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People’s Assembly: one step forward, two steps back

The People’s Assembly against Austerity succeeded in attracting large and enthusiastic crowds to Westminster Central Hall on 22 June. Those attending an event like this, especially those doing so for the first time, will have been inspired by the speeches of campaigners from a wide variety of fronts of resistance exposing the savagery of the cuts – to the NHS, education, welfare and testifying to the misery and degradation these mean for the unemployed, the disabled, women, the very young and the elderly.

The Assembly both in its plenaries and its workshops compiled a damning list of charges against this, the most reactionary government since the late and unlamented Thatcher’s in the 1980s.

The 4000 people gathered in Westminster were participating the largest and most united conference of opposition we have seen during the three years of the ConDem Coalition. Before this whilst there had been several such events but they were fragmented and attached to one or another of the major left groups. None of them really developed a local presence and indeed the anticuts movement at grassroots remained fundamentally “unbranded.” But the price of this was that it was also uncoordinated and reports from across the country suggest that it has been showing signs of stagnation, despite some powerful campaigns like those against the bedroom tax or threatened closure of hospital A&E departments.

Hopefully all those who attended will be inspired to return to their different areas, workplaces and campaigns to organize local peoples’ assemblies which will pull together all the various struggles, mobilise huge numbers for the demonstration in Manchester against the Tory conference on 28 September and the day of direct action on 5 November.

But impressive as it was this was an Assembly only in the literal sense that crowds assembled to hear a series of speakers, not in the sense of being a deliberative body deciding on measures that will have a real effect in switching the points from the present lack of direction that many people plainly feel. Above all it did not address- except tangentially in one or two workshops – the serious misleadership – both trade union and political – from which the movement is suffering. The reason was plain enough: those who organized it were supporters of this present leadership and its direction and were determined that no one should be given a real opportunity to criticise them.

The platform speakers in every session had been carefully chosen by the “organizers” and consisted of a series of spokespersons from national unions, radical journalists and academics and peoples from various national campaigning bodies.

The dominant figures behind this – John Rees and Lindsey German of Counterfire and the Coalition of Resistance and Andrew Murray of the Communist Party of Britain and Unite. Indeed the large banner of the CPB itself and another for its Central Committee were centrally hung in the main hall. Several CPB or CPB front speakers referred to the large free version of the Morning Star parked with union advertisement, as “the official paper of the Peoples Assembly. The big losers were plainly the Socialist Workers Party without whom, only a few years ago; such an event could not have been organized.

The two plenaries open and closing were short (two hours altogether) and absolutely platform dominated. The draft statement put before the closing session – which had eight platform speakers as well – was not open to amendment and was not debated at all. The statement that it can be amended at the next PA in early spring, i.e. nine months hence is utterly cynical, since most of it refers to action to be taken in the next few months.

Pre-selected platform speakers also dominated the “workshops”, meetings 400-600 strong, though with a little bit more floor participation. Scandalous was the fact that the workshop on mobilizing the millions/re-unionising the UK did not have a single rank and file militant on the platform. Yet removed from the published list of speakers but in the audience was building worker militant and Unite member Frank Morris, blacklisted by Crossrail. This again was no council of war to discuss a militant unionisation drive where the experience of the building workers would have been invaluable.

Thus 22 June did not see anything like the promised debate on the strategy and tactics needed for a united movement to go forward and win. A real debate means not just the description of suffering or the expression of the experiences of struggle, however moving or sincere. Nor is it simply the enumeration of the wide variety of possible tactics. A debate on strategy means hearing alternative, even conflicting strategies on how we can save the welfare state.

And the truth is that what the Assembly agreed in its declaration had plainly been agreed by the big union leaders in advance with the addition of the Guy Fawkes Day of direct actions, a concession to UK Uncut and other activists. Given the manifest failure of the current strategy being operated by the trade union leaders – the ironically named “coordinated” days of action – drawing a balance sheet of the disastrous 2011 pensions campaign for example, should have been debated as a matter of urgency. In fact it was barely mentioned if at all.

