No controversy, please

Peter Manson reports on the PA’s second national delegate conference

When John Rees and Lindsey German of Counterfire, with the support of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and several union leaders, launched the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in June 2013, they were thinking big. They remembered the days, back in February 2003, when the previous “broad, inclusive” movement they headed, the Stop the War Coalition, mobilised up to two million people on a demonstration against the Iraq war.

In fact some 4,000 people attended the PA’s launch event two years ago, while in March 2014 around 800 delegates and observers were at its first national conference. And in June this year 60,000-70,000 came to the PA’s national demonstration against cuts (although Counterfire and just about everyone on the left claimed an absurdly exaggerated “quarter million” were there). So, this year the PA optimistically booked up ‘The Light’ - the 1,000-seater hall in London’s Friends Meeting House - for its 2015 delegate conference, but I am afraid to say the numbers turning up on December 5 did not match up to expectations (or to the expensive hall booking), with only around 200 people coming along.

PA national secretary and Counterfire member Sam Fairbairn insisted in his speech that the movement PA is trying to mobilise has got to involve “the Green Party, the far left” and people he described as “non-political”. But it goes without saying that those attending were overwhelmingly leftwing activists of one kind or another - members of groups like Counterfire and the CPB, with rather fewer from the likes of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales; plus individual Occupy types and ‘direct actionists’, not to mention a few Green Party members, such as PA co-chair Romayne Phoenix.

Her fellow co-chair, Steve Turner, the assistant general secretary of Unite and most certainly a PA enthusiast, informed the conference: “We don’t want to close down any debate here.” But he did not say that the organising committee, including himself, had done precisely that, when it came to one particular motion at least. Teesside PA had proposed the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by a democratically controlled militia. As Teesside secretary Steve Cooke explained in an email to comrade Fairbairn, “We propose this in order to protect an anti-austerity government from military intervention, as we have seen threatened against Syriza in Greece and more recently against Jeremy Corbyn.”

Outside the remit

But the committee simply omitted the motion from the list of those submitted, even though it had been almost unanimously agreed by the 12 people attending the Teesside meeting that adopted it (one comrade abstained). When comrade Cooke asked for an explanation, he was informed by comrade Fairbairn: “We felt the motion was outside of the remit of the People’s Assembly.”

The Teesside motion declares that “the working class must equip itself with all weaponry necessary to bring about revolution”, continued comrade Fairbairn, but the PA “has never taken policy on support for revolution”. It was launched on the basis of “agreement with the founding statement, which allows broad support on limited demands”, and these “enable people from every political background to unite to form the largest opposition possible against government austerity measures”.

So how does that tie in with - for example - the comments made to conference by left economist Michael Burke , which were clearly supported by the PA leadership? Comrade Burke complained that “Business is not investing”, with companies preferring instead to “pay their shareholders and hoard cash”. He went on: “John McDonnell is absolutely right: we need to raise taxation to invest - that’s how we get out of austerity.” He summed up the PA majority view when he said: “Our alternative is investment for prosperity.”

Well, excuse me, but this is a demand for a particular political line in relation to economic policy: ie, Keynesianism. So why is that compatible with building “broad support on limited demands”, even though Marxists and the “far left” are (or should be) totally opposed to building illusions in this kind of “alternative”?

Surely, as comrade Cooke told me, “Our motion contains campaign demands - just like all the other motions that have been allowed on the conference agenda.” He added: “This is supposed to be a conference, not a rally. Conference should be allowed to debate this motion like any other and vote on it democratically.”

Comrade Fairbairn, in his December 1 email, stated:

The motion also calls for: “The dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a popular militia under democratic control”. This is something that, even if conference voted in favour of, would be practically impossible for the organisation to undertake.

To which comrade Cooke retorted:

Is the People’s Assembly able to cancel all the cuts? Is the PA able to bring all the troops home? Do we expect the PA national secretary personally to deactivate the Trident warheads? No. That hasn’t stopped the PA campaigning on those issues.

In his attempts to get the officers to change their mind, comrade Cooke had a discussion before the conference and during the lunch break with comrades Turner, Fairbairn, treasurer Nick McCarthy and the Green Party’s Romayne Phoenix. Comrade McCarthy told him that what Teesside was proposing was “not a serious motion”, while comrade Turner thought it would be “an embarrassment to John McDonnell”, who was due to address the conference in the afternoon. Romayne Phoenix added that it was “not the sort of thing we’d want in writing” - the Quakers, who own Friends House, “wouldn’t let us use the venue” if they thought we were discussing such things.

