The People’s Assembly – an absentee contribution

Mike Marqusee looks at the choices and debates this Saturday's People's Assembly will face

June 21, 2013 · 7 min read

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.

Choices for the PA

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

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.

The development of the PA

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.



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