Keep it broad, keep it safe
Peter Manson reports on the first national conference of the ‘united front against austerity’
Around 800 people came to the first national conference of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity on March 15. Set up by John Rees and Lindsey German of Counterfire, with the support of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and several union leaders, the PA was launched in June 2013 at an event attended by about 4,000.
But Saturday’s meeting was a somewhat more businesslike affair than the launch. Usually when the left calls a rally under the name of whatever front, it declares it to be a “conference” and those attending “delegates”. But in this instance “conference” just about fitted the bill and about half of those present were indeed delegated by local or national bodies - the rest being individual “observers” without the right to vote.
But in one respect this event was just like the others - it started half an hour after the advertised time, despite there being no fewer than 70 motions to discuss, as well as a number of other business matters. And things were further delayed by the tributes extended to Bob Crow and Tony Benn. We began by rising to give a one-minute standing ovation in their honour, and subsequently speeches were heard by Geoff Revell of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union in memory of comrade Crow, while comrade German spoke about Tony Benn.
Comrade Revell mixed his militancy (“When you fight us, we will resist! We will fight you!”) with a reminder of “what it was like 30 years ago”, when “We owned the gas, the water, the electricity!” But his speech was heartfelt and moving. Comrade German, for her part, said that by paying tribute to Tony Benn we are “dedicating ourselves to changing the world”.
Before that we heard reports from Counterfire’s Sam Fairbairn, who is the PA national secretary, and treasurer Nick McCarthy. Comrade Fairbairn thought that “we have started to win the argument as to whether or not cuts are necessary”. He reported that “close to 100” local PA groups have been set up. Nationally the PA now employs two people full-time (but “on part-time wages”) in an office kindly provided by the Morning Star. And comrade McCarthy informed the conference that the PA had been boosted by the fact that all “recurring donations” previously paid to the Coalition of Resistance had now been transferred to the PA. The COR was Counterfire’s original attempt to form a broad anti-cuts organisation. But, like the Socialist Workers Party’s Unite the Resistance and the National Shop Stewards Network anti-cuts campaign, it never got anywhere.
The debate on the motions was supposed to start at 11am, but, by the time all the preliminaries had been completed, it was 12.15 when the real business actually began. According to Dave Kellaway of Socialist Resistance, “The conference organisers did a fantastic job preparing the documentation and the agenda, so that it all ran extremely smoothly.”1 Yes, all 70 motions were put to conference and the agenda was completed on time. But comrade Kellaway only tells half the story.
The organisers managed to get through the business thanks to the - shall we say - unusual methods they adopted. The motions were divided into several “themes” and, within each of these, one was declared to be the “main motion”, while all the others were deemed to be “supplements”. A speech was heard in favour of the so-called “main motion” and one of the “supplements” (chosen by lottery). If anyone wanted to oppose the “main motion”, one speech would be heard, in which case the mover would have the right of reply, but in general there was no debate whatsoever. There was no right to speak against the “supplements”. All the main motions were passed either overwhelmingly or unanimously and the supplements were thereby declared to be successful as well!
To give you an idea of the nature of these main motions, four were moved by the PA’s existing leadership (the “signatories group”), plus one each by the CPB, Counterfire, Unite community branches, the Green Party and the National Union of Teachers. Speaking of the NUT, comrade Fairbairn told us that it had approached the PA about the latter’s planned demonstration on June 21 and offered to act as joint organisers. Unlike the SWP, Counterfire is obviously seen as a trustworthy organisation by the union bureaucracy. As comrade Rees commented, we have not seen anything like the success of the PA “since the beginning of the Stop the War Coalition”. I wonder who was behind that?
So some unions have got involved in local PAs, as have the CPB and SWP. While one or two SWPers managed to speak on the day, I got the impression there were only a couple of dozen of them present - less than both the CPB (there were several comments like “There’s only one paper that will support us on a daily basis”) and Counterfire. As for the Socialist Party in England and Wales, its comrades were certainly outside selling The Socialist, but they did not play any noticeable role in the hall.
Returning to the motions, some interesting ones were ‘agreed’. For example, the supplement from Teesside PA stated that “capitalist enterprises should open the books and have their state subsidies … ended, with those firms unable to survive on this basis being expropriated without compensation”. Then there was the one proposed by the “People’s Flotilla Against Austerity”, which in part read:
“1. … the ruling elite needs to be overthrown in support of an egalitarian and socialist society with the eradication of a classist society.
“2. Narrow Boats offer an alternative and imaginative approach to direct action by proposing to block the canal system to further the cause of the fight against austerity.”
The above is now PA policy. For the most part, however, it was straight-down-the-middle reformism. The very first main motion, for example, endorsed the CPB’s People’s Charter, with its call for a “fairer economy for a fairer Britain”, a “secure and sustainable future” and all-round “fairness and justice”.
Comrade Kellaway comments: “In current conditions none of the policies under these headings are acceptable to the capitalist market or to either New Labour or Tory governments. But there are plenty of links to the more radical Labour Party manifestos of the past and it provides a bridge to the level of existing class-consciousness.” We “should be constructing alliances around the same sort of policies that were adopted at this meeting and not try to steer so far to the left on policy that we lose any access to the thousands involved in these movements”. He might have been speaking for Counterfire, the SWP, SPEW, etc, as well. They all agree that ‘broadness’ is the key when it comes to opposing austerity (and anything else), rather than trying to win workers to the evident truths of Marxism.
