This was my first Compass Merseyside meeting and the venue was heaving. I set up my WEA STEM pop-up stand and laid my WEA goodies out on the table – a few books, including a Ministry of Enthusiasm, a brilliant read (well, I think so) about the social history of Britain in the twentieth century. I particularly recommend the last section on WEA Voices as the place to start reading. Starting at the ending, could this be a theme for the evening, I wondered?
I went there in the spirit of the WEA fighting for its future. It’s chastening to realise that it’s already twelve years into its second century. And not only the WEA, informal adult and community learning in general has almost disappeared from FE colleges. The local authority Adult Learning Services are being forced to charge full course fees, so that part-time day and evening classes, so long available for adults to join, is becoming affordable, so long as you can afford it. We have to challenge this. And we are.
‘Everybody is working so hard at County Hall, despite all the cuts. Because they have to, yes, and because they want to. People are relying on them’, so began the introductions. The first speaker spoke of a world far more complex now than when the WEA was formed in 1903. ‘We need to be involved. We have to look at issues from different perspectives. Complex problems require complex solutions.’ But do they? Haven’t some of the greatest advances come about when someone has seen a simple truth? They’ve not always been thought credible or popular in their own lifetimes. Change happens like that sometimes, perhaps, more than we realise, especially when combined with a critical mass support. That helps too, as we’ve seen in the founding of the Welfare State and entry to the European Union.
The next speaker came from the People’s Assembly (What is this? How significant or influential is it? I don’t really know). She talked passionately about the need to provide a robust economic argument against the ‘austerity’ programme. This will have cut Liverpool City Council’s central government grant by nearly 50% by 2017, based on 2008 figures. Bringing non-voters back and enabling people go to university by providing financial support were her two other key issues. “We’re passed ‘going, going…we’re at gone!’”, she ended.
The two Young Greens, who spoke next, expressed their sense of hopelessness at seeing increasing numbers of homeless people, sleeping rough. Is this the Big Society model in action? Of disabled people worried about keeping their homes if they have one room too many? Yet with all this happening, we still have hope. And they offered us hope, on occasion this time, tearfully. We are already a broad alliance of people, coming from different political leanings and none. The presence of so many, at least 100, in the room, including lots of young people, was evidence of that. The Young Greens’ approach to ‘the complex problem’? Partnership, Equality, Motivation – I would add ‘Time’ – and Love. Yes, Love. I wrung my ears. The first time on a political platform I’d heard someone say the driving force for political and social change in our society was love. Either things are very, very bad or could we be at a turning point? And, of course, it’s true. How could it be otherwise?
Can I remind people,’ began the final speaker, ‘that the reason that the Treaty of Europe was signed, after two world wars in quick succession, was Peace. We’ve also had economic prosperity. She listed some of the achievements – the Working Time Directive, limiting the working week to 40 hours; paid annual leave; 14 weeks’ maternity pay; live, work and study in 28 European states; youth employment strategy; consumer rights e.g. problems of safe toys and roaming mobile phone charges tackled. There are challenges to, not least, facing up the growing numbers of refugees arriving in Europe, partly the result of the EU’s actions, and then there’s TTIP. How unregulated do we want to be? I didn’t like the sound of ‘Secret Courts’ at all.
So much to think about! How could you make sense of it? It’s almost like there is a need for someone to put on a course, enabling people to give voice to their doubts and work through their reasons for support, reform or withdrawal. Where could such a course provider be found? I thought of WEA Voices of the past. What stories do they tell us? ‘Here, over here! Me, me! Here!’
The second half of the meeting started and we split into groups. I thought I would go into the ‘Housing’ group but followed my heart and went to ‘Greening the City’ instead. I wonder what do you make of this heading? Greening the city is absolutely vital. I heard on the radio that, in New York, they’re just about to plant the one millionth tree in the city, paid for out of public funds. Not just to beautify the areas, they also have an enormous impact on the public’s mental and physical health and wellbeing, saving money and resources. But there was something about the phrase, I told a friend in the break, that bothered me. ‘The term is meaningful if you’re middle class. They get it. Many live in or near green space already and fight to keep it. But if you don’t have the means, are worried about paying the bills, feeding your family, caring for sick children or an elderly parent, building up debts with Christmas coming, is planting more green space really your number one priority?’
On further reflection, I could appreciate the financial pressures on everyone, regardless of social class, can be significant for those families. And a park or green space is a lung for everyone.
After our discussion, we came up with three key points to feed back:
- Campaigning for ‘learning’ to protect and nurture it, like libraries, sharing information so that education remains available for our grandchildren; just as it was gained for us by the efforts of people now long gone
- Let us become ‘producers’. Grow, mend, make, repair and come together, rather than spend fortunes on objects we don’t have and which we discard too soon; made from the earth’s precious resources we no longer have enough of.
And the third point? Where is our community spirit? Disappearing? Is the flame still lit somewhere through providing decent, affordable housing, amenities, job opportunities, skills training , street parties, guerrilla gardening, urban foraging, closing roads for people and wildlife to breathe. Would this be a world you would like to live in? Hope so.
On the way out, I said to one of the young Greens, as she was leaving, ‘One of my dearest friends is 95 years old. She tells me stories about what life was like for her parents and grandparents as well as the changes she’s seen in her own lifetime. She’s a great teacher. I’ve learned that change happens in waves and cycles. We’ve heard a lot about Power tonight. Right now, this alliance is out of power. The challenge for us is to learn to work together, as if we were in power, because, one day, as my friend’s experience tells us, we will be. And it’s then that we will be truly tested.’