The potential of a People’s Assembly
The People’s Assembly against austerity is a fantastic opportunity to build a movement from below, but it can’t be your standard top table affair, says Mark Booth
The call for a People’s Assembly has already received wide support. It is a welcome response to the unending chorus of the necessity of austerity in the media. A conference to coalesce the broad but unorganised opposition to austerity into a social movement that can oppose the government – not just in words but in deeds – is of paramount importance.
A series of union leaders have signed up. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the 1.2 million strong UNITE, Mark Serwotka of the 250,000 strong PCS, Christine Blower of the 300,000 strong NUT, as well as the industrially strong post workers (Billy Hayes and the CWU) and rail workers (Bob Crow and the RMT). Even UNISON, the largest public sector union and one of the least militant of the British trade unions has approached the organisers with a view to supporting the conference.
Keep Our NHS Public, anti-racist campaigns, community organisations, left-wing MPs coupled with a wide range of left-wing activists and artists including Ken Loach, John Pilger, Iain Banks, Josie Long, Arthur Smith, Francesca Martinez and Roy Bailey are committed to the assembly. It brings together the social and cultural opposition to the devastation wreaked on the fabric of Britain by austerity.
There is great potential for the assembly due to this breadth of support. We should seize the opportunity presented by the call to build a stronger and more united movement. As Mark Steel has argued, we should initiate a movement of local people’s assemblies in the run up.
If we organise local assemblies now, they can make all the difference. It will ensure that thousands can be mobilised to the assembly in June, and that the democratic structures are created beforehand to ensure that the movement is accountable and controlled by the millions it has set out to represent. Then, when the People’s Assembly convenes in the summer, it will be as the culmination and unification of a mass movement built to stop austerity, able to mobilise and coordinate action against austerity both locally and nationally. Local assemblies, coordinated through the national People’s Assembly, could give a conscious voice and form to the anger of millions who are daily feeling the pain of austerity.
We have to be clear – we don’t just want another rally. We also don’t want another front run by a left sect. Nor do we just want a forum for the leaders of major unions to shepherd people back into the Labour party whilst they limit our resistance to series of demonstrations. Either this is a genuine assembly which is both democratic and has a plan of action for struggle or it will be another wasted Saturday in London.
The fact is that many of the trade union signatories on the list have been as involved in stifling protests against austerity at the same time as they have been promoting it. This will be particularly so if Unison, the largest public sector union with the worst record of fighting the cuts, come on board. Dave Prentis and the leadership of UNISON were the first to the sign up to the government’s derisory pension offer, with UNISON’s size and bureaucratic muscle being instrumental in demobilising the 2 million strong strike action in December 2011. Len McCluskey, while happy to back UK Uncut actions in words, and call for a general strike from the platform of the “Future that works” march on October 20th, similarly demobilised UNITE’s participation in the pensions dispute, has failed to give a lead in the fight against privatisation of the NHS, or cuts in the private sector where UNITE has the majority of its membership. Neither do left figures, Mark Serwotka in the PCS, Christine Blower and the NUT leadership, have an unblemished record because they are paralysed by their refusal to stick their neck outs and fight alone, without the other unions if necessary.
Focus on the campaigns
There is after all another way the People’s Assembly could have been organised. Instead of going first to the tops of the unions, we could have initiated a people’s assembly with the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, UKUncut, the Friern Barnet Library occupation, the Unite Construction Rank and File, Civil Service Rank and File Network, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, Disabled People Against Cuts and the myriad array of other grassroots anti-cuts groups, would have been a much more diverse and accountable assembly from the beginning, and been less prone to bureaucratism and top down control. With the trade unions funding the People’s Assembly there is a danger that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, even if there is also an opportunity to reach out to many public and private sector workers that still look to the officials for leadership.
Whether the People’s Assembly is a success will not rest on how many people attended or even the content of the declaration at the end of the day. It will depend on whether activists now commit to building local assemblies that function in an open and democratic manner, providing space for debates and discussions to develop strategies, and which can serve as organising and coordinating bodies in their locality, becoming centres of struggle where union branches, community campaigns, unorganised workers and individuals suffering from the effects of austerity can bring their grievances and issues and secure commitments for solidarity and practical action.
Uniting the resistance, launching the fight back
There is an anti-austerity movement in this country but it is fragmented and divided among a myriad of campaigns and grassroots movements and the bureaucracy of the unions. The People’s Assembly can certainly play a role in developing a more united response. We need to create spaces where a strategy can be developed. Spaces that combine local activity aimed at building bases in communities and workplaces need to go alongside a coordinated national campaign against the government attacks. Assemblies must be democratic bodies, where discussion and debate are promoted. Rebuilding the structures of resistance, piecing together the activist networks that have emerged over the last several years of struggles. Anti-cuts groups can either be reinvigorated or incorporated into these new local structures, and the national assembly should draw lessons from the most dynamic. For instance, artists and performers that have put their name to the People’s Assembly could be asked to commit to an anti-austerity tour; a schedule of gigs, organised by local campaigns and assemblies which can provide some cultural resistance to the ideological austerity.
So, to summarise, there are a few things we can do now:
1) Initiate local assemblies against austerity, open to all organisations to participate in, with all campaign groups, union branches and activists having a say in the organising.
2) Anti-Austerity tour – arts, comedy, drama, music against the cuts – get the artistic backers of the People’s Assembly to commit to tour round local assemblies as they are built.
3) A people’s assembly for the NHS, involving local health campaigns, activists from union branches and campaign groups like KONP and the NHS Action Party.
4) Assembly for welfare – for the unemployed, disabled and all those in receipt of benefits.
5) National Days of action on these issues – housing, welfare reform, the NHS, taking inspiration from UK Uncut – choose a date, choose a target, suggest some simple and imaginative direct action which people can do.
6) A trade union assembly of rank and file networks and branches committed to fighting austerity.