Report on meeting on water charges
7th November 2004
A public meeting on the issue of water charges was held in Belfast on the 4th of November at the Unemployed Resource Centre. Organised by the Campaign Against Water Privatisation this meeting, entitled “Say no to water privatisation”, attracted a sizable audience of local activists. They were addressed by four platform speakers – John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy, Tommy McKearney of Fourthwrite magazine, Cllr Mark Langhammer of the Labour Party, and Jason Brannigan of the anarchist group Organise!.
All the speakers agreed that there was no need to rehearse the basic arguments of whether the water charge was a bad thing or not, the task was to develop a campaign that could successfully oppose them. The focus of the meeting was how this was to be achieved. John McAnulty addressed this question by emphasising the need for the anti-water charges campaign to have a political basis, which for him was the issue of privatisation. He argued that water charges were just one element of an ongoing government attack on public services designed to lower the value of wages and living standards of workers in the north. He made a distinction between the politics of an anti-water charges campaign and its strategy and tactics, arguing that opposition to the general neo-liberal thrust of government policy, of which water charges were a key element, was political, while non-payment of bills was tactical. While not dismissing non-payment, John was critical of basing a campaign completely on this tactic, as it left no room for any debate. He said the key was that any campaign should be democratic and have mass support.
The next speaker, Tommy McKearney, also emphasised the wider social and political context in which water charges were being advanced. He claimed that the concept of a social wage for workers was being steadily eroded and as a consequence inequality was increasing. Tommy expressed caution on a non-payment campaign, recounting the experience of the 1970s when the Government used draconian powers to break a rent and rates strike by nationalists. The next speaker, Mark Langhammer, dealt with the issue in a detailed manner, going through a number of positions on which the water charges could be challenged. He laid particular emphasis on the economics of the water charges, showing how their level exceeds even what the government estimates is required to upgrade the water system. He recommended that the document by David Hall, the academic commissioned by NIPSA to examine the Water Service, should inform any campaign. Mark also highlighted the role of local politicians in the water charges, arguing that they effectively accepted them when the Stormont Executive signed up to Gordon Brown’s Reform and Reinvestment package. As for opposition, he put forward a number of suggestions. These included lobbying politicians and putting them on the spot over their complicity in the charges; taking test legal cases under various equality provisions; developing case studies of people who will be badly hit by the charges; and supporting the proposed trade union day of action. He did not rule out non-payment, but like the previous speakers expressed caution, saying that any non-payment campaign would have to be well prepared and well funded.
In contrast to the previous speakers Jason Brannigan of Organise! was totally supportive of a non-payment campaign. For him this was the only tactic that could stop water charges. He dismissed the trade union campaign as a waste of time that was already in the process of selling out. Jason said the focus needed to be on mobilising working-class communities to oppose the charges. If people were prosecuted as a result of not paying, then the campaign would rally round to offer support. If the campaign was big enough then non-payers would not be isolated.
Although Jason’s enthusiasm for non-payment put him in a minority on the panel, it became clear when the meeting was opened up to discussion that his views were held by the majority of the audience. Most of the speakers voiced support for the non-payment campaign and recounted how they had been signing up people in their area to non-payment pledges. Support for non-payment was expressed by representatives of the IRSP, the Irish Socialist Network and the SWP. Most of these speakers took as their reference point the Poll Tax campaign in Britain and the anti-water charge struggle in the south, both of which dated from the early 1990s. None made reference to the more recent non-payment campaign against bin charges in Dublin only a year previously, or any lessons that might be drawn from its defeat. Many of the supporters of non-payment had a rather mechanical view of how it would work. One SWP representative even extrapolated from a figure of 18 million people not paying their poll tax in England in 1990, that it would take 150,000 non-payers in the north to stop the water charge. A minority of the audience did express some criticism of non-payment and held out some hope for the trade union campaign. An interesting aspect of the discussion was the almost universal dismissal of the trade union leadership as a focus of resistance. The issue of debate was between those who argue that we should challenge NICTU for the leadership of the organised working class and those who favoured side-stepping the unions for direct action in the community
Overall the meeting highlighted the nature of the divisions within the broad anti-water charges campaign. Most of the community-based campaigns and the left groups that dominate them have already plumped for non-payment. All the political and tactical questions have already been decided. The only thing left for them is to go out a sign up non-payers. This is a reflection of the undemocratic nature of those campaigns and the declining political consciousness of the left which has retreated from class to community. However, there is a minority that at least sees the wider agenda behind water charges and would look to the organised working class as the focus of opposition.
The task of this minority is to win over the activists in the anti-water charges campaign and go on to win the battle for a political opposition based on the working class among the population as a whole. We need urgently to lay the basis for the development of a class-based opposition to the government attacks on workers’ wages and conditions and public services. Water charges are not the start and they won’t be the end of this process.