The Emmanuel centre with its biblical exhortations beautifully marked out on the walls was full with activists actually fighting for some of those good intentions in a 21st century where hundreds of thousands have to go to food banks each week.
Following the 4000 strong national one day rally last year it was important for the People’s Assembly to create a proper constitutional structure based on active groups combined with the nationally affiliated trade unions and other organisations. It was also necessary to democratically discuss a statement of aims and a series of policies related to the anti-austerity struggle. The conference organisers did a fantastic job preparing the documentation and the agenda so that it all ran extremely smoothly. Over 90 motions had been sent in. Most were useful additional points that were incorporated into the motions. A few were up for debate since they had a different position on various points and these were all discussed calmly.
The main statement of aims more or less overlapped the pre-existing People’s Charter (from 2008) that had already been supported by the steering group but was adopted after discussion by the whole conference. There are 6 points to the charter:
1. A fairer economy for a fairer Britain
2. More and Better Jobs
3. High standard homes for all
4. Protect and improve public services
5. For Fairness and Justice
6. For a secure and sustainable future.
In current conditions none of the policies under these headings are acceptable to the capitalist market or to either New Labour or Tory governments. But there are plenty of links to the more radical Labour Party manifestos of the past and it provides a bridge to the level of existing class consciousness.
On structure the conference accepted the main recommendations for an assembly which would meet at least twice a year in which each local group could send a delegate which would balance and potentially outvote the representatives of the signatory organisations (the trade unions, political groups and others). The steering group would still be nominated by the signatory organisations but the assembly gave the overall structure a much more democratic set up where the voices of local groups would carry real weight. In my opinion this is quite a good way or organising a broad united front campaign like the People’s Assembly. You have to put a weighting on the contribution of a big union with millions of members against a local group of activists. Conference correctly voted down a proposal for a far looser ‘participatory’ network.
There was a fascinating discussion on the financing of the organisation where an amendment to the finance motion was carried against the signatories who moved the main motion. It turned around the amendment which argued that 30% of the individual donations and membership fees paid to the national People’s Assembly should be remitted to the local group. In other words people were in favour of a more serious set up with regular payments but wanted to keep some resources on a local level. In fact Left Unity has a similar system. The fact that people argued this in a comradely fashion and won the conference showed that the meeting was entirely democratic and demonstrates that some ultra-left criticisms of the People’s Assembly as being undemocratic are unfounded.
Kirstine Carbutt gave a rousing report on the struggle of the Doncaster Unison members who are engaged in a battle with Care UK over the attempted change to their working conditions and pay as support workers for people with learning needs. The new privatised company, as in normal practice these days, wants to cut back on all the usual provisions for extra pay for unsocial hours and on other matters. The union has already organised a one week strike and is preparing another for next week. The conference raised over £800 for their strike fund. This report introduced the discussion on future actions which approved the action already being planned such as the actions on Budget Day, the 21st June national demonstration, the action at the Tory conference in September and the October TUC demonstration.
Boosterism and realism
It was noticeable in this discussion and at other times in the conference that there were occasionally some over-optimism about the present situation. People talked about a ‘weak government’ that the coalition was ‘frit’ and that the anti-austerity movement was on the offensive. We should remember previous movements like the Anti-Poll tax campaigns when we make such assessments. Sam Fairbairn’s speech veered a little in this ‘boosterist’ direction when he talked of the impact of the November 19th actions. Other speakers, such as Rob Griffiths from the CPB, were much more realistic about where we were at and accepted that the Tories had won some of the arguments about welfare in public opinion. John Rees was also more measured in his assessment. His central message, which I think we can all share, is that the People’s Assembly had done what it has said it would do – establish a national movement with a democratic structure and carry out actions we agreed. He is right and this is in itself a real step forward.
Other noteworthy contributions were on independent movement of disabled people where there were eloquent speeches from the DPAK speakers and from the anti-bedroom tax campaigners. In the final session resolutions were passed that made the link between the anti-austerity movement and the anti-war movement or the Greek Solidarity campaign.
Natalie Bennett from the Green Party made a very well received speech motivating the proposals on the environment and on climate change which included a plug for Caroline Lucas’s private members bill on the renationalisation of the railways. NUT general secretary Christine Blower rounded the day off with a militant speech both about education policy and the upcoming NUT strike action on March 26th
What is the political significance of this conference for the left?
Firstly, this is the main and only real united front campaign against austerity that draws in broad layers and the trade unions. It is properly organised with full timers and serious resources. Front campaigns such as the SWP’s Unite the Resistance or the SP’s National Shop Stewards Network have been completely marginalised. Both organisations should start building Peoples Assemblies. Indeed the SWP are actually beginning to do this in a number of areas. It is true some of the local PAs are fragile and at the early stages of development but a lot are doing important work – it is not so dissimilar to our experience in Left Unity. Furthermore the conference welcomed delegations from anti-cuts groups that are not called People’s Assembly. This is healthy and reflects debates that have taken place in the steering committee. Perhaps the most successful anti-austerity campaign has been in Lewisham. You cannot insist that it becomes a People’s Assembly.
Secondly, it shows that activists at a local level can have a real voice in decision-making in the People’s Assembly. It is democratic and showed this at the conference. It is not a campaign dominated or controlled by Unite the union as some left critics have dubbed it. We should welcome their contribution or the help of the Morning Star in providing office space.
Thirdly, it is mobilising exactly the same target audience that Left Unity is building from. All Left Unity branches should be actively building their local People’s Assembly. Activists involved in the People’s Assembly are nearly all both against the coalition austerity and New Labour’s austeritylite ‘alternative’. We have to be working alongside these activists not preaching from the sidelines that Unite has ‘sold out’ on Grangemouth or not yet organised a general strike or that the People’s Charter is not a revolutionary programme.
We need to be there when these activists ask themselves whether consistent anti-austerity activity can co-exist with a belief that Labour can be reclaimed from the left. It was noticeable that there is a very limited number of Labour MPs or councillors signed up to the People’s Assembly and even fewer Labour Party branches affiliated.
We also have to be working in a positive way alongside groups like Counterfire who have done excellent work in this campaign but so far disagree with the Left Unity project. They feel it is premature and that we should put all our energies in building Peoples Assemblies. Sooner or later they have to ask themselves whether the only perspective is building such united fronts and recruiting to Counterfire, turning it into a better SWP, or whether energies also need to be put into developing a broad political alternative to Labour like Left Unity.
Fourthly, this conference shows that Left Unity should be constructing alliances around the same sort of policies that were adopted at this meeting and not try to steer so far to the left on policy that we lose any access to the thousands involved in these movements. Some individuals and currents in Left Unity want to turn it away from this sort of engagement in order to ensure we have a true ‘left’ programme that ensures we do not betray people in some future revolutionary scenario.
It was an inspiring conference and you had the feeling Tony Benn and Bob Crow were in there spurring us on. Let’s all build for this week’s Budget protests and the big demonstration on June 21st.