This article also appears at A Very Public Sociologist
I wasn’t there, but thanks to modern telecommunications I got all the happenings of Saturday’s People’s Assembly broadcast directly to my computer. Now, I’m not about to butter anyone up and pretend my view of the PA initiative is anything but sceptical. I’ve sat in packed meeting halls in London a few times. I’ve heard angry words about austerity before, and promises of massive industrial action as regularly as my cat uses his litter tray. That said, there were moments the cynicism did fall away – the contributions of the eternally youthful Owen Jones and Francesca Martinez were particularly good. And, of course, the now quite frail Tony Benn did his turn too.
Unfortunately, because I did not watch any of the break out sessions I was not privy to the debates that went on in them. But I can hazard a guess that the Labour Party, electoralism, and new party projects got an airing alongside trading stories of what’s been happening in everyone’s respective areas, the necessity of opposing all cuts, and trading Twitter handles. Indeed, some of this was reflected in the afternoon speakers to conference, most of whom were in a militant mood.
But at least now it’s pretty unambiguous what the People’s Assembly is about. This is not a once or twice-yearly jamboree. It’s about building a trade union-backed movement that brings in absolutely everyone opposed to austerity (at least from a leftish standpoint). The ambition was pretty clear. That every locality founds and grows its own People’s Assembly that feeds into and mobilises grassroots action against cuts, and makes the case in the court of popular opinion for an alternative to the ruinous, class war policies pursued by this government. As John Rees noted in his remarks, when the PA meets again in the winter he wants to see the thousands attending not in their capacity as individuals but as delegates representing hundreds of thousands of people active against the cuts.
As austerity has, unfortunately, so far failed to provoke a wide-scale renaissance in labour movement and protest activity, I think it unlikely a leap of such a magnitude can be made in the space of half a year. But the February Revolution caught Lenin and co. on the hop, so who knows?
I’m being flippant. The People’s Assembly as a trade union-backed campaign that will take the anti-austerity message directly to Britain’s streets is a good thing. I hope it successfully bursts the consensus bubble and visibly moves the country’s political barometer further to the left. But I will not pretend there aren’t problems bubbling under the surface. Big problems.
John Rees was very clear in his platform speech. The stated position is of no cuts. Not slower cuts nor shallower cuts, but no cuts at all. Another platform speaker complained that politics should not be a choice between austerity and austerity-lite. But already, the absolutely no cuts stance puts many of the sponsoring trade unions in a difficult position. By virtue of their day-to-day role as the collective voice of the workplace, in the public sector where the cuts are tumbling down onto their members’ heads unions have to do deals with public sector employers who are slashing jobs and cracking down on terms and conditions. They are against cuts, but all trade unions as a matter of course are forced to accept them. Even the more-or-less Socialist Party-led PCS have settled disputes on the basis of retreats. How can the People’s Assembly square this with no cuts? Can convenors and stewards look forward to getting balled by the ultra-left for signing disadvantageous settlements after a dispute?
Relatedly is the role of Labour councils too. Does the People’s Assembly take the view that councils who are cutting because of the budgetary position they find themselves in are as equally as culpable as the government that forces the settlement on them? Are Labour councils expected to do a Liverpool? Or will the People Assembly be a critical friend of such councils and work with them to encourage a collective local government response to austerity? The former certainly got more of an airing today but the mainstream of the trade union movement in practice appears to be minded in the opposite direction: support Labour councils locally as best they can and blame the Tories for the erosion of local authority-provided services. Again, a recipe for division and confusion from top to bottom of People’s Assembly and one unlikely to be sorted out over a few cups of tea.
The third main point is electoralism. Bits of Labour are involved. The Greens are in. Trots and tankies bobbed up and down in front of the microphone speaking as everything other than representatives of the political organisation they owe their loyalties to. And so is the amorphous Facebook/internet phenomenon, Left Unity. When it comes down to it, when local People’s Assemblies are facing a Labour council laying off workers, shutting libraries, implementing the hated bedroom tax, and all manner of horrible things, how do they challenge that record? The non-Labour people, I imagine, would quite fancy fielding an electoral challenge. So where does that leave Labour-affiliated unions who are bankrolling the People’s Assembly operation?
None of these problems are new. This blog was talking about some of them in relation to the anti-cuts movement three years ago. These are structural problems that cannot be papered over, cannot be sorted out with gentlemen’s agreements and non-aggression pacts. It’s part and parcel of the ‘hard’ anti-cuts perspective the People Assembly has de facto adopted and the sorts of small, competing sectarian political forces that have come in alongside otherwise mainstream trade unions. It’s a contradiction arising from trying to build a broad non-party political movement around quite narrow and politically-charged sets of issues. Can the movement put a lid on these contradictions?
Yes, but it needs to clarify what ‘no cuts’ means if it is to see off tensions along the three sets of axes outlined here, and for the trade union leaders need to stamp more of their authority on it. Otherwise I fear the People’s Assembly will go the way of all the grand projects of the left and dissipate well before it meets its potential.