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People’s Assembly: an opportunity to fight for a general strike

The Coalition of Resistance has called a People’s Assembly in June. Already it looks as if it will be big. But, asks Jeremy Dewar, will it unite the movement against austerity in the action we need?

During the three years of cuts and closures, privatisation and poverty the Coalition government has inflicted on the working people of Britain, there has been one constant, popular theme: we need unity in action.

Whether it be the TUC demonstrations against austerity marching through London in 2011 and 2012, the co-ordinated public sector pension strikes, or the spontaneous “Yes we can!” that many thousands shouted when the TUC asked about the “practicalities of a general strike”, workers and activists have seized every opportunity to press for a united fight against the government.

When the Occupy London movement took over the square in front of St Paul’s Cathedral in late 2011, we also saw an outpouring of support and millions inspired by the slogan, “We are the 99%” – another expression of the desire for unity.

What is the People’s Assembly?

This is why the Coalition of Resistance call for a People’s Assembly in London on 22 June has already received large-scale support, which is only likely to grow.

As we go to press, still three months before the event, dozens of big names have signed up to it. Ten union general secretaries will speak, from Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka on the left to Dave Prentis on the right.

Add to them well-known left-wing writers, such as anti-war campaigner Tariq Ali, Owen Jones author of Chavs, filmmaker Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger, which shows that the People’s Assembly has pulling power.

The Labour Left MPs John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and Katy Clark will mount the stage alongside Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, whose conference has agreed to send delegates and to encourage local parties to do likewise.

So much for the celebrities. A wide range of left parties and groups, trade unions and trades councils and student unions are also responding to the call.

The Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star newspaper), Counterfire and Socialist Resistance are behind the event. Unite the Resistance, controlled by the Socialist Workers Party, is tentatively seeking involvement too. Some of the more left-wing student unions, such as SOAS and UEA, plus the month-long occupation at Sussex University, have agreed to send delegates, as have various union bodies and trades councils.

Workers Power supports the calling of the Assembly, hoping that it can become a launch pad for united class-wide action. What we do not need is yet another rally for tub-thumping rhetoric. We believe there is the potential for the People’s Assembly to become a real conference of the anti-cuts movement.

It is good therefore that the model motion produced by the organisers starts from the TUC Congress resolution to bring together “a coalition of resistance taking co-ordinated action where possible with far-reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike”, saying the People’s Assembly was called “in support of the aims of this resolution”.

The model motion then goes on to say the Assembly “aspires to build a movement for social justice and develop a strategy for resistance to mobilise millions of people, through trade unions and local community organisations, against the ConDem government.”

Great! So how do we achieve these objectives – with what methods and tactics? How can we ensure that the union leaders will carry them out?

Obstacles

Our starting point has to be a balance sheet of those used so far by the labour movement’s leaders – particularly the 10 general secretaries attending the Assembly. Collectively they have sat on their hands as the Tories privatise the NHS. After the 30 November 2011 pension strike, where 2.5 million public sector workers struck, they refused to fight, letting the unity fall apart. Dave Prentis led the way, actively sabotaging it, settling within a couple of weeks for the same package of cuts!

There was a real opportunity to build a huge movement against the NHS and Social Care Bill last year, aimed at privatising the health service. Just one rally on the eve of Lansley’s Bill passing through Parliament was all the TUC and the main health service unions could muster, not even a national demo. Meanwhile local activists and health workers, have launched magnificent popular local campaigns to defend healthcare in places like Lewisham and Whittington. The Mid-Yorks NHS workers have waged a militant strike. But they have all been left to fight alone.

The union leaders, left and right, have done nothing over the past three years to build movement that could stop Cameron and Clegg in their tracks. We have to ask what they propose to do now to defend the NHS and public education system, local services and the unemployed, to reverse the freefall in real wages and to take concrete steps towards forcing the TUC to call general strike. We must do more than ask – we should pass clear policies on the 22 June to unite the movement around a strategy to defeat Tory austerity, and demand the leaders back it with action.

We should also be wary of the political perspective of the main initiators of the Assembly. Counterfire is the split from the SWP, led by John Rees and Lindsey German, who along with Andrew Murray from the CPB led the Stop the War Coalition. They led the great 15 February 2003 mobilisation of two million whose tenth anniversary we have just marked.

But then there was no follow through. General secretaries packed the platform then too, and roused the crowds with their oratory. But the organisers put no pressure on them whatsoever to launch a wave of strikes, which could have made the war impossible to wage.

Instead, Murray and German launched a People’s Assembly, which seemed like a great initiative. But when it met – still in time to mobilise actions against the war – no resolutions were allowed, apart from an anodyne declaration from the top table. Workers Power moved an amendment to “build People’s Assemblies in every town and city” in order to coordinate strikes and direct action, and we won 40 per cent of the votes. Indeed without frantic signals from the SWP stewards to their members to vote against, it is likely the amendment would have been passed.

The danger is that this happens again, that the Assembly’s organisers limit its agenda to what is acceptable to the union leaders and MPs.

Fight for a general strike

The People’s Assembly represents the best opportunity we will get this year to launch a united mass anti-cuts movement, and fight for a general strike to stop all the cuts and break the Coalition government.

It’s not too late to stop austerity. The bulk of cuts are still to come, while the Coalition is more fractious and divided than ever. If you hit it hard, driving in a red wedge of class struggle, it will probably splinter. Indeed the reason it’s survived so far is that the union executives have only hit it with coloured balloons – and even then not very often.

What is needed is a mass movement from below to draw together social campaigners and trade union activists to bring solidarity to each others’ struggles and link them together. We can see this happening already around the NHS and fire station closures.

Local Peoples’ Assemblies in every town and city – newly created or emerging from existing campaigns or trades councils – can begin to do this now, in preparation for the national Peoples’ Assembly, and keep going after it. They could draw in delegates from the NHS defence campaigns, the movement against the Bedroom Tax, anti-academies groups, etc., as well as delegates from local union branches and workplaces, aiming to develop powerful councils of actions like those that underpinned the 1926 General Strike.

Without such a united national anti-cuts coalition, the local anti-cuts groups that sprung up in the first couple of years of the Coalition government have stagnated or disappeared. They had no national horizons, coordination and power like the Stop the War Coalition or Anti-Poll Tax Federation provided, which massively boosted the development of local groups.

With the renewed confidence that comes whenever workers feel they are not fighting alone but are part of a much wider movement, there is no reason why local assemblies could not initiate struggles and even strikes themselves. The sparks’ movement and Jerry Hicks’ election campaign both show that the current crisis provides openings for resourceful and determined activists to score real victories.

But we also need a strategy to win, centred on the general strike. An all-out general strike would break the Coalition. We should demand that the 10 general secretaries – who represent over half the trade union movement – name the day for a general strike, and pledge to fight for it in their respective unions and the TUC.

It would be a disaster to tailor what the People’s Assembly discusses and what it resolves to what the general secretaries will agree to on the day (or behind the scenes). That is why the People’s Assembly should set out to build a democratic movement from below that could push the union leaders to organise a general strike – or take control of calling one ourselves if they refuse to.

This is what Workers Power fights for. We don’t underestimate the obstacles. But we also know the price of failure: in an era of economic stagnation, and increased rivalry between the big capitalist blocs it means the destruction of the welfare state, the driving of millions into poverty. Help us campaign for an Assembly that relaunches the resistance, with a strategy that can drive out the Tories and the Lib Dems.

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