Some thoughts on the People’s Assembly. Dissecting its claims to be the birth of a movement and looking at what is really required to take on austerity and, more broadly, capitalism.
On 22 June, thousands are set to attend the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in London’s Westminster Hall. The event has generated considerable excitement and support amongst “the left,” with sponsors ranging from trade unions to Trot groups such as Counterfire to the Green Party. Scepticism of this being yet another lefty talking shop is taking a back seat to the hope that maybe this time things will be different. A movement is being born – isn’t it?
The short answer is no, it isn’t. At least not as a result of a bunch of high profile leftists signing a letter in the Guardian and organising a meeting, at any rate. The People’s Assembly doesn’t deserve the optimism that it is provoking. Actually, it is potentially a threat to the real advances that have been made so far – and those advances are what offer a glimpse of the real movement we need.
Owen Jones has, up to this point, been the most prominent and prolific cheerleader for the People’s Assembly. On a number of occasions, he has referred to how “a movement is being born.” Up until now, so his narrative goes, the “champions of progressive politics” have been “hopelessly fragmented.” The assembly brings them together in “a potentially formidable coalition” and June 22 “will not only be a show of force, but a launchpad for a missing force in British politics.”
However, you cannot simply manufacture a movement from above. The People’s Assembly has a long list of sponsors, all established organisations with established hierarchies. The nature of leftist politics in the UK at present and the monopoly of resources and influence such organisations hold means that this is a necessity in order to stage such a large meeting and get the crowds in. But it also helps to guarantee that this new project will be just as stale and formulaic as the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that. Back through time to the long forgotten age when Tony Benn first emerged from the primordial soup.
The People’s Assembly is constructed around an impossibly, mind-numbingly long list of the Left’s “big” names. Its meetings so far have been packed to the rafters, but this doesn’t change the fact that they are dominated by top table speeches and offer nothing that the left doesn’t already pretty much roll off a production line. Add to this that it is built around the concept of “left unity” – a hugely problematic notion I have torn to shreds previously – and there is no reason to expect anything new.
Given the situation right now, we do need to be building mass movement, drawing in as broad a section of the working class as possible. But this needs to be a movement from below – i.e. where the struggle is in the hands of those directly affected and avoiding the problems of visible and invisible hierarchies – and based on direct action which forces change and seizes power from the hands of the ruling class. The ideologies behind the People’s Assembly range from the same old authoritarian leftism whose stage-managing of struggle we’ve suffered countless times before to flat out, petition-signing, MP-lobbying, words not deeds liberalism.
What’s their strategy? Owen Jones wants a movement that can pressure Labour from the left as UKIP pressures the Tories from the right. The major problem with this being that it doesn’t work, and that governments – Labour included – grant concessions to our class when they fear our organised power, not cause some people in a hall sound a bit more lefty than them.
John Rees wants it to emulate the Stop the War movement, which he claims was just one more massive march away from frustrating the rush to war. Except that it wasn’t, and all the endless slew of A to B marches did was utterly demobilise people and run the potential from a million people willing to take to the streets into the ground.
The People’s Assembly is the culmination of the left steadfastly refusing to learn the lessons of its own failures. At best, we will get another slow moving stroll through London at the back end of the year. At worst, it has the potential to suck an awful lot of people in, including worthwhile comrades and those entirely new to this kind of politics, harnessing their energy in an almost entirely unproductive direction.
So what should we be doing instead? There’s no single, simple blueprint or formula on this count, but there are hints of the type of activity we can take inspiration from.
In the workplace, rank-and-file initiatives such as the Pop Up Union in Sussex, the Sparks or the Civil Service Rank & File Network point to a way of organising that doesn’t rely on waiting for the union tops to act. The emergence of grassroots groups controlled by mass meetings in opposition to the Bedroom Tax offers community organising unburdened by executive officers and steering committees.
All of these examples, plus many more others could no doubt pull up from their own experience or from talking with comrades, are far from perfect. There are lessons to be learned everywhere – as evidenced by the serious problems of bureaucracy and fascist apologism around the Merseyside Anti Bedroom Tax Federation. But those lessons can be learned and the struggle developed. Just look at the progression from the Liverpool workfare campaign – which had claimant organisation as an aspiration but was primarily an activist campaign – to the grassroots, mass-based Bedroom Tax groups.
The point is that the struggle needs to be shaped by those in the thick of it. Movements grow organically and organisation and tactics can be adapted based on what works and what doesn’t. The People’s Assembly, instead, follows a well worn formula. It is an effort to shoehorn actually existing struggle into a model that suits those who would be our intellectual leadership.