People's Assembly: John Rees and the fragile politics of broadness
Peter Manson reports on the launch of John Reess united front against austerity
The June 22 People’s Assembly Against Austerity was undoubtedly a big success, with more than 4,000 having registered to attend. Virtually every seat was taken in the main conference hall, which holds well over 2,000, and hundreds of others squeezed into overflow rooms.
As people tried to move between different rooms in Central Hall, Westminster and the specially erected marquees outside for the various parallel sessions, stewards on several occasions had to block access to various areas until more space had been made, and a couple of hundred people were made to wait outside before the final plenary until the lobby could be cleared.
Most of those attending were upbeat afterwards - with good reason: although 4,000 represents just a tiny fraction of those who must be mobilised if government attacks are to be held off, it is big compared to what the left normally expects to pull in for an event of this kind.
And let us be clear: this was a left event. Not only was it John Rees and Counterfire, the small group that split from the Socialist Workers Party in 2010, that took the initiative to organise the assembly, making use of the fulsome support of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and its union contacts, but the established leaders of the workers’ movement who came to address it felt obliged to use much more militant language than we are accustomed to hearing from them.
For example, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, told the opening plenary: “They are waging class war on ordinary workers.” That means we will have to “mobilise in the workplaces and on the streets too”. To start with, she reassured teachers preparing to strike on June 27: “You can count on our support 100%.” Of course, when it came to the demands the union bureaucracy supports, vagueness prevails. O’Grady said she was for “fair taxes for the rich they can’t dodge”, while for workers she demanded “not the minimum wage, but a fair wage”. And the politics? She told us she was for a “more equal, more democratic Britain”.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey referred in the closing plenary to the “ruling elite” who are “trying to save their system by dumping on ordinary people”. He added: “Looking at all the poverty and starvation around the world, you can see what a terrible system capitalism is” (there were loud cheers for this use of the ‘c’ word). But, while that ,system still persists, he taunted its personifications: “Pay your taxes, you greedy bastards!” McCluskey wanted to see “direct action and civil disobedience”. And, in response to heckles calling for a general strike, he added: “And, yes, we must also build an atmosphere for mass industrial strike action.” He promised: “We will not let anti-trade union legislation get in our way. Strikes against austerity are legitimate!”
As for Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, he called for “a political response to austerity and an idea of how we can implement it”. But he did not elaborate. He did, however, invite us to “imagine” Ed Miliband promising to “break the pay freeze, increase the minimum wage, increase benefits, cap rents, scrap nukes and attack big business”. He looked forward to a mass movement of the type seen elsewhere in Europe: “Let’s sock it to these vicious ruling class bastards!”
It was also a bit of a coup for comrade Rees et al that the June 22-July 5 ‘People United’ tour of England - sponsored by “a coalition of unions dedicated to working with communities” - set out from outside Central Hall during the afternoon of the assembly. The two brightly painted buses, daubed with the motherhood-and-apple-pie appeal for “jobs, wages, homes, our NHS and communities”, are heading for the Midlands, the north-east and Manchester, where they will call on everyone to put in their suggestions for a “people’s manifesto”, before returning to the capital.
The session, ‘Mobilising millions: re-unionising the UK’, might have provided an opportunity for discussing ways to halt the decline in trade union membership and transform the unions into bodies fit for resisting the coalition’s austerity assault.
Unfortunately, however, that did not happen. Mind you, hundreds of people can hardly be expected to engage in serious discussion in an hour and a quarter, which was the length of all the sessions. True, the platform speakers made some good points on current realities. For instance, Faiza Shaheen from the marginally left-of-centre New Economics Foundation pointed out that, for many, “Work no longer pays: it impoverishes you.” There is an urgent need for strong collective bargaining rights, and strong unions, she said.
John Hendy QC went further: the problem, he said, is the collapse of collective bargaining. He pointed out that, in 1979, 82% of all workers were protected by such collective bargaining (which he said was a figure approximating to the average in Europe today); but now just 23% are members of a union with negotiating rights (and only 16% in the private sector).
However, Hendy presented collective bargaining not so much as a means of strengthening our hand in class battles as producing a “more successful economy”. You see, if there is money in the pockets of the workers they spend it, and this boosts the economy. But those foolish capitalists just do not seem to understand that. Hendy asserted that pay levels should be set “not by the great and the good, but by the representatives of the workers”.
For Luke Hildyard of the High Pay Centre that is the situation that pertains in Germany: “Because of the unions,” he would have you believe, “Volkswagen in Germany is not about profit, but about public service.” He was for workers’ representatives on company boards and also for a pay cap for those at the top. This was not about the “politics of envy”, he said: it was about a means of achieving better pay for everyone.
Like Kelly Tomlinson of Unite, he called for a union recruitment drive: “Educate people about trade unions and about socialism,” she had urged. “Everybody should think who they can recruit” (to a union, not to a revolutionary workers’ party).
