Thursday, 22 August 2013

Organising a People's Assembly - some tips

The North East People's Assembly - on 14 September in Newcastle - looks like being a breakthrough event for our region's anti-austerity movement. The build-up is going well, with 150 registered and still over 3 weeks to go. Owen Jones is speaking, Mark Steel is performing in our evening show, and there will be workshops on many topics including the bedroom tax, education and the NHS. 
It may be useful to share our experiences and consider what has worked for us. This is not a template for other local groups to copy, but should provide some insights. It is my personal perspective, though one rooted in the experience of building a broad coalition with many other people.

The road to where we are

1. Start early. We decided in May to hold the event and had the basics - like a confirmed date - in place by 22 June when the national event took place. This has given us a long run up. The people who attended the national People's Assembly were enthused and inspired, returning home determined to build a successful regional event. At the start of July we had a well-attended 'report back' meeting which attracted people who hadn't been involved previously.

2. Involve people in planning it. We've had frequent planning meetings - about once a fortnight - and crucially these have been open to everyone. We have publicised them online and they have had good turnouts. The focus has been on practically organising the event with a shared sense of purpose, avoiding getting distracted by minor differences.

3. Audacity, audacity, audacity! By booking the 450-seat Northern Stage auditorium - a major, professional (and not cheap!) venue - we were taking a risk, but it looks like it's going to pay off. It forced us to think big and operate in a very serious way, while signalling to people that this is something special and unique, not just another anti-cuts meeting or conference.

4. Throw in everything including the kitchen sink. It's also an audacious event in terms of the format we've adopted: two major rallies (one in the morning and another in the afternoon), 10 workshops in the slots between the rallies, and an evening show in the Northern Stage main auditorium. A long list of campaign groups and unions are represented in the workshops - inviting them to offer a workshop speaker has been a great way of getting so many different groups involved and creating a true broad coalition. The evening show is an integral part of the whole package and reflects a widespread feeling that the event should be creative and use culture to reach people.

5. Get the balance right. The plenaries/rallies are important because we want a public platform for a range of speeches and they bring everyone together, helping create unity and coherence. But the workshops are vital too, allowing us to cover lots of topics, facilitating the active involvement of many different groups and enabling a higher level of participation.

The big day and beyond

It looks like 14 September will be the biggest, broadest and most diverse anti-cuts gathering in our region so far, with an unprecedented level of co-operation. We want the event to overcome the fragmentation of the movement. This is about on-going practical unity, not just a day of dialogue and co-operation.  We aim to forge connections for the long term.
The first step will be the hopefully huge national demonstration for the NHS on 29 September, as the Tory Conference gets underway, in Manchester. Our People's Assembly group is working with Unison to fill coaches from Newcastle, plus there is some transport from elsewhere in the north east. We are already signing people up for this and hope that many more will book a place when they come to the regional People's Assembly.
The regular co-ordinating meetings will continue and they should provide a way in for new supporters, especially those participating for the first time on 14 September.  We also hope to establish more localised groups in different parts of north-east England, allowing the People's Assembly to become more rooted and active. It's important we promote local protests and activity against cuts, starting with an NHS rally in Durham on 21 September, therefore building solidarity and widening the range of people involved in such protests.
It's vital, too, that we are active in national initiatives. The next of these, after the NHS demonstration, is the day of action scheduled for 5 November. We will be discussing what high-profile direct action we can organise. Creativity has been one of our defining characteristics so far and I'm sure there will be an imaginative approach to whatever we do.
Throughout all this, we will need commitment to sustaining the things that have brought us this far: above all unity, breadth and a willingness to aim high. There will always be differences, but our movement is stronger when we work together: easy to say, hard to do. The process of organising and promoting such an ambitious, far-reaching event is building bridges that we need for the future. It's turning that desire for unity and co-ordination into reality.
Register for the North East People's Assembly here:


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