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 28, 2013
8 min read

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. www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk

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