The People's Assembly is a historic opportunity to shape a united, national anti-cuts movement that can turn the tide against austerity. 22 June will bring together everyone from NHS campaigners to leading trade unionists, from anti-bedroom tax activists to left-wing Labour MPs
The potential of the People's Assembly
The People's Assembly is expected to use the breadth and depth of the movement represented on the day to become a launch pad for co-ordinated mobilisations such as solidarity actions with NUT and PCS strikers, a national demonstration, a day of local protests and regional people's assemblies throughout the country. It can become a turning point in creating the kind of national coalition we sorely need, launching the sort of action that can win results and generating greater confidence to resist among millions of people opposed to cuts.
It is a hopeful sign that there are already rallies and public meetings taking place in many areas in the run-up to 22 June, as these can help develop a mass movement after the Westminster event. We need more of these local meetings.
Owen Jones summed it up for many when he referred to the anger over cuts not yet being matched by hope, writing that hope - and the confidence to take action that comes with it - is precisely what the People's Assembly can offer. His fellow columnist Mark Steel drew a hugely enthusiastic response when he wrote about the millions of people shouting abuse at politicians on television, feeling isolated in their rage and frustration, but pointing to the Assembly as the way to pull those people together into a movement. Over three years into this Tory-led government, it reflects the weaknesses of the left and the trade unions that we are only doing this now.
The Assembly is especially vital because of the nature of austerity, and of the resistance to it. Although austerity is a coherent project driven by central government, it manifests itself in a plethora of 'single issues' and specific cuts, many of them at local level. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a great deal of the opposition has been focused on particular cuts and policies. Such protests and campaigns are necessary and extremely welcome, but also limited. The fragmentation of the movement can only be overcome through a broad-based national event like the People's Assembly, supplemented by a commitment to sustain co-operation in the long term.
There are, however, differences of opinion over what the People's Assembly represents, and what it can offer. Criticisms come from those who simply reject the People's Assembly, but also - in more muted or ambivalent fashion - from those who give it only lukewarm support. The notion, which I am arguing for here - that it should be the central strategic priority for the left - is a highly contested one. This debate has its specific features - to do with the People's Assembly itself - but differences over these features are linked to deeper differences over political strategy, especially the question of what is often called the united front method. I will address this below.
A radical movement
Broadly speaking, there are three types of criticism of the People's Assembly (which are often closely linked). Firstly, the idea that it is in some sense too moderate. This takes various forms, but they all depend upon sloganeering and position-taking rather than serious, practical thinking about what is possible.
One version of this criticism is that it will only result in 'A to B marches', and what is needed is more 'militant' action. Another line is that what's really needed is a general strike and as the Assembly can't deliver that, it is of limited value. Yet another view is that any political radicalism will be fatally compromised by being too broad, either because of the participation of Labour MPs or due to the role of trade union leaders.
The first of these positions is predicated on the idea that small-scale militancy is preferable to large-scale mobilisations such as marches and strikes. Yet successful mass movements throughout history have been built on the basis of the latter type of protests. This doesn't mean they have been limited to large-scale marches and rallies, but that such forms of protests have enabled mass participation, created powerful coalitions, and lifted the confidence of large numbers of people. When more militant 'direct action' does take place it is bigger and more effective due to developing in the context of a genuinely mass movement. This is a key lesson of the anti-poll tax and anti-Iraq war movements. For the anti-cuts movement such large-scale national action is particularly essential precisely because central government is the source of austerity and needs to be challenged directly.
The 'general strike now!' line, meanwhile, is an example of starting from an ideal picture of resistance rather than from where we actually are. We desperately need a greater level of strike action than at present, and it will be more effective if nationwide and co-ordinated across unions. The People’s Assembly has, in any case, already – in the statement launching the initiative – endorsed the TUC’s resolution in looking into the possibility of further co-ordinated mass strike action.
But limiting ourselves to calls for a general strike fails to recognise the existing strengths of our movement, which are in street-based protesting and campaigning, more than in strike action. It also fails to consider how the People's Assembly - and, more importantly, co-ordinated actions emanating from it - might provide steps towards a 'mass strike' scenario becoming a reality. And, crucially, it doesn't acknowledge that while trade unionists have a particularly pivotal role to play in fighting austerity, they are not the sum total of the broad movement.
The idea that involvement from some, supposedly more moderate, elements of the movement is a barrier to radicalism can be easily dismissed. If we are serious about stopping cuts we need to unite the widest possible layers in common discussion and action. In particular we need to involve people who at least partially look to Labour for a response to the Tory-led government's cuts; most such people are, it's worth noting, highly critical of Ed Miliband's weak opposition to cuts. Many millions of working class people will, however, vote Labour at the next general election. If they do not form a major part of the anti-cuts movement, the left is doomed to be a small minority when we could be a majority.
Many Labour MPs, councillors and party members are part of the opposition to austerity and should be involved in a broad movement that also includes many activists who reject Labourism altogether. Anything else is divisive posturing. Similarly, it is possible to be critical of particular failures by trade union leaders - and frustrated with the continuing low level of strike action - without dismissing the vital role such leaders have to play as part of a co-ordinated mass movement. The Assembly's commitment to broad unity in action is in fact the most authentically radical strategy available to us.
