Saturday, 22 June 2013

Some Problems with the People's Assembly

I wasn't there, but thanks to modern telecommunications I got all the happenings of today's People's Assembly broadcast directly to my computer. Now, I'm not about to butter anyone up and pretend my view of the PA initiative is anything but sceptical. I've sat in packed meeting halls in London a few times. I've heard angry words about austerity before, and promises of massive industrial action as regularly as my cat uses his litter tray. That said, there were moments the cynicism did fall away - the contributions of the eternally youthful Owen Jones and Francesca Martinez were particularly good. And, of course, the now quite frail Tony Benn did his turn too.

Unfortunately, because I did not watch any of the break out sessions I was not privy to the debates that went on in them. But I can hazard a guess that the Labour Party, electoralism, and new party projects got an airing alongside trading stories of what's been happening in everyone's respective areas, the necessity of opposing all cuts, and trading Twitter handles. Indeed, some of this was reflected in the afternoon speakers to conference, most of whom were in a militant mood.

But at least now it's pretty unambiguous what the People's Assembly is about. This is not a once or twice-yearly jamboree. It's about building a trade union-backed movement that brings in absolutely everyone opposed to austerity (at least from a leftish standpoint). The ambition was pretty clear. That every locality founds and grows its own People's Assembly that feeds into and mobilises grassroots action against cuts, and makes the case in the court of popular opinion for an alternative to the ruinous, class war policies pursued by this government. As John Rees noted in his remarks, when the PA meets again in the winter he wants to see the thousands attending not in their capacity as individuals but as delegates representing hundreds of thousands of people active against the cuts.

As austerity has, unfortunately, so far failed to provoke a wide-scale renaissance in labour movement and protest activity, I think it unlikely a leap of such a magnitude can be made in the space of half a year. But the February Revolution caught Lenin and co. on the hop, so who knows?

I'm being flippant. The People's Assembly as a trade union-backed campaign that will take the anti-austerity message directly to Britain's streets is a good thing. I hope it successfully bursts the consensus bubble and visibly moves the country's political barometer further to the left. But I will not pretend there aren't problems bubbling under the surface. Big problems.

John Rees was very clear in his platform speech. The stated position is of no cuts. Not slower cuts nor shallower cuts, but no cuts at all. Another platform speaker complained that politics should not be a choice between austerity and austerity-lite. But already, the absolutely no cuts stance puts many of the sponsoring trade unions in a difficult position. By virtue of their day-to-day role as the collective voice of the workplace, in the public sector where the cuts are tumbling down onto their members' heads unions have to do deals with public sector employers who are slashing jobs and cracking down on terms and conditions. They are against cuts, but all trade unions as a matter of course are forced to accept them. Even the more-or-less Socialist Party-led PCS have settled disputes on the basis of retreats. How can the People's Assembly square this with no cuts? Can convenors and stewards look forward to getting balled by the ultra-left for signing disadvantageous settlements after a dispute?

Relatedly is the role of Labour councils too. Does the People's Assembly take the view that councils who are cutting because of the budgetary position they find themselves in are as equally as culpable as the government that forces the settlement on them? Are Labour councils expected to do a Liverpool? Or will the People Assembly be a critical friend of such councils and work with them to encourage a collective local government response to austerity? The former certainly got more of an airing today but the mainstream of the trade union movement in practice appears to be minded in the opposite direction: support Labour councils locally as best they can and blame the Tories for the erosion of local authority-provided services. Again, a recipe for division and confusion from top to bottom of People's Assembly and one unlikely to be sorted out over a few cups of tea.

The third main point is electoralism. Bits of Labour are involved. The Greens are in. Trots and tankies bobbed up and down in front of the microphone speaking as everything other than representatives of the political organisation they owe their loyalties to. And so is the amorphous Facebook/internet phenomenon, Left Unity. When it comes down to it, when local People's Assemblies are facing a Labour council laying off workers, shutting libraries, implementing the hated bedroom tax, and all manner of horrible things, how do they challenge that record? The non-Labour people, I imagine, would quite fancy fielding an electoral challenge. So where does that leave Labour-affiliated unions who are bankrolling the People's Assembly operation?

None of these problems are new. This blog was talking about some of them in relation to the anti-cuts movement three years ago. These are structural problems that cannot be papered over, cannot be sorted out with gentlemen's agreements and non-aggression pacts. It's part and parcel of the 'hard' anti-cuts perspective the People Assembly has de facto adopted and the sorts of small, competing sectarian political forces that have come in alongside otherwise mainstream trade unions. It's a contradiction arising from trying to build a broad non-party political movement around quite narrow and politically-charged sets of issues. Can the movement put a lid on these contradictions?

Yes, but it needs to clarify what 'no cuts' means if it is to see off tensions along the three sets of axes outlined here, and for the trade union leaders need to stamp more of their authority on it. Otherwise I fear the People's Assembly will go the way of all the grand projects of the left and dissipate well before it meets its potential.


Howard Fuller said...

Phil, I think you really are understating the failed role of the Socialist Party led strategy in PCS. The strikes have failed to gain participation (even at their height) from more than a third of the membership.

The SP dominated National Executive has called off a planned strike for nexr week, precisley because the political strategy they have adopted has proved unsuitable for the industrial needs of the union.

The failure of the strikes is frankly down to trying to "generalise" the "class struggle" as most of the far left see it. Members a re not motivated by such abstract notions. Indeed even the control of PCS by the SP is a bit illusory in the wider sense.

