People's Assembly: A rough guide
Who is behind the launch of the Peoples Assembly? What are the aims and methods? Peter Manson looks at the personalities, politics and possibilities
This weekend’s People’s Assembly Against Austerity is surely being anticipated with pride by John Rees and his Counterfire comrades. The June 22 event, held in Central Hall, Westminster (not to mention the street outside), enjoys the sponsorship of a breadth of organisations and individuals that comrade Rees’s former group, the Socialist Workers Party, can now only dream of.
According to its website, the People’s Assembly is “organised by” eight major trade unions, plus a whole number of campaigns and pressure groups, ranging from War on Want and the Institute of Employment Rights to Black People Rising Against the Cuts and the National Pensioners Convention. The Coalition of Resistance, comrade Rees’s first attempt to build a “united front against austerity”, is also modestly listed among the sponsors, along with the People’s Charter and the political groups most associated with those two campaigns - Counterfire and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain respectively. The only other political group named as an ‘organiser’ is that number one fan of ‘broadness’, Socialist Resistance.
The assembly is not only sponsored by Britain’s biggest unions: it is personally endorsed by Len McCluskey, Mark Serwotka, Billy Hayes, Bob Crow, Dave Prentis, Matt Wrack, etc, etc; and by left Labour MPs John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and Kate Clark, plus Green MP Caroline Lucas. The list of original sponsors reads like a Who’s who? of the mainstream British left: Owen Jones, Tariq Ali, John Pilger, Hilary Wainwright, John Hendy QC, Imran Khan, Ken Loach, Andrew Burgin, Kate Hudson and Bruce Kent. In addition to comrade Rees himself, there is also Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and three leading lights in the CPB: general secretary Robert Griffiths, chair Bill Greenshields and Star editor Richard Bagley. Oh - and Fred Leplat of Socialist Resistance.
While the PA is undoubtedly the brainchild of comrade Rees and co, it has been taken up with enthusiasm by the CPB - the Star has been breathlessly plugging it for weeks, and every day has been displaying the latest figure for those who have registered to attend at the top of page 2 under the PA logo. As I write, well over 3,500 have signed up. According to John Haylett, the PA, “with its clear, non-sectarian vision of an alternative to austerity, has seized the imagination of trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners in a way that no other organisation has proved capable of”.1
So what is the PA’s purpose? To bring all those opposed to austerity and the cuts together - simple as that. Just like comrade Rees’s previous prominent ‘united front’, the Stop the War Coalition, sought to pull in everyone who was against war. Of course, it is an excellent thing that we unite our forces - but the problem arises when we try to give them some political coherence. The likes of Counterfire and the SWP get round this problem in a straightforward way: they do not even try to bring about political coherence - in fact they strongly oppose any attempt to do so, as this would be “sectarian” and would see a huge loss of support. ‘Breadth’ is everything; political clarity nothing. Unless, of course, the political programme being touted is that of mainstream, reformist Labourism.
Although Rees and co promise that the assembly will allow time for the expression of different viewpoints, it is difficult to see that this will be a participatory event. Sandwiched between the opening and closing plenaries will be three batches of five parallel sessions, lasting an hour and a quarter each. In other words, the whole event will in reality be made up of a series of larger or smaller rallies. Of course, rallies have their place, but it is where they lead that is important.
And where they lead in this case is pretty clear. In addition to sessions on the NHS, “Welfare, not warfare”, “Immigration not to blame”, education and climate change, there will also be opportunities to listen to speakers discussing “tactics for the anti-austerity movement”, the effects of cuts locally, the importance of local PAs and “re-unionising the UK”. Interestingly there will be a session on democracy and “our broken political system”, but the session that comes closest to outlining an alternative politics will undoubtedly be that on the “economics of anti-austerity”.
This alternative politics takes the form of proposing a Britain’s road to socialism-type government, implementing more ‘sensible’ policies for a ‘fairer’ capitalism. No wonder the CPB is so keen. As the PA draft statement says, “We have a plain and simple goal: to make government abandon its austerity programme. If it will not, it must be replaced with one that will.”
