If anyone has made a film about a delegate’s day at the People’s Assembly it probably starts with her listening to the day’s early morning news bulletin. In it Labour committed itself to just as much austerity as the Tories. “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” bragged Ed Miliband. That rather helpfully set the political context for a gathering of 4000 activists and campaigners in London on June 22nd writes Liam Mac Uaid.
The initiative was a massive success. It was the largest gathering of trade unionists, representatives of community organisations and people from the whole spectrum of society which is looking for an alternative to cuts, poverty and social misery. Everyone who was there seemed enthused both by the size of the gathering, the level of discussion and commitments to further activity. Overhanging the event was also the question of political representation, a topic addressed by both Ken Loach and PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.
Writer and Labour Party member, Owen Jones, set the scene in the opening session by outlining the impact of austerity and the government’s success in redirecting anger away from the bankers to the poorest people in society. He offered an alternative programme, which was echoed in various forms through the day, of home and infrastructure building; paying a living wage to all workers; democratic public control of the banks and clamping down on rich tax dodgers. Like many speakers he refused to limit campaigning activity to lobbying politicians to be kinder and offered the example of the Chartists, Suffragettes and anti Poll Tax movement as examples of British working class traditions which should be reasserted.
Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, was well received. Whatever we make of her claim that she’s proud to be leading a movement that’s fighting austerity, she said that the Bullingdon Club Tory millionaires are waging class war. Using a line that would have reminded some listeners of Arthur Scargill she said that “we will fight as hard for our people as they do for theirs” and went on to pledge support for any group of workers who vote to strike.
The first person of the day to bring up the question of political organisation was Mark Steel. Noting that the left has a habit of making itself unattractive to outsiders, he observed that it would be a much more powerful force if it collaborated more and stopped finding fairly second order questions over which to fall out. You can see the video here.
It’s impossible to do justice to the range of workshops in a short account and readers are invited to add their observations in the comments section.
An estimated 500 people attended the session on climate change. This is encouraging. The rising movement around climate change was hit hard when people’s attention shifted to the impact of the cuts and resisting austerity. Our movement has to insist that its alternative vision of society has to have an ecological heart and the high level of engagement with the discussion at the People’s Assembly suggests that this is something that is being reasserted.
In the workshop on local government Barbara Jacobson of the Barnet Alliance for Public Services described an exemplary local campaign against that council’s project to outsource virtually everything it does to Capita. The campaigners have made films; organised protests; run meetings and discussions and put the whole process under a level of scrutiny that has frightened the Tories. Theirs is an experience many others can learn from.
Ken Loach was perhaps thought to be the bearer of a message too uncomfortable for a slot in the closing plenary. He used some of his time in a workshop on defending the Welfare State to tackle the question that an anti-austerity conference inevitably raises. Since all three big parties are committed to virtually identical programmes, what sort of political representation is there for people who want something else? His view is that Left Unity, or something very much like it, has to meet that need. It would have been wrong to make the question of political organisation a theme of the day at such an event but Ed Balls and Ed Miliband forced it into the discussion. You can see the video here.
One disappointing aspect of the day was the total absence of child care provision. A labour movement conference, at which participants were often reminded that women and carers are being hardest hit by austerity, has a duty to set a positive example. Finding the resources for a crèche should be as much of a political priority as the gender balance of speakers and the representation of diverse viewpoints and experiences. The idea that a parent could have brought a child to such an event and engaged with it for the whole day is untenable. During the changeovers between sessions the packed crowds of people would have been impassable for anyone with children. It would be good if this lesson is learnt for the recall conference.
And now what?
The closing plenary was where strategic direction was given. National Union of Teachers general secretary, Christine Blower referred to the joint action her union will be taking with the other large teaching union the NASUWT. She was followed by Unite’s Len McCluskey. He argued that if it’s right to strike against austerity in Greece, Spain and Portugal, it’s right to do it here. He reinforced this by saying that when Unite members are ready to take strike action he won’t let anti-union laws get in the way. In an aside which was aimed at Labour, he said that was his message to “all the parties”.
Speaking on behalf of the People’s Assembly organising committee, John Rees invited the day’s participants to get involved with local assemblies and to return to the recall conference as delegates representing many more people. He proposed a statement outlining a programme of action which was passed by acclamation and said that this will be open to amendment at the recall conference.
The last speaker of the day, Mark Serwotka, also invoked the spectre of political representation. He set out an alternative programme for the Labour Party, one which amounted to a total rejection of austerity and neo-liberalism. Like most people in the hall he knew it was one they won’t adopt. He then drew the obvious conclusion and, citing the emergence of new political movements in Europe, said we should have one in Britain. He left the details vague but he was unambiguous about the need for it. You can see the video here.
Later this week large numbers of teachers will be taking industrial action as a prelude to more strikes later in the year. Frances O’Grady, Len McCluskey, and Mark Serwotka indicated their willingness to support similar action. The People’s Assembly may turn out to be the start of a rising tide of resistance to the next burst of Tory class war.