By Josh Robinson, People & Planet East Anglia regional rep
LAST weekend, Oxford Brookes university hosted Shared Planet, the annual gathering of student activists from the campaigning network People & Planet. The mobilisations around the G8 seem to have radicalised large numbers of P&P members: for the first time, the event had sold out over a week in advance. But what was particularly encouraging wasn’t just the number of people present, but the fact that P&P members seem to be rethinking the way they see activism.
People I spoke to were much quicker to criticise NGO-dominated campaigns like Make Poverty History and Live8. And while P&P’s strategy remains firmly focused on lobbying those in power, there was an interesting fringe programme offering more in-depth and potentially radical discussions than those on the main stage.
There also seemed to be a much stronger desire among those present to take student activism beyond the three “official” campaigns supported by the P&P office: climate change, trade justice and HIV/AIDS. These are all important issues, but by no means the be all and end all.
No Sweat held a productive workshop to plan the way forward for the anti-sweatshop week of action in February. People generally seemed keen to get involved in the struggle for workers’ rights: there was one woman who said in a meeting that campaigning for workers’ rights might make us sound too much like barmy lefties, suggesting that we should instead call for more ethical consumerism (whatever that is), but she was very much in the minority.
P&P groups in London and the south east seem particularly keen to work together for big events around the week of action.
People also seemed much more tuned into the official structures of their student unions and NUS than in previous years. Students from Edinburgh were drumming up support for an NUS card that promoted workers‚ co-ops and union-made clothing rather than sweatshop employers TopShop and River Island. Meanwhile, the P&P group at Essex University has had enough of the self-promoting careerists running their student union, and is launching a fight to reclaim it for political activism.
Meanwhile, in contrast to last year’s lack of political discussion, the variety of workshops and fringe events provided a lot more to get your teeth into. From discussions on direct action, the occupation of Iraq, and Bolivia, to a workshop on “non-fictional alternatives to capitalism” and even an introduction to anarchism (which Workers’ Liberty members of course intervened in), there was plenty of scope to go beyond the dull reformism of the mainstream NGOs. It looks as if at least some P&P-type activists are starting to question the premises on which bourgeois society is based.
However, the final plenary, in which Tony Benn spoke, was disappointing. Benn remains quick to criticise Bush and Blair, but he seems to have abandoned a principled commitment to the working class and democracy worldwide. While he praised the achievements of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and the Suffragettes, he didn’t seem quite so willing to apply the same criteria of democracy outside the developed world — Britain, Europe and the United States.
Bosses’ governments here are to be resisted, but the UN General Assembly must be sovereign, no matter which dictators’ representatives sit in it. And as long as Cuba stands up to the US, there’s no need for its people to have such trifling things as freedom of speech and the right to organise at work. A state-run economy and good health services are all that matters, it seems.
Still, a good event all in all, and people left tired, but with a lot of energy to take the campaigns forward. Let’s make sure this is part of a growing trend in campuses across the UK and beyond.