The top priority
The second sort of critical view is to argue that the People's Assembly has a place, but what's really needed is something else. This might be a general strike - as discussed above - or a growth in grassroots activism, or a more 'political' approach, whether 'reclaiming Labour' or focusing on building an alternative electoral vehicle to the left of Labour. These views often come from those who are supportive of the Assembly, but who see it as a lesser priority to some other project.
The problem with the 'grassroots activism' argument is simple: a successful national event like the Assembly is a boost to grassroots activism, not an alternative or challenge to it. National and local campaigning reinforce each other, providing that activists consciously make the links. The Assembly will be boosted by the participation of many grassroots campaigners from every part of the country; it, in turn, can strengthen the networks between them and provide a mechanism for developing greater unity and coherence in the movement at local level.
Local activity is essential but not enough: this hospital is saved, but the one 30 miles away still closes. National co-ordination is indispensable if we are to confront austerity as a whole. If we want to stop all cuts, everywhere, nationally organised action aimed at the government is required.
The emphasis on electoral work takes two very different forms. The first is to invest hopes in Labour. The problems here are that Labour's leadership is deeply committed to some version of austerity, the general election is in any case still two years away, and it is extra-parliamentary activity (more than electoral campaigning) that is likely to shift the terms of political debate in the next couple of years.
The second route is to create an alternative outside the Labour Party. Such an approach is desirable in principle, but it would certainly be a mistake to prioritise such initiatives over the building a broad, mass movement that encompasses everyone opposed to cuts. Not least is the question of timing: developing a credible electoral party is a long-term process, but cuts are biting now and there's an urgent need for an active response.
Current attempts at 'left unity' are unfortunately back-to-front in trying to create an electoral front principally out of fragments of the existing (and very small) radical left, instead of first creating a mass movement encompassing new political forces (as happened with the emergence of Respect from the mass Stop the War movement).
Unity in action
The third and final sort of criticism brings us explicitly to the issue of the united front. Some critics have rejected the united front, or coalition-building, method embodied in the People's Assembly, typically on the grounds that it is allegedly 'top-down' and 'bureaucratic'. Such criticism involves a dose of references to 'top table speakers' (an awful thing to be avoided at all costs) and an equal dose of objections that what's really needed it something driven 'from below'. Some of these critics refer to this as 'frontism'.
The essence of the People's Assembly is the notion that broad working class unity is of fundamental importance if we are to defeat the government. We have the numbers on our side, but we need organisation to turn that into a social force to be reckoned with. There will always be differences of opinion - and it is necessary to air and debate those differences - but they should not be a barrier to united action. Above all, we need to combine the size and organisational capacities of the trade unions with the numerous disparate campaigns involving single-issue activists, disabled people, students, pensioners and more.
Doing this effectively requires the support and active participation of national organisations, especially but not exclusively the unions, to create an inclusive framework which can involve the diverse range of people in our movement. If this is what some activists mean when they refer to doing things 'from above' then so be it: organisation 'from above' i.e. involving national organisations, is exactly what we need as a means for involving the maximum social forces and delivering the largest-scale action imaginable. There is no juxtaposition between 'above' and 'below', between the support of national leaders and organisations and, on the other hand, grassroots participation.
The united front 'from above' is precisely what facilitates the united front 'from below'. The former is important primarily as a means to the latter, since it is the class struggle itself - not the rhetoric of leaders - that ultimately shapes history. Millions of people look to reformist leaders - whether Labour politicians, trade union general secretaries or prominent individuals - so to draw people into activity we seek alliances at the top with those leaders.
Furthermore, it is possible for grassroots forces to pull more moderate or reluctant leaders to the left. For this to happen, though, there first has to be a meaningful coalition. It should also be recalled that the trade union movement organised the two mass demonstrations against the cuts - on 26 March 2011 and 20 October 2012 - when hundreds of thousands were mobilised, illustrating the power of protests backed by union leaders. It's that experience of struggle that both brings confidence and reveals the limits of the union leadership.
Some critics tend to complain that the Assembly will be a series of 'top table' speeches, when what's really needed is workshops or smaller-scale gatherings that allow the voices of grassroots activists to be heard. Again, this is a false juxtaposition. It is in the nature of a very large event that it will involve a lot of speeches - and it is quite right that many (not all) of these speeches will be from elected national representatives, as they can speak on behalf of their members and give a powerful sense of the breadth and depth of the movement. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, for example, will be calling for support for striking PCS members in the week after the People’s Assembly. It makes sense for him to be heard.
A successful national event will make it more, not less, likely that we can organise local and regional assemblies that also pull together a diverse coalition, but with more scope for the voices of local activists. The main national event will, through its large scale and broad composition, provide a powerful platform for generating these grassroots forms of co-ordination, which will be more effective precisely because they are part of a national framework. Similarly, the claim from some that the Assembly will be only a ‘talking shop’ misses the mark: the purpose of the event is to launch action at a higher level than we could achieve without it.