Friday, 29 March 2013

10 arguments about the People's Assembly, the movement and the left

The People's Assembly Against Austerity is proving enormously popular. At the latest count, almost 900 people have registered. And it's still nearly 3 months until the event. It has the support of a vast range of groups and organisations, reflecting every part of the broad movement against cuts.

There is also the backlash. Not from the right-wing - although there are examples of that - but, with grim inevitably, from corners of the left. Much of this is the kind of sectarian mischief-making and 'more radical than thou' posturing that is so integral to popular caricatures of the radical left. Precisely the kind of caricatured version of the left, indeed, that the People's Assembly seeks to transcend. There are always some who will privilege critical sniping over unity and dedication to making something work.

I wasn't going to respond to such criticisms, but I think it's worth doing so in order to put the record straight on a few matters. The main response to the Assembly has been tremendous enthusiasm and hope. Another, lesser, reaction has been uncertainty and confusion because of the responses which some on the left have put into circulation. Some of these responses can fairly be described as nothing more than sectarian distortion; some are genuine and legitimate tactical differences. And some are the former disguised as the latter.

Rather than responding to specific blog posts, comments etc from the 'sceptics', I'm looking at those criticisms which seem to keep popping up. I've encountered all of these online, but also many of them from a small number of nay-sayers who have turned up at meetings in Newcastle, where I am helping build the People's Assembly (both as national event and as on-going local process) and where the Assembly has already attracted high levels of interest, from Northern TUC passing a motion of support to the people taking flyers on a recent bedroom tax protest.


1: The People's Assembly won't be radical enough because it is broad-based and/or involves Labour Party members.

If we want a more radical and combative movement, the People's Assembly is exactly what we need. What has been missing since May 2010 is a co-ordinated national movement politically and practically shaped by the left. In the absence of that, it has been too easy for the most moderate elements - in the TUC general council, in the leaderships of more moderate unions, on Labour's right wing - to dictate the pace and extent of national anti-cuts activity.

The People's Assembly is our chance to break out of that impasse and develop a more militant movement, with a higher level of co-ordination. Politically the arguments put forward will overwhelmingly be vastly better and more left-wing than anything you hear from Ed Miliband. It is figures from the left of the Labour Party, with good track records of supporting campaigns and speaking at demonstrations, who are vocally supporting the People's Assembly, connecting with the many activists outside Labour who also want to turn the tide against austerity.

2: We need to be more radical by loudly criticising the moderate parts of the movement.

The most radical thing right now is to build a mass anti-cuts movement. That means unity in action and it means - if you're on the radical left - working with those to your right.

Of course there will be differences and disagreements, and there is a necessary place for criticism of those in the movement who in any way hold back the struggle. But it is in the course of building a movement that we can shape its political direction and win necessary arguments. The People's Assembly will be a radical event and a step towards a more radical movement.

3: The People's Assembly is a big one-off talking shop.

The People's Assembly is a process, not simply an event. It has already started. Its effects will hopefully be felt - and in profound ways - for a long time after 22 June. Let's also remember that talking is essential - we shouldn't dismiss it. Action needs to be guided by discussion and ideas, in particular by discussion of why austerity is wrong and what alternative demands we can put forward. The People's Assembly needs to discuss alternative demands which break the disabling illusion that There Is No Alternative to the whole austerity project. This is the fundamental issue at the heart of British and European politics.

In itself the Assembly will be a great opportunity to share ideas and experiences across the movement, but it is more than that: it is a platform for further co-ordinated action. This action will be bigger, broader and more combative than would otherwise be the case, because it is called by such a broad and diverse body with roots in every section of the movement and every part of the country. It should also be more effective because we have discussed and hopefully clarified the main alternative demands that form the basis of our movement: what we are fighting for (in broad ,simple terms) as well as reaffirming No Cuts. The potential is enormous.

4: The People's Assembly is 'bureaucratic' and 'top-down'.

There is, as yet, very little information about format, topics and speakers for the day, so there's a certain amount of ill-informed speculation around the idea that it will be 'top-down'. My understanding is that there will be contributions on the day from a large and diverse range of people reflecting the breadth of the movement. How this is either 'bureaucratic' or 'top down' is a mystery.

