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What’s the point of the Radical Assembly?

By Jeremy Dewar

15 June, 2015

The third Radical Left Assembly met on Sunday 14 June in Peckham where it adopted a set of ‘principles’ and constituted itself as the Radical Assembly, based on regional constituent groups who send delegates to a meeting that will organise regular assemblies.

While the organisers’ enthusiasm and commitment to overcoming the divisions that beset our movement cannot be doubted, the third assembly repeated the failures of the previous two.

Instead of enabling 1000 people to propose ways to strengthen the existing anti-cuts movement, the organisers focused on interminable debates aimed at setting up another ‘movement’, ostensibly more radical than the others.

About 150 attended, though only half stayed for the session after the break when voting took place. Many present were veterans of the 2010 student movement that shook the coalition with militant protest and occupations; others were young people alarmed by the prospect of a Tory majority government and attracted by the promise of something ‘different’ to the top-down and bureaucratic People’s Assembly.

Speed debating

The Radical Assembly’s answer to platform speeches and stage-managed debates from the floor, ‘speed debating’ breaks participants into small groups to debate prearranged questions for a few minutes. Reports of varying accuracy and utility are then fed back in plenary.

The questions selected for debate were:
·      What do you want the Radical Left Assembly to be?
·      How do we promote inclusivity and conduct sessions?
·      On what principles should we proceed? (Effectively a debate on amending the “Principles” document)

The first session produced enthusiastic debates around the strategic aims of the new umbrella group with a wide range of useful suggestions and, as you would expect, a few whacky ones. Workers Power and Lambeth Left Unity supporters stressed the need to draw in representatives of all the campaigns and organisations, housing estates and workplaces, provide solidarity to struggles and act as a counterweight to the labour movement officials.

The second session was less successful. Clearly the notion of ‘inclusivity’ is contested. Does it mean granting rights of veto on issues affecting socially oppressed groups? Does it mean ensuring gender balance in speakers? Does it mean not having five hour meetings? Many of the contributions were phrased in the terminology of intersectionality and used a political lexicon that will have been far from accessible to ‘ordinary’ people, whatever the good intentions behind it.

Like the first session, this ended inconclusively. While this method can work well in certain settings, the nature of speed debates works against collective discussion and concrete decisions.

Principles

Three and a half hours after the meeting started, we finally got down to voting on amendments to the Principles. As you would expect, this was a long and muddled process with many proposals flying in, most made up on the wing. Most proved – in the end – uncontroversial, but there was an interesting and illuminating, if truncated debate on democracy.

The proposal from the organisers to aim for consensus where possible but accept majority vote where necessary was clearly going to be controversial. To be fair, the chair allowed everyone who wanted to speak do so, even to the point where votes could be overturned and recalled on the basis of an individual objection.

The majority vote was immediately challenged by people who said either that majority voting would mean the views of oppressed groups were not fairly represented, or that ‘majority+1’ equated to tyranny of the majority. A proposal to accept a threshold of “70 to 80 per cent” was passed by considerably less than that waving their hands in the air (“temperature checking”).

This was as bad as – or worse – than the Tories’ proposed (anti-)trade union bill. At this point I interjected, “What’s wrong with 51 per cent? Why are you trying to stymie action by the majority?” to some applause. The next gambit of the libertarians was to insist on the phrase “direct democracy”, borrowed from the anarchists, who have used it for at least 150 years in counterposition to delegate or representative democracy.

Direct democracy means refusing to elect delegates or reps to speak on behalf of the constituency but demanding everyone attends every meeting to vote. It is utopian, the more so the larger the movement. The Russian revolution solved the problem by insisting that delegates were instantly recallable by their constituents.

Most people in the room, however, were by now completely confused and asking to know what the difference was. Unhelpful demagogy – for example, “We live in a formal democracy with Parliament, but we want real democracy and that’s what direct democracy means” – helped push the amendment through.

The whole debate about whether the Radical Assembly should be a ‘democratic movement’ or a ‘movement which uses democratic methods to make decisions’ was totally academic since the Assembly doesn’t have a constitution that defines how its democracy functions. Nevertheless, in conformity with the laws of ‘inclusivity’ it was felt necessary to debate the finer points of the distinction for far too long.

In the end we ended up with the tyranny of structurelessness; very few votes achieved anything like an ‘overwhelming majority’, with a large number of abstentions reflecting the disorganised process. Votes against were only taken after several principles had been adopted.

But then, right on cue, reality popped up at the end of the meeting to burst this utopian bubble. On the proposal of the organisers, the assembly agreed to form a steering committee made up of delegates from the local groups. QED.

Where next?

The Radical Assembly has some important strengths. It is overwhelmingly young and dynamic, but as yet it is not a movement in the way that the People’s Assembly is, and unless it changes the way it organises then it will continue to exist only in ever-decreasing circles of isolated activists.

The reports from multi-borough district groups and “shout-outs” for campaigns and events revealed on the one hand that the participants are active in a wide range of ongoing struggles, from housing and welfare benefits to fuel poverty and college strikes against cuts, but on the other that most of the groups, apart from East London, had not yet got off the ground. A movement is clearly possible, but has not yet come together as such.

However, there are weaknesses. The Principles do not mention the working class movement or the rest of the anti-cuts organisations. Workers Power’s amendment proposed unity of all those fighting to release the bureaucratic stranglehold over the movement; significantly this was not taken, as it “introduced a new point”. It might have been a new point but it is probably more significant and meaningful than the ‘principle’ adopted that says the Radical Assembly is “A movement that unites communities engaged in many issues which are connected”.

In short, there are two dangers: one, that the Radical Assembly declares itself the centre of a movement, but that movement does not really exist or, to the extent that it does exist, does not see itself as part of the Radical Assembly. Like the Podemos leadership in Spain, who were referenced more than once, the Radical Assembly leaders could try to impose their framework on a movement that has neither recovered from the defeats of 2010-15 nor regenerated itself on the streets.

The second danger, following on from this, is that we could be witnessing yet another centre of the anti-austerity struggle to compete (or peacefully co-exist) alongside the People’s Assembly, Unite the Resistance, National Shop Stewards Network, Occupy, UK Uncut, etc. That we don’t need. Unity in action must be our watchword.

The creation of another pole of resistance will contribute to the further fragmentation of our movement – just as the disgraceful attacks by John Rees and Counterfire leaders on activists following the Daily Mail witch-hunt will encourage people to reject wholesale the People’s Assembly and its leadership.

Finally the abandonment of the ‘left’ from the name points to another contradiction. The original ‘principles’ proposed that it would be a movement based on ‘broad anticapitalist’ aims; it is now a movement against ‘the system’. Such confused vacillating between liberal radicalism and libertarian anticapitalism, will confuse not clarify activists looking for a way to organise a revolutionary alternative to capitalism. As it stands the movement falls between two stools – it is neither an anticuts movement nor an anticapitalist organisation.

Where the Radical Assembly attracts large numbers and initiates good actions, then socialists should join in – always agitating within it for a working class orientation and unity with other forces, even those to the right initially. Why? Because without the numbers we can’t bring down the government and without united action we can’t win over the majority.

To sum up we don’t need a proliferation of different anti-cuts organisations, each with a unique selling point, we need one united federation, within which socialists, radicals and anticaptialists can organise amongst the greatest number of people to offer a different strategy for the movement from the dead-end routes promoted by the reformist trade union leaders and their centrist hangers-on.

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