Report on the CAHWT National Conference, 19 May

The following is my report on the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes  National Conference, 19 May at Red Cow Inn in Dublin, given to the June meeting of the Cobh local group of the campaign (as I wasn’t an elected delegate, as no-one was, these are more in the nature of personal notes than a report as such)

Attendance: 257 registrations with perhaps a few more who didn’t register and just under 40 from Cork.

The conference was split into three 2-hour sessions – Policy; Strategy & Tactics; and Structure – with 78 motions in total.

The vast number of motions meant that amendments were not allowed due to lack of time. Most motions were won or lost by clear majorities with only a few requiring a tally vote (all of those that did are indicated in this report).

A large number of the Policy motions were non-controversial and were voted on after only a short 2 or 3 minute introduction. There was no real debate until the motions on campaigning for a No vote in the treaty referendum came to be voted on. However despite a small minority, centred on the Workers Solidarity Movement, arguing for taking no position on the vote they were all passed – with the exception of one calling for a national demonstration being referred back to the national steering committee. This included passing a motion calling on ICTU to organise a general strike on 25 May – this was the closest vote in this session going to a count, 117 to 96. It should be noted that the passing of this motion led to absolutely no action to try to make it happen as far as I am aware.

I voted against the general strike motion and also all those motions that were for the campaign to take a definitive “Vote No” position as compared to those just advising or encouraging people to vote No, which I voted in favour of.

Then there were some motions that in my opinion were actually more substantive than the ones on the treaty referendum, which will be over in less than 2 weeks, but actually saw less discussion as the session was running out of time. These were motions calling on the campaign to transform itself into a general anti-austerity campaign.

I voted for the first which called for seeking to work with other anti-austerity campaigns but against the one that called for “the CAHWT to expand into a wider Anti-Austerity Campaign and to draft a charter of objectives as such.” This passed 111 to 81. A motion to change the name of the campaign to National Action Group was defeated.

I think this is a major development, the consequences of which could be quite damaging as we get bogged down in debating what should be in that “charter of objectives” and energy being dissipated into trying to fight on too many fronts. My opinion is that an organisation with a “charter of objectives” to fight against all austerity is actually a party and the strength of the CAHWT is that it is broader than that. But we will see.

The second session on Strategy & Tactics quickly moved into contentious areas with motions on finance and legal issues.

A few motions calling for a legal defence/support fund to be set up were passed but one arguing for an exact proportion of 20% to be ring-fenced for this purpose was lost 75 to 139 (I voted for this). Curiously one motion for sending all funds raised from membership sales to the centre was defeated while another one calling for the same thing with slightly different words was passed 103 to 98. The very next motion which included local (I think it means regional) groups having a local defence fund was passed. So more than a bit of confusion on the issue of the legal fund.

During this bit of the conference there was a lot of discussion about whether the campaign could be expected to provide legal defence to everyone with most speakers saying no it couldn’t but then a motion was later passed which included an aim of the campaign being to provide “legal defence of anyone prosecuted in connection with supporting the campaign aims”.

Then there were some motions on protests and stewarding which saw a bit of heat generated over whether, and if so how, parts of demonstrations could be allowed to take more militant actions than the previously agreed basis of the demonstration, with a lot of references, both positive and negative, to the demonstration break-away at the LP protest in Galway. One of these motions went to a tally vote because it called for liaising with other groups including coming up with joint plans that wouldn’t alienate them. This passed 109 to 71 with all the other motions of demonstrations passing by clear majority.

Motions calling for a major demonstration at the Dáil before the summer break were passed. As were motions calling for pickets of FG/LP TD’s clinics and more direct action in general.

A motion calling for a national non-payment of mortgages in response to anyone being taken to court was referred back to the steering committee.

Then we got to the final session on structures which saw a lot of debate over the motions for a delegate structure and how that would work. Both our motions from Cobh were passed but another one very similar about setting up a delegate structure was lost 74 to 84 (I voted for this). I didn’t really understand why this had been voted against at the time but speaking to a Socialist Party member afterwards it appears it was because the motion included reference to delegates being mandated by their local groups, although none of the SP members who spoke in the discussion mentioned this.

A motion from the SP calling for the national steering committee (NSC) to be made up of 5 delegates from every county, except 10 from Cork and Dublin to have 5 for each constituency, was passed. I voted against this, and also spoke against it, as it will mean a NSC of 190 if all the delegate positions were filled which is just too big to be workable. I think that in reality this will mean that there will be a small executive/officers committee (perhaps a dozen of the key full-time activists) which will effectively make all the decisions with a NSC relegated to a rubber stamp because of its unwieldy size.

