Case study: Oxford Save Our Services
Oxford Save Our Services (OxSOS) is a group of Oxfordshire residents campaigning against cuts to public services, write Jim Cranshaw and Stuart White. We are independent of trade unions and political parties. But we participate in the Oxfordshire Anti-Cuts Alliance which brings together trade union and other campaigning groups in the area.
What do we do?
In September we held our first major public meeting on ‘Mapping the Cuts’ where we invited local people to come and share their knowledge about cuts in Oxfordshire. This was a good way to make contact with a range of people and groups in the community, including some of the local advice centres, and to get a better understanding of the situation in our area.
Most of the people who attended said they found out about the meeting from flyers they had been handed (rather than posters). Since then we have made regular leafleting a central activity. We have set up a rota and we make sure that a number of us are out there talking to the public and handing out leaflets every week. We do old-fashioned door-knocking to open up conversations about the cuts. It sounds boring, but we think it is vital if we are to get a public conversation going.
Getting our message out
There are two key messages we aim to get out: that the cuts are not fair and that they are not necessary. In talking with people, we find that the Coalition’s ‘there is no alternative’ message is particularly influential, so it is important to take this message on and to be able to point to the alternatives.
It is also important to take opportunities to publicly contest the Coalition’s message. Our local County Council (Conservative) held a ‘Big Debate’ in September in Oxford. The premise of the meeting was that the cuts have to happen and the only thing to debate is where they should fall. Members of OxSOS attended the meeting and challenged this premise, shifting discussion to whether the whole cuts strategy is justifiable. The Oxford Mail provided excellent coverage of the meeting – and this led to further requests for interviews from local TV and radio.
Testimony, protest … and humour
We believe that testimony has a crucial role to play in getting people to think again about the cuts. When government ministers announce so many millions or billions of pounds have been cut from this or that program it can be hard for us to grasp what this means. We must reveal the human reality underneath the abstract statistics. Testimony from people affected by the cuts helps to do this. OxSOS has an ongoing testimony project to collate people’s stories, collate them on our website and publicise them in the local media.
Our members have supported a number of local protests against the cuts, including a sit-down protest in the local branch of Vodafone (see also here and here for coverage of other local protests). When it comes to protest, and direct action, we think humour is essential. When Nick Clegg followed on the heels of Vince Cable in cancelling an appointment to speak in Oxford, we got together with the Oxford Education Campaign and organised a ‘chicken’-themed protest outside the local Liberal Democrats HQ.
Looking ahead, we aim to develop co-operation with local advice centres. There are five advice centres in Oxford offering residents help with benefits and public service issues. The advice centres face cuts and so do their users. OxSOS will liaise with the centres to:
- Run joint workshops to help inform people (including OxSOS members) of the reforms to the benefits system.
- Run stalls at the centres with letters protesting the cuts that people can sign and send to their MPs and county and city councillors.
- Support the centres to tell the story about how they and their users are being affected by the cuts, helping to get this testimony into the local press.
- To have one member of OxSOS as an ongoing personal link to each advice centre, keeping in regular contact to discuss possible forms of joint action.
We are planning a campaign of visiting county councillors in their surgery hours to explain the impact of the cuts. The BBC would like to film one of these visits.
On the humorous side, we are also planning some anti-cuts Christmas carol-singing events, with appropriately adapted Scrooge-themed carols.
Advice and training
We have several seasoned NGO and grassroots campaigners in our group with a lot of experience of training people in lobbying, meeting faciliation, direct action, and how to talk on the media. We have been offering advice to other anti-cuts groups nationally which do not have all these skills. We’d be happy to help anyone else if they want quick training on any of these issues. Just get in touch.
We will continue to develop our cooperation with the student community and groups like Oxford Education Campaign.
Indeed, we are keen to build bridges with all those who oppose the cuts. At our very first meeting in June, a lone figure sat silently at the back of the hall. He left before we broke up into smaller discussion groups. It was Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. We haven’t seen him since.
If you’re reading this Evan, we’d love to have you – or, indeed, any other members of the Coalition parties – come and join us!
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