Where next for People's Assembly?
More than lowest common denominator politics is needed to challenge austerity, argues Peter Manson
This weekend’s No More Austerity demonstration called by the People’s Assembly will almost certainly be the biggest of its type for some time. Set up by former Socialist Workers Party leaders John Rees and Lindsey German, the PA represents the “united front against austerity” that they had urged the SWP to initiate just before they abandoned ship in 2010.
The SWP under the two comrades had, of course, established the Stop the War Coalition, which organised one of the biggest demonstrations in British history - around two million people turned out on February 15 2003 against the pending US-led invasion of Iraq. It goes without saying that June 21 2014 will see a fraction of those numbers, but no doubt comrades German and Rees will feel very pleased indeed with their efforts afterwards.
After all, there are no fewer than 78 local PA groups (some far more active than others, needless to say) and 45 of them have organised coaches to London from different locations across the country. With a good number of union leaders in support, and the enthusiastic backing of the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain, the People’s Assembly has easily outstripped all the other anti-cuts campaigns.
Just like the SWP’s Unite the Resistance and the Socialist Party’s National Shop Stewards Network Anti-Cuts Campaign, the PA was the baby of a particular leftwing group - in this case Counterfire, the organisation set up by comrades Rees, German and their supporters when they walked out of the SWP. Counterfire’s first attempt at an anti-cuts “united front” was the Coalition of Resistance, but that has now been quietly dropped in favour of the PA.
The PA (and before it the COR) is much more to the liking of the union bureaucrats and ‘official’ communists than either UTR of the NSSN, precisely because of Counterfire’s small size. It cannot flood meetings with its own members, of which there are no more than a few dozen. So comrades Rees and German have gained the trust of not just union lefts like Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, but top leaders, such as TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, who spoke at the PA’s 4,000-strong launch a year ago.
And the PA is expecting quite a number of trade union contingents when the demo assembles outside the BBC headquarters in Portland Place at 1pm on Saturday (it will march through central London to Parliament Square for a “free festival”). For example, people will be asked to choose one of 18 “blocks” to march with, in order to “demonstrate the breadth of the movement”, and there will be one block for each of six national unions. There will also be one for trades councils, plus others for campaigners on education, health, anti-racism, the environment, peace and so on.
In other words, this will be an event so broad that no-one to the left of the Tories could possibly object to it. It is true that PA material carries a shopping list of the type that all left groups support - “reverse the cuts, renationalise our utilities and public services”; demand a “statutory living wage, abolish zero-hours contracts, end the wage freeze”; “higher tax on the rich and a clampdown on tax avoidance”; and “a publicly owned, democratic banking system”. But the organisers have gone out of their way to pull in those well to their right.
The section on the website entitled “Join the demonstration on June 21 because …” carries the statements of everyone from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas to John Hilary of War on Want, from Frances O’Grady to former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Williams declares: “… austerity today, imposed in a way that intensifies inequality and insecurity, means a generation deprived of their birthright”.1 From bishops to brickies …
Speakers at the “festival” will include the usual suspects like Owen Jones, Jeremy Corbyn, Len McCluskey and Matt Wrack, but there will also be comedians Russell Brand and Francesca Martinez, singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson and the left pop band, The Farm, to entertain us.
It is, of course, an excellent thing that June 21 will see thousands of workers coming together to protest against the anti-working class austerity offensive. However, we cannot leave it at that. How are we to take things forward from there? It has to be said that, under their current leadership, neither the unions nor the anti-cuts movement inspire any confidence that our class can be won to launch a real counteroffensive.
Comrades Rees and German have form in this regard. Just think where they attempted to direct the anti-war millions. Into something called Respect, I seem to recall. Respect under its SWP leadership was not intended to be any kind of working class, socialist formation. No, it was to be an alliance of “secular socialists” and “radical Muslims” coming together in an anti-war party. This cross-class popular front stood in elections on a reformist, Keynesian programme to govern Britain!
In their Counterfire reincarnation comrades Rees and German do not aspire to much better. The new party they want to create may be nominally working class, but it will be just as ‘broad’ - ie, just as rightwing - as Respect. June 21 is intended to bring together everyone who is vaguely progressive - that is what the various “blocks” are all about. And then?
Just as Rees and German never attempted to win the STWC majority to working class, let alone Marxist, politics, so it is with the People’s Assembly. We don’t want to appear too leftwing, do we? That would put off the likes of O’Grady and McCluskey, not to mention charity-mongers and former archbishops. So, under this scenario, the PA is doomed to remain a broad front that, just like the STWC before it, cannot even recommend a party it considers worthy of support come election time.
At least when they were in the SWP the comrades had some kind of ‘strategy’ for achieving a Marxist party. There was a division of labour, of course. They would keep up the ‘broad’ appearances, while the SWP rank and file would attempt to recruit individual anti-war protestors to the ‘already existing’ proto-party. But who is going to join Counterfire? On Saturday’s demo there will be far more comrades trying to win people to join the SWP.
As for Counterfire itself, its website still claims it has 21 “local groups” across the country, including those of students, but it is not expanding. For example, its May 31-June 1 Dangerous Times “festival” was hardly a rival to the SWP’s Marxism. Where is Counterfire itself going?
In that respect the Left Unity leadership is more advanced - LU’s approach is actually political, which is more than can be said about the PA. We may not agree with the type of party proposed by the LU majority, but at least they have grasped the central point - without a party to lead and coordinate resistance, we will not be able to defeat austerity, let alone win advances for the working class and oppressed.