The passing of the SP motion meant that the next motion, which called for delegates to be decided on the basis of the number of activists in the local and regional groups, was lost without a vote as it would have contradicted the previous motion which had been passed. This hadn’t been properly explained by the chair and it caused a bit of a stir for a time but it went ahead anyway.

A motion for a 6-person “Interim Decisions Committee” was referred back as being too small a number but a good idea otherwise; numbers of a dozen to 15 were suggested as possible alternatives.

A motion for yearly delegated national conferences that included a proposal that these conferences elect national officers was referred back.

A motion that national conferences should have voting rights restricted solely to delegates was passed.

A motion for a special conference before 30 June to elect the new national steering committee was lost.

A motion that delegates to national conference should have “party political members and established activists” restricted to not more than 40% of any regional group’s allocation of delegates was lost.

A motion for democratic county-wide structures was passed, including that regional delegates should reflect the democratic decisions of their region at the national steering committee meetings. A motion arguing that regions could have any structure they wanted was lost.

Two motions calling for building local groups wherever possible and that they be open to all non-payers were passed.

A motion that members of local groups have to live in the local area was lost.

A motion that members of the campaign can only be voting members of one local group was passed.

A motion that all local groups must have fortnightly meetings was lost.

A very long and detailed motion outlining a template for standing orders for regional meetings was referred back.

A variety of motions to improve the campaign’s public web site were passed, while a motion on creating a members-only private web site for all activists was referred back.

A motion that campaign publications should have some parts in the Irish language was passed. Anne spoke to this suggesting that we should think of also having some material in Polish.

A motion to produce a badge with a campaign emblem to be sold to members and supporters was passed.

And that was the end of a very long day.

Overall it wasn’t as bad as I had feared with the framework for a national democratic structure being agreed to. However the proposal for a 190 strong national steering committee is a big problem in my opinion. A body that size is simply unworkable and what will happen is that the smaller 12-15 officer executive body will effectively make all the real decisions. What appears on the surface to be more democratic and inclusive, and that is how it was sold, will actually more likely have the opposite effect of concentrating real decision making power in the hands of a very small group.

Another, and bigger, worry for me is the decision to turn the campaign into an organisation with a “charter of objectives” to fight against all austerity – this is actually what a political party is for and it is a big mistake to mix up the political framework of campaigns like this one and the framework of political parties. The great strength of this campaign is that it unites people from across the political spectrum, long-time political activists and people new to the struggle, supporters of every political party and supporters of none. Trying to come up with a “charter of objectives” against all austerity is a recipe for excluding people who don’t agree with some elements of that charter. I personally believe that building an organisation of working people with a programme of genuine opposition to all the attacks of the bosses and their government is a very important project and I think that the United Left Alliance is the best, if far from perfect, option for doing that at the moment – but trying to simply transform this broad-based campaign into such an organisation runs the great danger of destroying everything we have built so far.

It is likely that a big issue within the campaign in the immediate short-term will be about setting up a legal support fund. This currently doesn’t exist and the motion passed to set one up is quite vague about the detail on important questions such as what proportion of total funds should be in it and what proportion should be held nationally and what proportion regionally.

Official list of motions passed by the conference (Word document)
Official list of motions referred back to the national steering committee (Word document)


2 Responses to “Report on the CAHWT National Conference, 19 May”

  1. 1 Mark P
    June 15, 2012 at 17:24

    I couldn’t be at the conference, but some of your comments here have the ring of truth, in particular the part about contradictory motions being passed.

    It is a sign of the health and vigour of the movement against water and household taxes that local groups submitted so many motions, but I suspect that nobody was expecting there to be so many and so certain practical measures for dealing with a flood of partially overlapping, partially contradictory motions weren’t implemented. Having a multiple day conference for a campaign group usually isn’t practicable (it would essentially exclude people from outside Dublin), so there needs to be a process for compositing similar motions and a clear understanding, outlined in advance, of which motions contradict which others and therefore which motions automatically fall if another is passed. The main result of failing to do this is that there isn’t a clear mandate for either of the passed but contradictory motions, so passing them becomes a kind of vague affirmation rather than a statement of intent.

    There’s also a minor problem of a couple of motions being rather vaguely worded. The SWP-inspired motion on collaborating with other groups, for instance, was probably intended by them to mean collaboration with whatever front the SWP is operating as that week but was probably understood by others to mean collaboration with actual single issue campaign groups.

    Overall though, the conference seems to have been a positive and useful event. This is likely to be a long struggle, so hopefully some organisational lessons will have been learnt for next year.

    • June 15, 2012 at 17:31

      It is pretty clear that more time should have been given for the process of submitting motions. Not only so that they could have been collated and merged, contradictory ones made clear etc but also that they could have been sent back out to allow for amendments. We really need to beginning the motion process a good few months before the conference.

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