The People’s Assembly: what might ‘building from below’ really mean?
Luke Cooper discusses the potential and pitfalls of this Saturday’s People’s Assembly Against Austerity
The People’s Assembly has resulted in a considerable bout of energetic debate on the British left, ranging from the super-supportive, to the cynically-critical, and those, on the money perhaps, who are supportively critical. But no one is seriously downplaying the size or scope of the event. With over 3,500 people set to converge on Westminster Central Hall it is clearly going to be the biggest ever gathering against austerity in Britain. It would be foolish to not see this as a big step forward in its own right. Bringing together a grand coalition of trade unionists, grassroots campaigners, socialists, Greens, pensioners, disability rights activists, and maybe a fair few regular people who want to turn their anger into action, is a big step forward for the left and shouldn’t be sniffed at.
This is a particular achievement seen in the context of divisions that have blighted the anti-cuts movement since the Tories came to power. Those of you who have not yet experienced the fractured socialist left, will be shocked to hear that campaigners against austerity have had not one, not two, but three competing anti-cuts campaigns, none of which can seriously claim to have a strong, organic relationship to grassroots organisations.
It’s an all too familiar example of the infamous Life of Brian sketch that satirically depicts the infighting of the left. What makes that scene so farcical isn’t that people are arguing. The farce lies in how the myriad of groupuscules all have ostensibly the same ideas. In much the same way there has been barely a rizla paper to separate the competing anti-cuts campaigns politically. The People’s Assembly does create the possibility of unity, but it also poses sharply a question of how to unite in a way that maximises democracy and participation.
To kick off an argument about how to do this doesn’t mean doing yet another Life of Brian rendition. It’s not about ‘splitting’ for no good reason, or having huge rows over nothing, because debate is what the People’s Assembly should be about.
There is no shortage of things to discuss and there have been too many left wing conferences over the years when everyone says the same thing, no one dares disagree with one another, and the audience is left bored. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other constructive critics, here are three things that deserve some critical attention. The last one is the most important – what comes next and how it’s organised to maximise democratic participation – because it’s here that the opportunity to build a really powerful anti-austerity movement might be lost.
First off, there’s the unions. It’s excellent that the People’s Assembly has won the backing of the major public sector unions. They are an essential part of the fight against austerity. But there is no getting round the fact their existing leaderships have failed to deliver the action we need to start to the turn the tide on austerity.
When millions went on strike in November 2011 it testified to the enduring power of organised labour. But hopes that this might be a new dawn for workplace radicalism were soon dashed. The strikes were called off. And many of the union leaders who will grace the platforms of the People’s Assembly were central to delivering a rotten pension deal when there was still all to play for. The People’s Assembly will have failed the very people it is seeking to represent, if it doesn’t provide a platform for trade unionists that feel let down by leaders whose pay packets far exceed those of ordinary members and who, for this reason, don’t feel the pain of austerity.
Unison, as the biggest public sector union, has big questions to answer. Not only did it lead the retreat from the pensions fight, but, worse still, its leadership have for many years witch hunted activists out of the union on trumped up charges, with bullying, intimidation and bureaucratic measures becoming the norm. It’s a classic example of an entrenched bureaucracy not wanting an activist union and doing everything in their power to keep the membership atomised and passive.
And this at a time when the Tories are on the offensive. As Labour MP John McDonnell has put it in admirably undiplomatic terms:
“… In order for free market policies to flourish, for wages to be held back, for privatisation to continue unopposed and for workers to be made to pay for the crisis in the economy then it is equally necessary for the organisations of the workers, our parties, our trade unions, to be made impotent. One way to do that is to clear out fighters and militants. That is what this is. Unison’s leadership are doing the bosses a favour.”
It is little wonder that many Unison activists find their blood boiling when their leaders talk the talk, as they no doubt will at the People’s Assembly, only to the very next day carrying on doing nothing to fight back. It’s right that the unions are involved, but there needs to be be a voice for the grassroots in the hall too.
Secondly, the major union leaderships all have a strategy: to do everything in their power to ensure Labour wins the next election. If Labour were presenting a powerful and coherent alternative to austerity, this strategy might well look appealing. But what if – as is obviously the case – Labour have no intention of turning back the cuts and, in a stream of recent announcements, have even expressed their commitment to many of the Tory spending and welfare policies.
It’s tempting to see recent policy announcements on welfare as falling into line with Tony Blair, who back in April took a swipe at Miliband’s leadership and warned against Labour becoming a ‘party of protest’. But these announcements have been long prepared for. Labour are happy to vote against the government today, but everyday make it crystal clear they stand for austerity-lite tomorrow.
