have to escalate beyond one-day strikes, and beyond the water workers themselves, to pose a serious threat to the Government plans. This action must also be political and set itself against the principle of privatisation that underpins the policies of the New Labour government. Workers need to organise independently of the trade unions leaders who are seeking to restrict action to “industrial” issues. This separation also contributed to low number of water workers attending the rallies. After the relatively successful one day strike, in terms of support, you would have expected a strong contingent at the demonstration. That there was not indicates that most of the workers don’t connect their action with the wider anti-water charges campaign. It is essential that these barriers be broken down. For this to happen there needs to be a unified campaign based on the principle of opposing privatisation and putting the labour movement at the forefront of the struggle.



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