With 3500 people attending, it is naturally the case that the vast majority of participants won't speak. Why would it be otherwise? Is the alternative to deliberately only have smaller or local events to ensure a high participation rate? If we're serious about building a mass movement then we need the big events. Such big, national events also play a crucial role in encouraging local meetings and initiatives, which naturally allow those who don't speak on 22 June to have a voice and play an active role.

5: National co-ordination doesn't matter because local campaigning is the really important thing.

Austerity is national - and indeed international. It is imposed by central government and, to an extent, international institutions. We therefore need national and international co-ordination; we need action at these levels. Anything else is failing to rise to the challenge.

This doesn't mean neglecting local activity: any national movement depends upon strong local organisation, and a key test of the Assembly will be the extent to which it encourages such local organisation. One possibility, for example, is local Assemblies throughout the country in the autumn, to deepen roots in communities and co-ordinate local action within a national framework.

6: The People's Assembly will be constrained by the involvement of trade union leaders, who are a barrier to effective rank and file action.

If you want a coalition to be broad at the bottom it needs to be broad at the top. The trade unions have a central role to play in the anti-cuts movement and it would be absurd to not take seriously the participation of trade union general secretaries. Their involvement provides the Assembly with credibility and authority in the eyes of many who have no or little connection with the organised left.

The key question is this: will a co-ordinated mass movement exert pressure on union leaders to be more or less combative? The answer should be obvious: a huge People's Assembly, and further action coming out of it, can only strengthen the hand of those who want a much higher level of strike action.

7: A People's Assembly is all very well, but what's really needed is a general strike.

It's not an either/or choice. As I wrote above, the People's Assembly will encourage greater and more active co-operation between trade unions.

But this is also a damaging idea because it limits the scope of the movement. Trade unionists have a particularly valuable role in fighting cuts because they are organised collectively and take action on a large scale. But there are millions of other victims of austerity - and opponents of cuts - who are not in unions. They are part of the movement too and the urgent challenge is to link up everyone who wants to fight austerity in a mass movement. Sloganeering about a general strike is no substitute for taking concrete action, in the here and now, to build a more powerful and united movement which connects unions with campaigns and communities.

8: A People's Assembly is all very well, but what's needed is left unity/a new electoral party of the left.

The People's Assembly is left unity - and indeed it's more than that, reaching out beyond the established left and involving new people. It is the best chance we have of serious left renewal. It offers our best chance of exerting a leftwards pull on British politics. There will be those who are so sectarian they ignore it or sneer at it, but it will unite all the sane, non-sectarian and serious elements of the left.

An electoral coalition is, in my view, an important long-term aim, but in the short term there are massive obstacles to it happening. The priority right now is a radical, combative and united mass movement to smash austerity. This, in turn, might just create conditions conducive to new electoral challenges on the left. There will be those, of course, who disagree with me about the current prospects for a left-wing electoral formation, but we should agree that a mass movement is the top priority at present.

9: The People's Assembly is too late. We need action now.

Yes, we do need action now. Who argues otherwise? We also need long-term co-operation and strategy. Let's have both, instead of falsely polarising the two.

Activists and organisations building the Assembly are also involved in anti-bedroom tax protests this weekend, campaigns to defend the NHS, and much more besides. We need to consistently link the whole People's Assembly process to the local anti-cuts activity already taking place.

10: It's wrong that people have to pay to attend the People's Assembly, considering how poor many of austerity's victims are.

An event on this scale is expensive. It has to be paid for: much of that will come from sponsoring  trade unions, but much of it should and will come from individuals attending it. In fact it is healthy and democratic if a very large number of people each make small contributions towards an event, rather than it being bankrolled entirely by a small number of large organisations.

In Newcastle we've already had discussions about fundraising, which is especially important as we need to support people with little or no money travelling all the way from the north east to London (which isn't cheap). We are encouraging trade unions locally to sponsor students, pensioners, unemployed people and others who can't afford it. This isn't just financially sensible: it helps forge links between different sections of the community. We are also urging individuals who can't attend it themselves to sponsor those who have the time but not the money, and we are arranging a big musical event as a fundraiser.