As for the vital discussion of how to kick out the coalition and how to put in its place a government that would not only stop the destruction of the welfare state but restore it in full and achieve full employment and decent wages and pensions – this was not even considered. That is why the Labour Party and its present leadership were hardly ever mentioned by the main platform speakers. It was plainly why Ken Loach, as the instigator of the petition that has led to the formation of Left Unity was prevented from speaking in the plenaries.

Yet Labour is still “the political wing of the labour movement” and “the party of the trade unions” if the millions it receives from the unions is anything to go by. In the first two years after Ed Milband became leader the unions gave “their party” over £20 million. £7.5 million came from Len McCluskey’s Unite alone. Yet all they have got for it is a relentless march away from pro- union policies. Miliband and Ball are brushing off the union leaders policy suggestions even more rudely than did Blair and Brown.

On the very day the Peoples Assembly was meeting in London in Birmingham Ed Miliband was addressing the National Policy Making Forum, the body which has virtually usurped the Labour Party Conference. What he said was clear and should have been broadcast live in Westminster Hall:

“Nobody here should be under any illusions: the next Labour government will have to plan in 2015 for falling Departmental spending. And our starting point for 2015-16 is that we won’t be able to reverse the cuts in day to day, current spending unless it is fully funded from savings elsewhere or extra revenue, not from more borrowing. So when George Osborne stands up next week and announces his cuts in day to day spending, we won’t be able to promise now to reverse them because we’ve got to be absolutely crystal clear about where the money is coming from.”

Yet this situation was discussed at the People’s Assembly- just as it has been largely suppressed at the union conferences and for the selfsame reason. When a speaker from the floor in the strategy workshop raised the question Andrew Murray’s response was that the Assembly had to be united and therefore could not deal with such matters.

The real truth is that the union leaders and their advisors, the organizers of the PA, dare not face the anger of ordinary workers at Labour’s treachery. Ordinary union members know well that Labour has done next to nothing in parliament when it comes to defending our jobs and services. There can be no doubt after Miliband and Balls recent speeches and the recently published Blue Labour think tank’s report, that that the election manifesto they will draft will be slap in the face for what everyone who was at the People’s Assembly hopes for.

But the organizers and the big union bosses – the stirring orators from Tony Benn to Owen Jones – still persist in their strategy that occasional big protests, once a year at best, small direct actions like setting up food banks in banks, with the addition now of local Peoples Assemblies, run as rallies like the 22 June one, will somehow impose our demands on Labour or at least push them a little to the left.

The CPB, Counterfire, Unite plainly have a wait-for-Labour perspective but meanwhile carry on protesting in the same old way. What they ignore is that the next two years will see a tipping point in the process of the destruction of our health and education system. Indeed undoubtedly Balls and Miliband’s Blue Labour will also have dumped the defence of even greater sections of the welfare state.

The few voices from the floor that made it through the net and said sharply critical things about Labour or the Union leaders were powerfully applauded indicating that this strategy is not popular if only it were to be challenged. The only place where this was done was in the well-attended workshop devoted to the reforms of 1945 and their destruction.

Ken Loach, excluded from the plenaries because he was not allowed to mention his initiative for an new party to challenge Labour, ferociously attacked Blue Labour’s politics to thunderous applause. The same meeting – hundreds strong voted overwhelmingly for a general strike when the chair asked who was in favour of it.

The opportunities arising from the Peoples Assembly lie in what we can do to ensure the local bodies become not just talking shops, but bodies to revive and organise struggles, to push for decisive all-out strike action that alone can save the NHS, the education system, smash the bedroom tax and all the other critical issues facing us.

If we can do this then there needs to be a vigorous and uncompromising fight against the bureaucratic forces and their CPB and Counterfire advisers to break their stranglehold of the next Peoples’ Assembly and turn it into a real council of war. But time is not on our side. The siren calls of an election year will begin to be heard claiming it is too late and it is best to wait for Labour.

The real revolutionary left, the real rank and file militants across the unions need to get their act together and unite their forces. Other wise the unity of the PA could prove the unity of the graveyard.

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