These facts pose big questions to all of us who want to see a real alternative to austerity. And its one recognised by many Labour Party supporters of the People’s Assembly. Independent columnist Owen Jones, who has gone up and down the country rallying support for Saturday’s meeting, is the first to admit that Labour has offered no alternative. He sees the Assembly as ‘giving Labour some real competition’ because ‘finally, the left is entering the ring’. Jones might sound convincing, but think it through for a moment and the logic starts to unravel.
The People’s Assembly might, hopefully, become a powerful social movement (more on which in a moment). But the Labour Party has long been unresponsive to those – remember the Iraq War when millions marched to say no to Bush and Blair’s crusade? Despite funding the party to the tune of millions, even the unions have no say over policy. But Labour is not entirely immune from pressure. Ultimately it is accountable to a working class electorate that it arrogantly takes for granted. What would start to shift Miliband and co is a party to the left of Labour eating away at their electoral support: a party doing the same to Labour as UKIP is doing to the Tories.
A debate has to take place at the assembly about Labour and the possibility of alternatives. Its one the unions aren’t keen on because it challenges the very heart of their strategy: to sit on their hands, wait for 2015 and hope for a Labour return. To go away from the Assembly having not talked about Labour, and having not had the opportunity to subject its leadership to trenchant criticism for not putting up an alternative, would be a terrible waste. This is especially so when an exciting call has been put out by filmmaker Ken Loach for a new party of the left, one that has already been signed by over 8,000 people. So, Labour has to be at the centre of the discussion. Loach, who is speaking at the Assembly, can use the platform to inspire a debate on a political alternative to the pro-austerity parties. There is far too much at stake for it to be otherwise.
Finally, there is the democratic deficit in how the People’s Assembly is organised that others have highlighted. A statement will be put to the Assembly that neatly side steps the first two big issues – Labour and the union leaders – and can’t be amended by conference participants.
This might seem reasonable. After all, with over 3,500 people set to turn out what if they all wanted to amend the statement? Chaos would indeed ensue.
But it’s not as simple as that. Imagine if the local people’s assemblies that took place all over the country had discussed the statement. Imagine too if they had been able to submit amendments that could then have been composited into the main debating points. Even then perhaps not all of them could have been taken but the most popular amendments could then have been put to a vote. The base at the bottom would have then had a genuine say about the outcome at the top.
Unfortunately, this isn’t set to happen – the statement will only be amendable by local people’s assemblies in the run up to a conference in… 2014. Not only that but it doesn’t appear that the organising group will be elected at the conference either. Despite the many workshops on excellent subjects – a refreshing difference from the day-long-rally-conference – the People’s Assembly risks being a top-down affair, when the movement we need has to be a bottom-up one.
This is intended as an entirely constructive criticism. Because at the very least it’s worth reflecting upon how this new People’s Assembly Movement – which I certainly hope is here to stay – can be organised democratically after Saturday.
A big problem with how the left in Britain does things can be summarised as ‘the cult of the next big thing’. The huge spectacle of the grand conference. The next major protest and demonstration. It is all too easy for activists on the left to jump from one thing to the next without laying down proper roots in communities.
If the People’s Assembly is to play the role that Owen Jones clearly wants it to play – a mass social movement, rooted in localities and built from the bottom up, promoting an alternative to austerity – then it needs to develop a democratic structure that grassroots groups can relate to.
There is no great mystery in how this might be organised. If the wide variety of local and national campaign groups and unions that will all be there on Saturday are able to affiliate to a People’s Assembly Movement, then they can send delegates to a conference to represent their views. The organising group can be elected by and accountable to this delegate conference. Delegation sizes can be suitably weighted from different organisations to make it appropriately democratic. Local People’s Assemblies can be convened to channel proposals into the next huge conference – which should should aim to be 10,000 strong. The People’s Assembly, with this structure, would soon be transformed from a meeting into a real movement.
It’s good that ‘building from below’ is becoming a new mantra on the left. It’s a sign of a cultural change in thinking we are only slowly coming to terms with. But it’s equally important that we start to take it more seriously. That we don’t just let it become a phrase divorced of all meaning. If the People’s Assembly kicks off a debate on what ‘building from below’ looks like in practice – as material prescriptions, and not just vague aspirations, then that will be really welcome. The People’s Assembly is already a success as a conference. The question is what comes next?