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Counterpower - against poverty in Edinburgh

When Fred Goodwin’s house was vandalised on 25 March, the media portrayed this action against the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland as political opposition to the financial crisis. The Telegraph claimed that anti-G20 activists had responded “gleefully” to the news of windows being broken at Sir Fred’s £3 million home.

What failed to get onto the news channels was the authentic and coordinated activity of an Edinburgh campaign that has adopted an assertive approach to combating the economic downturn.

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP) was founded by unemployed and low-income workers. They co-run weekly benefits and debt advice sessions with Edinburgh Claimants at the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh (ACE). Over the last six months they have increased their solidarity work with people experiencing poverty.

ECAP were partly inspired by Ontario Coalition Against Poverty who have been doing what they call direct action casework for a good number of years. ECAP now have around 50 people on their solidarity phone tree, all pledged to turn up if they can to support any individuals or families facing serious problems and who need direct solidarity. Mike from ECAP gave the example of ongoing solidarity with people who are in Council Tax arrears.

Threats

“Two families came to us who had been threatened with bankruptcy for Council Tax arrears. We took up their cases, and discovered that the City of Edinburgh Council had adopted a new policy of selecting thousands of people in arrears and demanding they pay up all that they owed within a year. This included people who were already paying off their arrears on agreed repayment plans.

“The Council were making impossible demands on these people, in some cases insisting they pay off thousands of pounds within the 12 months. And this is a council run by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats - both of whom claim they want to abolish the Council Tax because it is unfair!

“Nearly 20 of us accompanied one of the families to the surgery of the leader of the Council SNP group, Steve Cardownie. He was flabbergasted at so many people turning up to back up one family, and despite having previously refused to meet them, agreed that he would back their case and that they should be allowed to continue their existing repayment plan.

“We still had a lot of battling to do, but eventually the Council did agree to this. This was a great relief to the family who included two young children and were facing losing their home. We had a similar satisfactory outcome to the other case, and I am sure our actions in turning up in numbers at the surgeries and council meetings was the major factor in the Council deciding to give way.”

ECAP have also organised actions to highlight the Council’s stance on Council Tax arrears. They disrupted the Council’s finance committee in November, and besieged the City Chambers in February (police manhandled them out of the building and prevented entry to the public gallery).

Job Centre Plus?
In common with the rest of the UK, Job Centres in Scotland are now signing on increased number of claimants. Mike described ECAP’s strategy of establishing a consistent presence at High Riggs Job Centre in Edinburgh:

“The idea is that through regularly leafleting and holding stalls there, we will build up a picture of the main grievances the claimants signing on and attending there have. And we will learn who the managers are, and if any particular officials are being heavy-handed.”

Standing up for ourselves

“Our aim is to encourage people to stand up for themselves, to know that they can take someone with them to a problematic interview, and of course we hope some people will join our solidarity phone tree.

“In short we hope to encourage a culture of resistance, with the medium term aim being that this will actually change the balance of power within the everyday working of the job centre, and that the management and officials will be wary of, for example, cutting someone’s benefits, because they realise this could provoke ‘trouble’ for them. In other words, our aim is to develop a situation of ‘counter power’.”

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, c/o ACE: 0131 557 6242. Email: ecap@lists.riseup.net