The Left Unity slate (of which the SP is the major constituent influence) only obtained support from 4.7% of the members since 90% did not bother to vote.

For John Rees (who none of my members would ever have heard of) to call for delegates representing "thousands" would remain an illusion because the majority of us are not motivated by the ideologies that predominate at such events.

Of the people you mention only Tony Benn is a household name, many TU members probably still can't name the head of the TUC. The point I'm trying to make is that this was not a "Peoples" Assembly but an Activists one and frankly will have been ignored by even the majority of individuals who act as TU reps.

What is needed is a new ideas, not rehashed ones from the same people who have been around for years simply changing the names of their organisations. Members are not impressed by being hectored by "wild eyed loons" to pinch an oft used phrase that even the Tories describe their won "rank & file.

People remain uninspired by the same old, same old.

If the unions are to move forward I firmly believe the old fashioned left (SWP, SP) have to be sidelined for a new pluralistic, open minded and non-dogmatic set of ideas that recognises the individual as a key constituent of society, albeit with a strong sense of social responsability.

And before anyone pulls me up over this I do not claim to have all the answers and recognise that this will be the most difficult of tasks.

Curious Chris said...

It certainly seems a broad church with Counterfire and Socialist Resistance seated on pews next to the Greens, CP and the regional TUC. Can't help feeling hymn books will fly!

Barbara said...

How many cuts have been avoided by people shouting 'No to all cuts'?
None I suspect.

Surely it is time for a more realistic strategy then?

Richard Lawson said...

It is not quite the case that PS wants "No Cuts" - despite what the slogans say. There was applause every time that cuts to Trident and HS2 were mentioned.

It would be more useful to take "No Austerity" as the slogan rather than "No Cuts", given that austerity as an economic policy in a recession is, as all (except Jeffrey)can see, counterproductive.

As far as the economics goes, the proposition to tax the rich got applause every time it was mentioned. There was mention of investment in infrastructure as a strategy for economic recovery, and also some mention of QE going directly into the real economy instead of into the coffers of the banks, and thence into offshore accounts.

PA is not an economic think tank, but if it is to amount to anything more than a glorious but doomed rallying point, it needs a well thought out alternative to austerity. Happily, we do have such in the shape of Compass' Plan B, the Green New deal group, and Positive Money UK.

Roobin said...

Look at it another way. How does an anti-austerity movement cohere on the basis of Cuts for You, No Cuts for Me? That is most emphatically not realistic.

Matthew Smith said...

I was at the assembly and attended two of the parallel sessions (reviewed here). I can say that it was all talk and really not much discussion; it was speeches, and even when people from the audience contributed, it was a one-way street and there was no discussion of it. The plenary session didn't mention anything that had taken place in the parallel sessions. All in all it was a good networking event and the speeches were great (although Owen Jones and Mark Steel delivered much the same speeches they've given elsewhere), but it wasn't a forum or a conference.

Eddie said...

I thought Howard Fuller's comment above was pitched exactly right.

Speedy said...

And what are they going to achieve with their "no cuts?"

The people who agree will nod vigorously and the people that don't will shake their heads.

I doubt anyone will change their mind. Successive govts have adopted the same policy to strikes as to hostage crisis - no concessions.

The unions thwarted effective opposition to the cuts when they put in their placeman - Ed Milliband. Labour has been drifting ever since and long ago lost the argument against austerity.

As in '79 when union short-sightedness ushered in Thatcher, so too have they inadvertently helped the Tories make the case for cuts by foisting a rubbish candidate on Labour who was unable to contend their false narrative on blame for the crisis.

The British trade union movement is the best ally the Tories ever had.

Tonghammer said...

It's rather a question of modernising the SWP and SP than sidelining them - what assembly of left thinkers would sideline them anyway. Orgs like the SWP and the SP need to settle on a model of distribution and production that makes common sense and jettisons such concepts as nationalisation in favour of local democratic control.
We need our utopias, our reaching for the stars - landing short may see us atop a dizzy peak.
We should pay close attention to the likes of Noam Chomski.
Neil Kellyoo

Anonymous said...

this is a good piece of writing unless we respect the differences between people who oppose the cuts on local government but feel they can still achieve some good by running the local council and those who have no problem with them then the movement is on a path of division.

howard fuller said...


The problem with the SWP and SP is that they are control freaks as anyone who has dealings with them will know. Until they ditch their ideological leanings I see them as part of the problem.


You are right about the local councillors, they really are stuck between a "rock and a hard place". If they quit who would replace them? Tories, UKIP, Ratepayers? They'd be worse.

Its' easy for their critics who don't have to actually face that dilema to sit on the sidelines with such ideology purity.

Of course the fact that these critics include the TUSC which consists of the SP & the SWP sort of brings us full circle to my original point.

Tonghammer said...

Well, comrades keep a close eye on Southampton. Two Labour councillors rebelled against cuts and have thrown their lot in with us (TUSC). although I joined the SP after being expelled from the LP, I maintain in my heart of hearts that organisation along anarcho syndicalist lines is the best model to come out of left philosophy for society. There you have it: I am active in both TUSC and the SP. There are no control freaks as far as I can see around us. If any show up I will expose them quite easily in the light of democratic principle. Keep you eye on us three recent Labour orphans in Southampton.mayst