Conference 2014 section of the Counterfire website.
Newcastle Counterfire had a busy 2013 and grew in the course of it. The group is centred in Newcastle, although members live in a wider area than this (most are in the Tyne and Wear metropolitan area, with 1 in Teesside and 1 in Northumberland). In total we currently have 13 members, including 7 who joined in 2013.
We started in February 2010 with a small group of 4 founder members, all of whom are still members today. Growth had been very slow and faltering: a number of people joined in our first 3 years, but most never became integrated into the organisation. This last year, however, has seen us take a definite leap forward - we now have a group that is quantitatively and qualitatively different to what we began with a few years ago.
Motors of growth
Two factors are responsible for the recent growth. One is the tremendous success of the People's Assembly in north-east England, which as well as being vitally important on its own terms has also provided a larger audience for Counterfire.
The second factor is the success of a number of Counterfire public meetings: new members, and indeed a layer of non-members close to us, have been attracted by our politics as well as our activism. Our ideas, our ability to explain the world around us, have been crucial.
Significantly, every single person who has joined in the last year - in fact almost everyone who has ever joined in this area - did so immediately after attending a Counterfire public meeting. In a couple of cases it was their first Counterfire meeting, but in most cases they had attended a number of such meetings before joining. This indicates the importance of nurturing political relationships.
All of these newer members, without exception, have encountered Counterfire through our movement activity. Most have met us specifically through local People's Assembly activity. It is clear that the People's Assembly provides the main context for the growth of Counterfire, but it is equally clear that being well-respected activists is not in itself enough. Ideas matter. Local Counterfire meetings, with a political focus, are the key.
A particular strength here is that several newer members have already been active in the broader movement. This means that our local group has not just seen a growth in members, but more importantly in active members. These are active members who already have some experience in the movement.
For sake of clarity, it should be stressed that we have not adopted a two-stages approach, i.e. building People's Assembly and then focusing on Counterfire. At no point have we chosen between temporarily focusing on the People's Assembly or Counterfire, however hard it may have been to successfully sustain both. A consistently twin-track approach has been essential.
North East People's Assembly
The People's Assembly, as indicated, has been (and continues to be) a considerable success in north-east England, especially in the Newcastle area. It is widely recognised that, while North East People's Assembly is a genuine coalition, it wouldn't have happened without the vital initiating role played by our members - and indeed we continue to be centrally involved.
The People's Assembly has constituted a decisive shifting of gears for the anti-cuts movement here. This is an on-going process, but the turning point was the big all-day regional event, backed by a range of campaigns and unions, attended by an astonishing 500 people, in Newcastle in September. A key lesson is surely the central importance of a major - and very ambitious - unifying event as a platform for building a local/regional People's Assembly in the long term.
The success of that landmark event - the most important event initiated by the left in Newcastle for many years - can be measured in various ways, and it will ripple outwards for a long time yet. One key measure is the establishing of several local groups, e.g. South Tyneside, Teesside, Sunderland, in the wake of it. This is getting the People's Assembly more rooted and involving wider layers of supporters. We have also played an especially influential role in strengthening trade union participation in North East People's Assembly, and developing good political relationships with a number of unions.
One reason for the People's Assembly's success here is that we built on the existing foundations of an effective local Coalition of Resistance group, which we established in August 2010 (although the People's Assembly has proved bigger and broader). Recent success has therefore been aided by the development of long-term political relationships. It is closely linked to having a strategic focus over a long period, not flitting between different campaigns and activities. It rests upon a commitment to united-front-as-strategy.
It should also be noted that a number of Counterfire members have been centrally involved in Newcastle Stop the War. The group's successes include a local emergency protest over Syria in August, and more recently a public meeting attended by 60 people. Our commitment to Stop the War reflects a broader political perspective on imperialism and war in the current period.
Counterfire meetings have been organised, therefore, in the context of our members - including newer members - playing a major part in the building of broader movements, above all the People's Assembly. These meetings have included book launches by Lindsey German, Neil Faulkner and Kate Connelly. Those three events all had a historical focus, though with an eye for contemporary lessons, but we have also held public meetings on important current political topics. We also held a theoretical day school in Newcastle, which focused on key texts by Lenin and Luxemburg and their relevance for today.
There have also been meetings which have combined political discussion with more practical issues - not just planning future events, but discussing our experiences, strategy and tactics in the anti-cuts and anti-war movements. These meetings have been crucial for developing and sustaining a local group, involving newer members and ensuring we have a coherent approach to what we are doing in the movements and in some members' trade union work.
The way ahead
In 2014 we aim to continue building the People's Assembly, in relation both to priority national initiatives like the conference in March and national demo in June and to local developments in fighting the cuts. We will also help sustain Newcastle Stop the War and ensure it plays an active part in opposing imperialism this year.
Above all, we will focus consistently on organising and building attractive Counterfire meetings which can open up space for much-needed political discussion - and, in the process, hopefully recruit new members and build a bigger group while supporting the political development of all members.