People’s Assembly – success, challenges and politics

Len McCluskey isn't fond of Tories

Len McCluskey isn’t fond of Tories

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.

Lively discussions

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.

Child friendly?

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.


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6 Comments on People’s Assembly – success, challenges and politics

  1. Dave Edwards // 23rd June 2013 at 7:47 pm // Reply

    A clear article by Liam touching upon the issue of socialist political representation, which on the day was bit like that country song “Beneath Still Waters”

  2. Alan Thornett // 24th June 2013 at 9:56 am // Reply

    Good report from Liam. The Peoples Assembly was indeed a huge success. The workshops I went to were lively and inclusive with lots of activists engaging with them. The climate change workshop was excellent, dealing with a range of issues from the science of climate change to raising the issue in the unions. Caroline Lucas (who made a good speech) used the occasion to announce her private members bill on the renationalisation of rail. Of course climate change should have been more central to the event, but it was the best and best attended workshop I have seen at an anti-austerity event of this kind. The GL Ecosocialist paper was widely distributed at it.
    The issue which overhung the event was that of political representation to the left of Labour. Ken Loach raised it strongly in his workshop on welfare which was attended by around 700 people. He showed a clip from Spirit of 45, which was again enthusiastically received and when he spoke he insisted that the issue of political representation should be on the agenda of the left. Mark Serwotka also raised it in the final plenary which backed this up. Left Unity had a good profile at the event with a busy stall and a well distributed and received broadsheet.
    A weakness of the event, my view, was the lack of an international/European dimension – particularly given the current situation. As I understand it this was discuss at organising meetings but not agreed. There was a European forum the next day organised by CoR at the Unite office which brought together organisations from across Europe to discuss the European dimension. This was very useful and informative but it also served as a reminder that it had been absent the previous day. There were speakers at it from Turkey, Spain, and Germany, Belgium (on the Alter Summit)as well as from CoR and the Greece solidarity campaign from Britain, and a speaker from Brazil (who was an IF comrade). The speaker from Syriza (secretariate member Ynnis Backosos) outlined the latest (remarkable) situation in Greece around the closure of the state TV service and the resulting crisis of the coalition government, with the resignation from it of the Democractic Left. He said not only did they expect the government to fall but they expected to win the resulting election when it came!

  3. rajah bagal // 24th June 2013 at 4:50 pm // Reply

    at the end of the paragraph “lively discussions” (the paragraph just before you tell us about the complete lack of child-care facilities for a working class conference which 8,000 signed up to support and half of that did turn up to) you say that “Ken Loach was perhaps thought to be the bearer of a message too uncomfortable for a slot in the closing plenary.”
    uncomfortable for who?
    what do you mean? and

  4. If you listen to Ken on the video from about the five minute mark he explains. He also drops a pretty unsubtle hint about who raised the objection.

    However, as I say in the article it would have been a mistake to make the question of political representation a theme of the day. Three speakers raised the issue and, as far as I’m aware, no one said “vote Labour and everything will be better”. That’s a conundrum Labour members and supporters are going to have to sort out for themselves.

  5. terryconway // 25th June 2013 at 12:06 pm // Reply

    I agree in general with Liams report.
    However as well as the problems with childcare that he rightly points to there were issues with accessibility for disabled people despite the attempts of DPAC to input into the organizing to avoid these. Disabled people are at the sharp end of the austerity attacks and at the forefront of resistance – we need also to be at the centre of the PA – lets work to make sure this happens both for the recall PA and local events coming out of Saturday.
    On a more positive note, although I didn’t attend the local government workshop I was pleased by Liams report of Barbara Jacobsons contribution. In the workshop on the welfare state Eve Turner, hospital campaigner and secretary of Ealing Trades council gave a powerful account of the campaign in that borough against health service cuts. But it was a shame that voices such as Barbara’s and Eve’s were not heard in the plenaries, together with international speakers mentioned by Alan Thornett. Another thing we should take on board for the future locally and nationally.

  6. Bob Williams-Findlay // 25th June 2013 at 6:04 pm // Reply

    Trying to write a balanced view of the events that unfolded at the People’s Assembly was a thankless task and one Liam handled reasonably well however there is a …but. My concern with his piece was not so much what he wrote, but rather what he didn’t write. Terry Conway in her comments provides a useful platform for me to build upon. Her first observation was that ‘….as well as the problems with childcare that he rightly points to there were issues with accessibility for disabled people despite the attempts of DPAC to input into the organizing to avoid these.’
    Accessibility is a material problem for disabled people, but it is also symptomatic of the failure of the Left and Trade Union movement to seriously engage with disability politics – politics developed by disabled academics and activists, based upon a historical materialist analysis of how social relations under Capitalism create restrictions which either exclude people with impairments from, or marginalize them within, mainstream social activities. I would argue that the non-engagement with disability politics has led to institutionalized discrimination within the Left and most of the time the various sections relate to disabled people in not too dissimilar ways to liberal or social democratic forces – opportunistic, patronizing and, ultimately, on oppressive terms.
    The other crucial point Terry makes is:
    “Disabled people are at the sharp end of the austerity attacks and at the forefront of resistance – we need also to be at the centre of the PA – let’s work to make sure this happens both for the recall PA and local events coming out of Saturday.”
    There is no acknowledgement of this political point within Liam’s piece – disabled people are completely absent. One of my criticisms of ‘identity politics’ is how it can place certain groups “at the centre” of political discourse by arguing their ‘issues’ are always overlooked, therefore everything else needs to be viewed secondary – in my opinion this simply creates paradox positioning. I prefer a politic that understands the intersectional nature of oppression and the role of capitalism and bourgeois ideology in keeping oppressed groups marginal.

    My starting point then is NOT to view disabled people as ‘the hardest hit’, most ‘vulnerable’ or flavour of the month – it is to acknowledge how structures and systems within society, including the Labour Movement, contribute towards our disablement. Our disablement comes through material barriers as well as being reinforced by sets of ideas. Our oppression, as I’ve already indicated, is often created by the ways in which social relations exclude us and through attitudes which ‘deny us’ and question our social worth. What impressed me on Saturday, even if at times the language left a lot to be desired was the number of people who included disabled people in the struggle; a real step forward from our experience of previous activities. Unfortunately, it would seem comrade Liam must have either missed these contributions or judged their significance unimportant. How else can disabled people interpret their non-inclusion? I can understand the speech from Francesca Martinez wasn’t the most ‘revolutionary’, but it was an opportunity to acknowledge a key aspect of the attack on people who rely on the welfare state for support. No doubt the comrade had limited space and key political points to put over, but I couldn’t believe he could comment on the lack of childcare facilitates – a valid point – but appear unable to recognise the huge struggle disabled people had throughout the day to participate and contribute.
    I read this piece and felt excluded and left wondering what it is we have to do to register our existence and contribution to the anti-capitalist struggle? I’m more than happy to give the leadership of SR a lesson in disability politics.

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