Because of ill health, I won’t be able to attend the People’s Assembly on Saturday. For me that’s frustrating; I was looking forward to hearing people’s ideas for action and experiences in campaigning.
As Owen Jones and others have said, it’s unacceptable that at this stage there is no broad-based anti-austerity campaign. The People’s Assembly is a welcome step in rectifying that weakness.
However, it’s being held at a time when anti-austerity activity is at a lower level than one would expect given the provocations. The pensions dispute, which seemed for a while likely to light the fuse, fizzled out as unions made their separate peaces. Direct action has also ebbed.
In Spain, there’s hardly a city, town or village without prominent anti-cuts posters and graffiti. Hardly a day passes without the media reporting an anti-austerity action of some kind. Of course, austerity is taking a much harsher form in Spain than here, and there is a different political culture, in which regionalism plays a big part. But the sharp contrast with the streets of England (I don’t feel qualified to speak of the situation in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) also reflects the initiatives taken in Spain by the unions and the left.
How do we make the anti-austerity message present in everyday life, and across the country? At the moment we don’t even have a widely recognised logo or symbol for opposition to cuts (in Spain they use a red circle and bar imposed over a scissors for a clear cut NO CUTS message). Here it’s less a matter of creating that kind of thing out of nothing than finding what’s already out there and generalising it.
It’s common ground that the movement against austerity has to be broad-based, inclusive, politically plural. But inevitably it also faces choices and therefore “divisions”.
Of course, we want and need the TUC, the trade union leaderships and the structures of the labour movement “on board”. But we also need and have to ask for more than nominal support. There’s obviously the particular question of industrial action (or its absence). Union leaders are right up to a point when they say they cannot simply issue orders for an all-out strike or whatever; the will has to be present and discernible among the members, not just the activists. But their risk-aversion and inertia is weakening the anti-austerity forces and has to be challenged. This is not to suggest that we scapegoat union leaders for our wider frustrations but we do need to place demands on them. In particular, I’d like to ask: for what battle are they keeping their powder dry? If not now, when?
Recent statements by Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Stephen Twigg have made it clear that Labour will sustain the grip of austerity and depending on the economic situation may intensify it. An anti-austerity strategy or movement that places any faith in an incoming Labour government would be self-defeating. At local level, Labour councils – already corrupted by managerialism – are becoming agents of austerity. The movement can’t avoid challenging them just because they are Labour rather than Tory or Lib-Dem controlled. I hope the PA can somehow articulate a clear demand that councillors of whatever party vote against cuts, evictions, privatisations.
The NHS is the most popular and widely used public service. Its dismantling surely ought to be a centrepiece of resistance to austerity. In mixing cuts with “reform” and privatisation, the attack on the NHS illustrates powerfully what austerity really is and who it benefits. Yet we have not yet been able to stage a major national demonstration or action of any kind in defence of the NHS. Where local hospitals are threatened, people turn out in their thousands. Why is it so hard to get proportionate numbers to rally to the NHS as a whole?
In this case, there can’t be much doubt that a big part of the problem is the absence of leadership and initiative. Neither health workers nor patients have been given much opportunity to participate in any kind of common defence of the NHS. It’s also true and a significant problem that union implantation among health workers is patchy. In my frequent hospital visits I see the fatalism of NHS workers and I can understand it. It’s the upshot of accumulated disappointments. Labour preceded the Tories in undermining the NHS. In the last few years, the value of their pay has declined, for some by 15% or more. But they have been given no lead, no focus, no strategy. This applies also to the other side of the NHS equation, the patients / users who have no voice and no effective vehicle for participation. The patient advocacy charities – each disease has at least one – are resolutely apolitical and in many cases far too close to Big Pharma. Nonetheless, one thing that does unite, for example, many millions of cancer sufferers in this country is they will be negatively effected by a weakened, fragmented NHS.
I don’t know how we address these issues which is why I would have liked to hear what others have to say in the NHS discussion at the PA. It offers a rare chance to discuss NHS defence strategy as a whole (beyond the local). However, I’m sure there won’t be time enough to do more than touch on many questions. So perhaps in addition to follow-up local people’s assemblies there could be follow-up sectional People’s Assemblies on the NHS (or benefits or jobs, etc.) convened on a regional or national basis.
As for the role of the PA itself: I hope it’s not seen as a “brain centre” or HQ or regulating body in relation to the movement. Its role is to facilitate and fertilise. The local assemblies that are expected to follow will have (at least) two hard tasks: one, to draw in previously inactive people in significant numbers, and two, to formulate and implement plans for collective action, which may include civil disobedience.
It may be that the anti-austerity feeling in England is just waiting for a spark to ignite it. Some act of resistance that galvanises the latent sense of intolerable injustice.
Open, transparent and participatory discussions and decision-making should become built-in, customary, in the functioning of the PA at all levels. Most will agree with that but it will only become a reality if participants insist on it.
The question of the relation of “platform” to “floor” at the PA is already being debated. With the very large number of speakers to be accommodated it may prove unsatisfactory for many who want to make a contribution. It’s understandable that in trying to build a broad and diverse coalition, to represent its parts and its various fronts of struggle, organisers end up with unwieldy platforms and awkward choices in the allocation of time. The balance isn’t easy to strike. But the mistake to avoid is erring on the side of “platform” (tipping the balance away from the floor). It has a history. Assembling a platform is not the same as assembling a movement or giving it real representation.
I hope one thing we’ll all acknowledge this weekend is that we’re in for a very long and difficult struggle. Persistence is a virtue we’ll have to cultivate.
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram
Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope