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The People’s Assembly: making a movement?

The People’s Assembly will bring together thousands of anti-cuts campaigners and trade unionists in June. Red Pepper asks Owen Jones what the assembly might add to existing anti‑cuts initiatives
May 2013

Why do you think Red Pepper readers should prioritise getting involved in the People’s Assembly?

It’s unacceptable that half a decade since the financial crisis – a crisis hijacked very ably by the right – we still don’t have a broad national movement against austerity. That’s not to say we haven’t had lots of very important struggles – the student protests were the catalyst for so much, the waves of struggles we’ve seen come together to fight the coalition, giving people confidence in fighting back, and then the Occupy protests.

But it’s still very disparate. If you don’t have a permanent coherent movement then things fizzle out. So it’s essential to have the trade unions centrally involved. They’re uniquely placed as the biggest mass democratic force in the country representing millions of people from bin collectors to call‑centre workers, teachers and nurses – the pillars of our society. They can help kick start a broad movement to link in with the disabled people’s protests or the tax evasion protests, and help build the mass national movement against austerity that we’re sorely lacking. The anti-austerity voice is missing from British politics due to the unwillingness or inability of the Labour leadership to present a coherent case.

Can anyone come along or are you looking for delegates from other organisations?

Both. What’s interesting is just how broad this is. It involves Unite, Unison, the RMT and other unions, but it also involves Labour activists and MPs and Green Party people, community groups, unemployed people – it really is the ‘we’re all in it together coalition’. Unions will be paying for delegates to come. I’ve been talking to the Unite community groups, who are helping to organise the unemployed, amongst others, and they’ll be sending a coach. It’s really important to mobilise the previously unorganised, the biggest party in the country, the ‘yelling-at-the-TV party’, who are deprived of any meaningful vote.

We don’t get social change through anger alone. We need hope. I want the People’s Assembly to help mobilise people who at the moment feel no sense of political hope, are exasperated about the failure of the Labour leadership to offer any coherent alternative, might actually want to be involved in building a very broad movement.

People might say, ‘Well, Owen, the Labour leadership have themselves signed up to all sorts of reactionary pro-austerity policies, like supporting the Tory de facto cut to the pay of millions of public sector workers, for example, so why are they welcome?’ But the difference is Labour’s link to the union memberships, so at least there’s the capacity for workers to be represented.

Are there any groups that you are particularly keen to bring on board?

As we know, working class women are being disproportionately hammered by the cuts, whether as public sector workers, who are more likely to be women, or benefit claimants, who are more likely to be women. That is the logic of the cuts, which represent a backwards step in the emancipation of women. We need the women’s groups.

How do you relate this language of ‘building’ or ‘creating’ a movement to the task of supporting and reinforcing, linking up what’s already there?

We just want to be a forum, a coalition of lots of struggles but also stitching them together and providing somewhere for people to join up with the general movement. Not wishing to override or displace other groups, far from it. Bringing them more closely together helps them become more powerful than they currently are.

In some ways, the People’s Assembly feels like a conscious attempt to replicate the Stop the War Coalition. Although that was very successful in organising big set-piece national demonstrations, some activists were frustrated about the lack of internal democracy. What will make the leadership of this movement any more accountable and legitimate in the eyes of activists on the ground?

Stop the War was dominated from the beginning by the Socialist Workers Party, who at that time were by far the biggest group on the far left, and had thousands of activists who could be mobilised to dominate key decision‑making. There isn’t an equivalent with the People’s Assembly. You might point out some individuals still involved, but the fact is this is something driven above all by the trade unions. There isn’t any group with the resources or personnel to dominate this at all.

There is a provisional Steering Committee with representatives of lots of different groups. I really wouldn’t have time for anything I thought could be turned into a front for any Leninist sect. That would be self‑defeating and it would just drive people away. We’re not talking about the leadership of a party here. It’s mid-way between a coalition and a franchise, I guess. The structures do have to be decentralised enough for particular groups to be able to go away and do things locally.

How will it work on the day? Suppose you get three and half thousand people there, what will they be able to come away with, other than having had the chance to listen to a platform full of speakers?

We can’t just have an event modelled on platform speakers lecturing you. We’ve all heard powerful speeches against austerity, and of course there’ll be a place for that, but there also needs to be an opportunity for grassroots groups to share their stories. But it has to be a launch pad, to enable local groups to get set up across the country. Because one of the things I’ve been doing – with others like Mark Steel – is to give talks with the aim of setting up local groups, like in Nottingham with the trades council, Manchester, Bristol.

The idea is after 22 June to have a lot more local groups set up who are prepared to take direct action. We need to ramp up the level of peaceful civil disobedience across the country, and link this up with the unions, who of course will come up with their own programme of actions and strikes. On the day we need workshops where people who have no experience of political activism or organising can come along and find out how they can get involved in these struggles.

As you’ve been going round the country, what has the reaction been like so far?

I get a little bit exasperated by some groups on the left, who as soon as you show a bit of initiative, or any ideas, will respond with crossed arms and chin-stroking: ‘This isn’t exactly what I want, or how I want it, so therefore it’s shit.’ And the reason this frustrates me – the world-weary ‘seen-this-all-before’ attitude – is that when I go round the country, there is such a desperation for a real alternative, and when I’ve told them about the People’s Assembly they say, ‘Well, thank God you’re finally doing something, why weren’t you doing this ages ago?’ Which is a completely different response to that of the slightly ‘mardy’ left!

Where people feel their lives are being trashed and have lots of anger and a lot of despair – like when I went to Derby for a meeting with benefit claimants and unemployed workers groups – they just wanted to get something up and running, make something happen and be part of a broader movement. So this won’t be perfect, won’t be the best thing that’s ever happened – there will be problems with it. But we’ve got a responsibility to make it work.

Before this I’d feel a bit despairing. I’d leave a meeting saying okay, we got 200 people together but we’d all just go back home after getting it all off our chests. Where do people imagine a movement is going to come from? It’s like waiting for the Messiah. Will it just miraculously appear spontaneously from the grassroots? I think it was Lenin who said ‘sometimes history needs a push’.

The People’s Assembly is on Saturday 22 June at Central Hall Westminster, London.


Lambeth library occupiers are renewing the anti-cuts struggle

Simon Hardy looks at what led community campaigners to occupy their local library in south London – and says others should follow their example

Red carpets and purple flares: direct action with Sisters Uncut

Clare Walton reports on Sisters Uncut, the grassroots group taking direct action to defend domestic violence services

After the election: picking up the pieces

Without pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will is useless, writes Luke Cooper

'Don't mourn, organise' – OK, but how?

The left must re-think its strategy and methods of organisation after the election, writes Michael Calderbank – not just throw ourselves back into the same schemes that aren't working

Mark 29 May 2013, 05.55

Unfortunately the usual gaggle of Trot sects will attempt to hi-jack the initiative in their own interests.

I suspect that before we can have a successful campaign against austerity we will need to have a successful campaign against the poisonous ultra-left sectarianism of the holier-than-thou Trots.

Jaynel62 29 May 2013, 07.14

A good interview and very interested to read the comment above – precisely what Owen was saying in reverse: “the world-weary ‘seen-this-all-before’ attitude”; do you agree Mark??

Mark 29 May 2013, 10.28

The very long record of Trot sect-cults attaching themselves to initiatives for the sole purpose of recruiting impressionable young people, selling their tedious newspapers, and attempting to prove why everyone outside their group is a ‘sell-out’, justifies a degree of weariness.

I suppose when you stand in elections and routinely get beaten into 5th, 6th or 7th place you have little option but to stay alive by bottom-feeding from the work of others.

Thankfully we have begun to see some on the far left (such as the ISN) begin to re-think the destructive legacy of the attempt to pursue a Stalinist model of Leninist political organisation in Britain.

james? 29 May 2013, 11.29

i know its unintentional but owen describes the assemblys labour members as activists and the green party ones as people. i cant decide which one is more positive but think its probably activists. romayne pheonix is a green party activist and is prominent in the coalition of resistance. also the other thing about owens answers is his attack on people on the left who are cynical about intitives. people are cynical because they have fallen out with some of the people in counterfire when they were in stop the war. i think reassurance might be a better strategy rather than expressing your frustration with them. especially as owen has already had a fall out with one counterfire member already.

john r 29 May 2013, 20.11

Owen clearly cares and good for him, he does some great work, but in my home town at the P/A a Labour Councillor was invited who clearly wasn’t going to vote against the cuts and is part of a right wing council regime, he even went against the spirit of the event by asking people to join Labour! There were some other LP councillors in front of me who were quite unpleasant and confrontational.

It was a great event but due to the above much of the focus became about the L/P and the councillor and some of the momentum was lost: the L/P was already represented by Owen, why not bedroom tax activists and other people up against it on the top table?

Clearly John Rees and co,(ex SWP now counterfire want to give for some unknown reason the LP some left cover, if LP are to be key figures they must be ones resisting the cuts, etc, though I think inc the LP at all is a strategic mistake similar to that of STWC mode of operation.

Will Podmore 4 June 2013, 16.01

Owen writes, “we still don’t have a broad national movement against austerity.” The trade union movement is that braod national movement. It is already involved in struggles against wage cuts, privatisation and public spending cuts. It is not though, thankfully, involved in the sectarian effort to set up a ‘People’s Assembly’.
This will inevitably consist of shedloads of speakers talking down to people, who will then go home even more disillusioned. The answer is not top-down sectarian initiatives like this Assembly, but workplace involvement.

Chris Horner 9 June 2013, 07.02

Will Podmore’s comment leaves me puzzled. If the people’s assembly isn’t non sectarian, what is? His comment seems to bear out Owen’s points perfectly. No doubt comrade Podmore will be hoping for the initiative to fail. The rest of us will be working to make it succeed.

Will Podmore 10 June 2013, 13.44

The ‘People’s Assembly’ will consist of a platform of speakers who agree on some matters and disagree on others, who will be talking to other people who agree on some matters and disagree on others.
Afterwards, some will try to set up yet another new party, and others will oppose this.
Result? No progress.
It is a way of turning your back on the real, vital task of organising in your workplace.
It’s not that I want it to fail, so much as that all experience tells us that it will fail.
Remember ‘the New Left’? The May Day Manifesto movement? All these broad church efforts disintegrate because they are not rooted in the working class.

Jonathan Oates 19 June 2013, 12.56

I hope we can get it together. If we do it well, it’s an opportunity to have a look at past and present cases in Britain and abroad, learn from them, and find a way of working together that incorporates all the different sorts of activities required. I think we need a broad range of non-electoral (e.g. workplaces, communities, media) and electoral activity (whatever strategy is decided upon), and I don’t understand why these need be mutually exclusive. Nor does everyone need to share exactly the same analysis, vision, or plan; we do need to agree what we can agree, and are agreed on, even if it is just agreeing what we certainly don’t want.

I have questions about the constitution and organisation so far, that to come, and about other of our organisations (e.g. TUs, parties etc). I’m attending in the hope we can talk it out, get somewhere sensible, open, democratic, and work together effectively to get things sorted.

Miguel Martinez 20 June 2013, 06.30

There is an assumption here that anything that is not social democratic or green in orientation should stay away from the event. Should Labour leaders and prominent activists address it then even if they support and partly caused the cuts? Will people from the south of Europe be invited such as the 15 M movement?

Derek McMillan 20 June 2013, 07.27

My union is sending me to a meeting of the People’s Assembly. They certainly will not be supporting Labour – the NUT is not affiliated to the Labour Party.

It may be an opportunity to push the case for a new workers’ party… or would that make me a “Trot sect trying to hijack the event?”

Labour has made it clear they will pursue with iron discipline the policies of the Tories so why on earth vote for them?

Will Podmore 20 June 2013, 11.05

Derek, we do not need ‘a new workers’ party’. We have one already.
Of course none of our trade unions should act as a Labour Party Support Group. We’ve tried that for a hundred years now – and what do we end up with?
Ed Balls promoting finance capitalist rule and Douglas Alexander backing war on Syria.

Jennifer 25 June 2013, 01.14

The new Assembly, whatever it consist of, must move as quickly as possible from fighting AGAINST austerity and whatever else it perceives to be ‘wrong’, to defining and working FOR a more positive future; otherwise it will go the way of all other leftist groups, which have been excellent at political analysis, but next to useless at providing a truly democratic and inclusive alternative.

Rob 25 June 2013, 10.05

Jennifer- agreed. Creating a coalition that’s merely against austerity is like saying we can turn the clock back to 2007 and everything’ll be great again.

Until we can re-build an economy capable of supporting enough secure and well-paid jobs- which to my mind means having a strong and innovative manufacturing sector, and a skilled workforce- any worthy plans us lot might have for the welfare state and worker’s rights will be built on sand.

The ultra-left will undoubtably say that the only economy capable of supporting enough secure and well-paid jobs is a socialist economy: nationalisation and central planning. I’m not of this view, I just think we need a better model of capitalism- and a Labour Party committed to social democratic principles.

Will Podmore 2 July 2013, 13.41

I agree with Rob – we do need to “re-build an economy capable of supporting enough secure and well-paid jobs- which to my mind means having a strong and innovative manufacturing sector, and a skilled workforce”.

The problem is that capitalism, far from enabling the rebuilding of manufacturing industry, is stopping us achieving this.
By ‘a Labour Party committed to social democratic principles’ does Rob mean one that would actually put those principles into practice? How does he propose to achieve this? It’s easy to call for desirable outcomes.
Haven’t Labour Party members been trying to do this for a century? Why have they not succeeded?

Comments are now closed on this article.

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