In his closing speech to the conference, comrade Turner referred to the fact that left activists had been placed under house arrest under the state of emergency in France and concluded: “We in this room are thought of as extremists and we have to be prepared for that.” How, exactly, should we be “prepared”? On the one hand, we need a “broad, united, inclusive movement”, but, on the other hand, “it’s not called the class struggle because it’s a stroll in the park”.

Leaving aside the fact that phrases like “class struggle” might alienate all those “non-political” people in the “broad, united, inclusive movement” he wants to see, it is clear that for the likes of comrade Turner the “class struggle” is something the ruling class does to us. We should not advocate fighting back in a serious way. After all, we can only build “broad support” on “limited” - ie, non-contentious - demands.

As comrade Cooke pointed out, the democratic way to deal with a motion considered undesirable would be to persuade delegates to vote against it. But, no, the delegates - who mainly represented local PA groups and made up around half of those present - were not even informed that the motion had been received. I am sure there was more than a grain of truth in the statement that it would have been “an embarrassment to John McDonnell”, had it appeared in writing: you know how the rightwing media keep trying to catch him out. Obviously the best thing we can do is join him in beating a retreat in the hope they will lay off.

New politics

Talking of John McDonnell, he was introduced by comrade Turner near the end of the conference as an “inspiring leader” who is “soon to be chancellor of the exchequer!”

Comrade McDonnell told us that after last month’s Commons episode he was “not allowed to do any more jokes”. But he reported how, when he was asked after addressing a Chamber of Commerce meeting why he had “chucked the ‘little red book’ across the floor of the house”, he replied: “Because Das Kapital is so heavy and comes in so many volumes.” He added: “Jeremy will kill me!”

He made the point that the lobbying of MPs had been “interpreted as intimidation or threats” (which he said are “not part of our politics”). However, he claimed that he had “been arguing for a free vote for years”. Apparently allowing Labour MPs to decide for themselves whether to vote for this latest military aggression - even though it represented a “disgraceful, shameful step backwards” - has “actually raised the level of politics”. Unfortunately he got loud applause for this comment.

The rest of his speech was a mixture of Keynesian reformism - Labour will be “reviewing every institution we have to manage our economy” - and militant platitudes: “If we have to resist such a law [as the Trade Union Bill], so be it.” But I am sure our Counterfire comrades will be pleased to hear that the PA is “part of that process of developing our new politics” - which is why comrade McDonnell will “support the People’s Assembly all the way”.

As for the rest of the agenda, it was characterised overwhelmingly by totally uncontentious motions, which were almost all supported either unanimously or with just one or two abstentions. There were only two taken to a vote that were actually opposed by anyone at all.

The first of these related to the European Union referendum (which is obviously not “outside of the remit” of the People’s Assembly). The Doncaster motion, referring to the main ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns stated: “The left, the trade unions and campaigning groups which make up the People’s Assembly are divided in their voting preferences. Therefore the People’s Assembly cannot campaign for either option.” It was agreed overwhelmingly with a handful against.

The second such motion came from Cardiff. It called for the PA to “launch a national campaign for councils to refuse to set cuts budgets this year and instead set ‘needs’ budgets”. It also wanted the PA to “organise a national meeting for councillors, trade unionists and anti-austerity campaigners to explore how councils can resist”.

But Fred Leplat, who represents Socialist Resistance on the PA committee, complained that the Cardiff motion “doesn’t recognise where we are”. We need “a strategy towards setting anti-cuts budgets” rather than demanding “illegal no-cuts budgets” right now. On the other hand, the committee was in favour of a motion from Southampton, which called on the PA to accept the task of “convening a national meeting of local authorities in the new year with the aim of creating joint platforms from which councils can stand together to defend our public services”.

But, when it came to the vote, comrade Turner stated from the chair: “This is a contentious one.” He explained that, while Southampton thought we should “start to build a campaign”, the Cardiff motion, which “the committee has opposed”, want to “do it now”.

Several people heckled that the chair was making a speech to try and influence the outcome of the vote, and this could well have swayed delegates to support the Cardiff motion. The only time the committee openly opposed a motion, its advice was rejected by a substantial majority.

I wonder what would have happened if it had allowed the Teesside motion to be put.