And like Stop the War before it, the PA will not make any electoral recommendations. Teesside was prevailed upon to remit its motion, which sought to “endorse and support only candidates who commit themselves to opposing the austerity agenda” and, in their absence, perhaps look at “generating a candidate who could stand with the support of the People’s Assembly”. No chance.
The organisers had another trick up their sleeves when it came to those motions they did not want to see succeed. These were not called “supplements”, but deemed to be “amendments”. In fact they were not amending anything at all - if successful they would simply be added to the “main motion” promoted by the “signatories group”, even if that produced a contradictory result. And, despite the best efforts of the organisers, one of the five “amendments” was passed.
The result was farcical. The “signatories” had proposed that the PA should become a membership organisation - “Individual membership should be a minimum of £1 per month for the waged and free for the unwaged”. But the speaker from West Yorkshire PA declared that the People’s Assembly “shouldn’t be a membership organisation”, since, according to her “amendment”, “a paid membership scheme will exclude some people”. Rather, “Individual members will be encouraged to set up standing orders in favour of the local organisation”, which “may distribute funds to the national organisation in response to requests for funding which are accompanied by a budget and costing”.
This “amendment” was passed by 205 to 174 in the only vote that was actually counted all day. But then the “main motion” was agreed overwhelmingly too. In fact it was unamended - West Yorkshire’s proposal was actually a stand-alone motion: it had not wanted to ‘delete and replace’ anything. The result? The PA is now committed to two mutually exclusive positions simultaneously.
The result of this vote gives you an idea of the composition of the meeting - the majority were unaffiliated individuals, some no doubt former members of left groups, of the type who might be drawn to Occupy-type methods of organisation.
So you could see why the “signatories” trod carefully when it came to the “amendment” from Manchester PA in favour of “participatory democracy and consensus decision-making”, which, stated the mover, would consider “ways of empowering those absent from the meeting”. This was said to be “a new way of doing politics, as exemplified by Occupy and 15M [Spanish indignados]”.
Romayne Phoenix of the Green Party was selected to speak against this on behalf of the “signatories committee”, to the effect that we should not adopt Manchester’s ideas “at this point”. She mentioned accountability, but apparently this was only necessary “for this coming year”. Comrade Rees later pointed out that in any case “consensus is how we work”. For instance, we call a demonstration, but “if you don’t support it you don’t do it”. But we do have to have a vote, he said.
The Manchester proposal clearly fell, although a substantial minority voted for it.
The SWP had succeeded in passing an identical motion for conference at four different local PAs. It read: “Conference believes that, instead of accepting the demands of billionaire bosses such as Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos at Grangemouth, our unions need to resist attempts to make workers pay for the crisis.” I hear that this had originally been part of a longer motion, but the “signatories group” transformed it into an “amendment” - a sure sign they were going to oppose it. In introducing the trade union “theme”, chair Steve Turner (who just happens to be Unite assistant general secretary) warned us that the “amendment” would be controversial.
The comrade who introduced it reminded us that everyone had applauded a previous speaker who had said: “If you don’t fight you can’t win.” Yet Grangemouth workers had been told not to fight, she said. Surely we should recognise that we suffered a setback at Grangemouth? Not what comrade Turner, Counterfire or the CPB wanted to hear.
The speaker from the “signatories” who opposed this said that the “amendment” was “aimed at my union, Unite”. It was an “attack by people standing outside the workers’ movement”, she dishonestly claimed. Of course, since the motion had been declared an “amendment”, there was no right of reply, and this slander went unchallenged. Only a few delegates voted in favour.
Rather less contentious was the CPB motion, moved by its general secretary, Rob Griffiths, who made a brief appearance just to do so. This motion was entitled ‘Austerity is working’ - it sought to “rebalance the economy in favour of big monopoly business”. But in reality, “there is no need for any austerity”. The motion also called for the PA to set up an enquiry “to investigate the European Union’s role in the imposition of austerity”.
The only opposition came from Steve Wallis of Manchester, whose contribution was difficult to make out, thanks to the awkward placing of the microphone below him. But I did hear the phrase, “socialist revolution”. This allowed comrade Griffiths to come back in his “right of reply” to comment: “I know I came late, but I haven’t heard that the socialist revolution has broken out.” Comrade Wallis was the only delegate to vote against.
Other speakers proposing motions were Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, NUT general secretary Christine Blower and Lindsey German, whose anti-war contribution included the assertions that “Neoliberalism [not capitalism] and war go hand in hand”; and “The present crisis in Ukraine is all about Nato enlargement.” A little bit simplistic, that one.
Finally, Andy Squires - a representative of Doncaster careworkers, who are resisting attempts by private contractor Care UK to slash their pay, holidays and sick leave - was given a standing ovation. As he returned to his seat there were chants of “The workers, united, will never be defeated”. (A collection for the People’s Assembly raised £1,673 - half of which will go to the Doncaster strikers.)
Unfortunately, however, if the workers are to be guided by the kind of politics on display at the PA, it seems very unlikely that they “will never be defeated”.