The People’s Assembly on 22 June was a success. Around 4,500 attended and it was an exhilarating breath of fresh air to hear speakers say what was needed to be said, with such telling turns of phrase. If leaders of the Labour Party spoke and said the same things, I would not be worried about taking the fight to the Tories or the outcome of the next general election.
All the main speeches are on the People’s Assembly website. I’ve heard many TUC general secretaries speak, usually with the intention of dampening down expectations but with Francis O’Grady stating that we are in a situation of class war and undertaking to back workers when they take strike action, she came across as the best so far. Len McCluskey gave clear support to coordinated industrial action across unions. Mark Serwotka spelt out the alternative social and economic programme that Ed Miliband should be announcing, instead of the disastrous ‘Tory-lite’ stuff we’ve been hearing of late.
Before the meeting, there was considerable scepticism about its relevance but also some serious analysis such as from James Meadway writing for the New Left Project. Since the meeting, most of the left have recognised its success, Socialist Worker and the Independent Socialist Network both catching the mood, the latter post drawing some political conclusions about Left Unity that are relevant for us in the Labour party. Scepticism remains on parts of the left, however – for example, on the Left Futures and Socialist Unity websites. Commenting on the latter piece, Mark Steel brings his humour to bear, capturing the spirit of the day.
‘Four thousand people packed a hall with a commitment to build a movement against the cuts, the most substantial gathering on this issue since the last election. I encountered dozens of people throughout the day, some in political parties, many of them not, some of them invigorated politically for the first time, many re-invigorated having been part of other movements before.
‘I met dozens of people throughout the day who felt exhilarated by the experience, and have received hundreds of messages since from people displaying an infectious enthusiasm, thrilled that at last there appears to be a genuine national movement against the cuts.
‘So the contribution to this sense of optimism [Mark is ironically commenting on a Socialist Unity position piece that appears on this website] is one that delivers the inspirational message “I fear that like all grand projects of the left, it will dissipate before it meets its potential.”
‘That’s how to build a mass campaign. We address thousands of freshly optimistic people eager to resist the cuts, by telling them that although we didn’t manage to get to much of their meeting, it’s obvious it won’t work. I salute your powers of motivation, Phil BC, you’re like Martin Luther King and Spartacus rolled into one.
This is what the left needs more of, as we’ve got far too many people organising campaigns against the cuts. Only once they all realise that everything we do is doomed will be able to build an effective movement.
‘In the meantime, whoever you are, you’ll carry on with whatever it is you’re organising instead, which appears to be going extremely well, as I doubt anyone has ever heard of it, proving you haven’t made the mistake of getting people to believe they can do anything worthwhile at all.”’
Where does it go from here?
At the end of the 22 June meeting, the draft statement was adopted. It covers a lot of ground. Some of the key points include UK wide action and the building of local groups. Key actions include a UK wide ‘national day of civil disobedience and direct action against austerity’ on 5 November and a national demonstration next spring. Supporting the NHS features in the mobilisation for a demonstration at the Conservative Party conference on 29 September and local demonstrations on 5 July.
Local groups are being established. In Wales, an email list and Facebook page have been set up and local meetings held in Cardiff, West Wales and in Wrexham. We have already held a People’s Assembly / Left Unity meeting in Pontypridd and are planning for another soon. From my experience so far, the People’s Assembly meetings have been a success in terms of bringing together old and new activists and are helping to inspire the development of campaigns against austerity in areas where currently little is happening.
Politically, for the coming months, the key phrase in the statement may very well be the one below, which captures succinctly the tension within the UK left:
“We have a plain and simple goal: to make government abandon its austerity programme. If it will not it must be replaced with one that will.”
Making the government abandon its austerity programme will require a level of coordinated and united action much greater than we have been able to mobilise so far. The strength of the People’s Assembly is that it aims to organise across the UK to say we will not pay for the bankers’ crisis, working toward uniting the trade unions, fightback campaigns, the political left and new activists to bring direct action to bear on the government. As one speaker suggested, ‘we should aim to make Britain ungovernable’. Tony Benn proposed that we should surround ‘the building down the road [Parliament]’ and stay until the Tories left office. This is a big ask: a political leadership prepared to take up this challenge will be required.
Which leads to the second sentence: replacing the current government with one that will not follow austerity policies. At the 22 June conference Owen Jones summed up the purpose of the Assembly as putting the hope back into politics. We are at that stage where the confidence to fight back is as much one of knowing we are justified in resisting and challenging the government as taking action: the stick now needs to be bent toward political leadership.
But where is that political leadership? As Peter Rowlands argued in his recent post on this blog, the Labour leadership has abandoned resisting and offering an alternative to the politics of austerity. Jon Lansman makes a similar point on Left Futures, indicating how this Labour leadership position is undermining the confidence of the Party’s active membership. As both indicate, this will not only lead to tensions within the Labour party but will add to the arguments that a left alternative to Labour needs to be considered.
Unlike Peter, I don’t have the expectation or even hope that the Labour leadership will change its course before the next election. It is also possible to read the trade union speeches at the conference as saying that those leaders do not believe this is going to happen either. It could be that the Labour leadership is even prepared to abandon the trade union connection. (My my, I wrote the last sentence before all hell broke loose on the issue! I’ll still stick by my analysis but here is some debate: Ed Miliband; Owen Jones; Labour List.)
Socialists in the Labour party now face a real crunch point: if not Labour, then what? Do the People’s Assembly and Left Unity offer the prospect of developing that alternative? This debate has been opened up and will rapidly gather pace. We are in a historical period very different from the 1980s: capitalism was then ‘on the up’ and its contradictions had not been exposed by a massive global financial crisis. Even to talk about the system we live under as ‘capitalism’ was difficult. Now a socialist alternative can be meaningfully spelt out, not only by pointing out how capitalism, as a system, has caused this crisis but by arguing directly for radical policies to replace it. Nationalising the banks, for example, has in part happened. An extension of that policy would enable us to have the ability to direct investment towards need by taking it out of the control of ‘casino capitalism’.
Whether we as Labour party members like it or not, we will be increasingly challenged to decide whether we are socialists or Tory-lite ‘One Nation Labour’.