So, to summarise: the People's Assembly is (or should be) the central priority for every socialist activist over the next 3 months. It can be the crucial step in transforming this country's anti-cuts movement for the better: bigger, more radical, more combative, more co-ordinated. The aim is to create a movement that can pack a punch to knock the Tories out. The People's Assembly is what we make of it, so be there on 22 June and do all you can to make it a great success.



  1. Thanks for another interesting and informative article.

    I have to admit that I am a sceptic although I wouldn't like to be thought of as a nay-sayer.

    You say that 'The trade unions have a central role to play in the anti-cuts movement and it would be absurd to not take seriously the participation of trade union general secretaries.'

    I believe that it is trade union general secretaries and the various official and unofficial hierarchies within the unions and the 'movement' who are the main examples of 'the ... caricatured version of the left' and I do not see how this can ever be transcended. They will do very little to provide 'the Assembly with credibility and authority in the eyes of many who have no or little connection with the organised left.'In fact the use of the term 'left' itself has been such a caricature since at least the 1970s. The image of the 'No Cuts' movement has merely stepped in to play a part in perpetuating this caricature. How could it have avoided this? Hierarchies are always going to form whether it be because of the length of time a person has been involved, or how close they are to the centres of power. This is why the left cannot escape the caricature because it always appears to be hypocritical: union leaders are very well paid by most people's standards, students attending elite universities playing at being revolutionaries on the donations of people facing the daily grind of work or unemployment are two sides of the same coin. In the so-called horizontal politics of the Occupy movement hierarchies formed very quickly too. Somewhat paradoxically the committed left-wingers who do their work in Parliament are less of a caricature ... I'm thinking of George Galloway in particular but he has made a caricature of himself in other ways unfortunately.

    The most important question for me is the same as yours and I can live with all of the above if we can come up with a good answer to it: 'Action needs to be guided by discussion and ideas, in particular by discussion of why austerity is wrong and what alternative demands we can put forward.' In this respect I think the NEF and James Meadway, the only member of that group with whose work I am familiar, have a big contribution to make. Their analysis is sound in my opinion and it is their message that could be most fruitful in attracting people. In many respects their views on the Euro are the same as those of Farage who has gained a lot of political kudos through his very public and remorseless critique of the ECB and their masters/cronies. It is similar to the basic critique of the Occupy movement. The very popular Max Keiser shares many of their views too.

    So if 'the urgent challenge is to link up everyone who wants to fight austerity in a mass movement' I think the economic critique needs to be disseminated in an easily understandable way. At the moment people continue to struggle to pay off so-called debts to banks that actually owe them money. People's houses are being illegally repossessed. Savers are being punished in exactly the same way has has just happened in Cyprus except it's being done mainly by stealth. My local council now charges full council tax to people on benefits with savings 0ver £5000. including the disabled. An incisive and clear statement of the critique and actions that respond to it appropriately are the key ... a self-declared debt jubilee and a vociferous campaign for the prosecution under existing laws of the financial terrorists in our banking system might be a good start.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Two quick things:

      I think there are 2 inter-related elements to the whole business of articulating economic alternatives. One of them is the kind of work James et al at nef are doing, which is thorough and extremely well-informed. The second element is expressing key ideas in a clear, accessible way, popularising an alternative 'narrative' (for want of a better word) to the dominant set of myths around austerity. We need to popularise such ideas, turn them into demands and use them to strengthen the movement. This is because there is constantly an ideological dimension to austerity and the fight against it. 'There is no alternative' is the constant refrain from the government, so we need to be able to demonstrate they are wrong. That should be a central element in the Assembly.

      On the trade unions: They are weak, but they still have great potential. They are especially weak when it comes to strike action, but their role in other ways - demonstrations, campaigns - can be considerable. They are especially effective when they look beyond sectional interests and connect with campaigns and communities. And such co-operation and campaigning can, in turn, increase thei capacity for taking co-ordinated strike action. It is for these reasons that the Assembly can be so vital and consequential, i.e. it plays to the unions' existing stregths while also pointing the way to a higher level of struggle.