The draft statement will be put to the final plenary for adoption. No amendments will be taken, but don’t worry - if you set up a local PA you will be able to draft those for presentation to the recall People’s Assembly next spring. The key paragraph in the draft statement is:
“The government’s austerity programme does not work; it is unjust, immoral and undemocratic. Alternatives exist. Debts can be dropped. Privatisation can be reversed and common ownership embraced. A living wage can begin to combat poverty. Strong trade unions can help redistribute profit. The vast wealth held by corporations and the trillions held by the super-rich in tax havens can be tapped. Green technology, alternatives to the arms industries, a rebuilt infrastructure, including growth in manufacturing, are all desperately needed.”2
The obvious question is, where will the alternative government able to implement such a programme of Keynesian left Labourism come from? Once again, do not expect that to be discussed on Saturday. A debate between those advocating ‘reclaim Labour’ and ‘set up a Labour Party mark two’ would be just too divisive. And, as for a programme for working class power and socialism … don’t be silly.
Admittedly the statement does contain supportable elements, particularly this paragraph: “We therefore choose to resist. We refuse to be divided against ourselves by stories of those on ‘golden pensions’, or of ‘scroungers’, or the ‘undeserving poor’. We do not blame our neighbours, whatever race or religion they may be. We are not joining the race to the bottom. We stand with the movement of resistance across Europe.”
The statement also proposes the following:
- The organisation of local Peoples Assemblies “in towns and cities across our nations [!], bringing all those fighting the cuts together into a broad, democratic alliance on a local basis”.
- A “recalled National Assembly”, partly organised by local PAs, to “review our work in the early spring of 2014”.
- Consultations with “leading experts”, not to mention “friendly think tanks”, in order to develop “an alternative programme for a new anti-austerity government”.
- A “national day of civil disobedience and direct action against austerity” and a “day of coordinated local demonstrations”. The PA will work with “the trade unions and others” for a national demonstration in November.
The statement claims: “We do not seek to replace any organisations fighting cuts. All are necessary.” But of the national anti-cuts campaigns only COR and the People’s Charter are specified - the SWP’s Unite the Resistance and the National Shop Stewards Network’s Anti-Cuts Campaign (controlled by the Socialist Party in England and Wales) do not get a look in. To be fair, comrades from the SWP and SPEW will be there on Saturday, but clearly Counterfire and COR have stolen a march on them in winning so many to the aim of establishing the “single, united national movement” to “challenge more effectively a nationally led government austerity programme”.
Of course, comrade Rees and co have been here before when they were in the leadership of the SWP. He, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham occupied key positions in the Stop the War Coalition. Now they have decamped and formed Counterfire, they are considered ‘safe’ by many on the soft left. There is an interesting exchange on this question in Red Pepper in the form of an interview with Owen Jones.
Comrade Jones was asked: “In some ways, the People’s Assembly feels like a conscious attempt to replicate the Stop the War Coalition. Although that was very successful in organising big set-piece national demonstrations, some activists were frustrated about the lack of internal democracy. What will make the leadership of this movement any more accountable and legitimate in the eyes of activists on the ground?”
To which comrade Jones replied: “Stop the War was dominated from the beginning by the Socialist Workers Party, who at that time were by far the biggest group on the far left, and had thousands of activists who could be mobilised to dominate key decision making. There isn’t an equivalent with the People’s Assembly. You might point out some individuals still involved, but the fact is this is something driven above all by the trade unions. There isn’t any group with the resources or personnel to dominate this at all.”
He continued: “There is a provisional steering committee with representatives of lots of different groups - from the Greens to Disabled People Against the Cuts. I really wouldn’t have time for anything I thought could be turned into a front for any Leninist sect.”3
As for comrade Rees himself, he states in a Morning Star article: “… this is not a statement written for the left … It’s a statement issued in the name of an assembly that is already broader than the existing left, aimed at hundreds of thousands of working people not in the left or the anti-austerity movement in any organised way.”4
Does that remind you of anything? Comrade Rees, then leader of the SWP, said something similar about Respect at the time of its formation back in 2004. Looking back at the debates at the end of the founding conference, he said: “We … voted against the things we believed in, because, while the people here are important, they are not as important as the millions out there. We are reaching to the people locked out of politics. We voted for what they want.”5
That epitomises comrade Rees’s political method, which he still upholds today. We cannot win the masses to a principled working class programme, so why bother even attempting to do so? The difference now is that all those union leaders and Labourite personalities have nothing to fear from SWP-style control-freakery. Comrade Rees may not have mended his ways when it comes to wanting a “front for a Leninist sect”. It is just that his current sect is too tiny to be able to control anything much at all.
Clearly many genuine leftwingers and working class partisans will actively support the launch of the People’s Assembly, along with the formation of local PAs. But, unlike comrade Rees, they should fight within them for a genuine alternative politics. A politics based on working class power, not an impossible return to a Keynesian consensus.
1. Morning Star June 8-9.
4. Morning Star June 8-9.
5. Reported in Weekly Worker January 29 2004.