The two-minute contributions from the floor were not much better. One comrade thought we should “Make trade unionism trendy”, while several spoke about something else entirely: “Organise a general strike”. “Learn from Europe, from Egypt.” “Name the day - where the hell is the general strike?” These comrades did not declare any political affiliation, but I had a funny feeling that they might be members of a certain organisation.
According to the Socialist Workers Party’s internal Party Notes, “On Saturday the SWP was highly visible and involved in all the discussion and the organisation. SWP members had four platform speeches and spoke in all the workshops. In some of the workshops our comrades made up half of those who spoke” (June 24).
It is strange that they did not identify themselves, however. Comrades might have been “highly visible” as individuals, but the organisation itself? I suspect that a clear majority of the audience would not have recognised the exhortations for a general strike (and the enthusiastic and loud response coming from other SWP comrades in the audience) as those of a particular group.
One of the “workshops” that Party Notes was referring to was definitely ‘Immigration is not to blame - countering racism, Islamophobia and the far right’. SWP members had clearly been directed to this session too, with Weyman Bennett and Jo Cardwell among those making totally predictable noises in their contributions from the floor. Comrade Bennett urged “unity against the Nazis”. We should all “stand together - they shall not pass!” He pointed out that, whereas the UK Independence Party “aren’t fascists”, it is made up of “filthy racists”. Comrade Cardwell made similar noises, calling on everyone to defend multiculturalism, which is “under sustained attack”. Other comrades made equally simplistic and vacuous exhortations, such as “Fight austerity, fight the racists”, “Ban the bankers, not the burqa” and “We stand by ‘no platform’”.
Speaking of ‘no platform’, one of the top-table speakers, Guy Taylor (formerly of the SWP and now a Counterfire member), said that the English Defence League’s Tommy Robinson should not be allowed on the airwaves. There is a “direct link” between such appearances and attacks on mosques, he claimed. He also contended that the British National Party got a “huge boost” when Nick Griffin went on Question time. Funny that - I thought it had the opposite effect, with many BNP members themselves angry at his idiotic performance. But that is the nature of dogma - it sometimes requires the facts to be amended to bring them into line with what ought to happen.
Comrade Taylor did the usual debunking job on anti-migrant myths: immigrants are not “undercutting wages” - you should blame those who pay low wages, not those who receive them. Whereas 17% of the whole population receive benefits, only 7% of migrants do so. They are not a burden on the NHS: without them it would collapse.
And there was more dogma. Comrade Taylor pointed out that on May 9 no fewer than 153 people were arrested and removed, and commented: “Yet they say that British immigration policy is not racist.” Was it only me who thought that was a non-sequitur? But, like ‘no platform’, ruling class racism is a ‘truth’ that only needs asserting, never substantiating. It was sufficient to say: “There is no question that immigration controls are racist”. However, comrade Taylor went on, many “UK white people” are also affected - they are prevented from bringing in their spouses if their income is below £18,000. So immigration controls are “also” directed against the working class.
Left Labour MP Diane Abbott carefully used the phrase, “anti-immigration racism”, describing it as a “classic way of dividing the working class”. This unusual expression at least had the merit of seeming to recognise that it is a “racism” directed at outsiders, irrespective of their ethnicity, rather than against black and brown Britons. In other words, immigration controls are today not actually racist at all: rather, as they have always been and as comrade Taylor seems at last to be grasping, they are “directed against the working class”. By controlling the numbers available for work, they give capital - whose movement is generally unrestricted - the advantage in the class struggle. It is for this reason that immigration controls should be opposed.
Sabby Dhalu - along with comrade Bennett a joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism - made remarks along the lines of “The British people don’t pay their licence fee to have rightwing fascists on TV”. She also commented on the “leadership shown” in 2005, “when we had a leftwing mayor”, which “helped prevent racist attacks” after 7/7.
Addressing us as “ladies and gentlemen”, Mohammed Kazber of the British Muslim Initiative assured us that the “British Muslim community” condemns the Woolwich terrorist attack. While there have been “nasty incidents against Muslims”, he was “glad to say the police have recognised the danger”.
The session called ‘The economics of anti-austerity: jobs, investment and tax justice’ was, as its title suggests, the one that was supposed to arm us with the political and economic arguments for an alternative to austerity. But, also as the title suggests, what we got was warmed over Keynesianism.
Its most clear (and rightwing) advocate was the former “leftwing mayor” that comrade Dhalu holds in such esteem, Ken Livingstone. He asked us to compare “31 years of Keynesianism” (1951-82) with “31 years of Thatcherism” (1982-2013) in terms of the resulting economic growth (the first period won hands down, it goes without saying). He also asked us to compare “what happened in the US” after 2008 with the coalition’s cuts programme. Because Obama did not embark on austerity, the US has seen a recovery. And Livingstone also held up Germany as a model - it is “doing better because of its low interest rates”. What? Lower than in the UK? And “We spend more on arms than other European countries.”
For Livingstone, the “biggest part of investment should be public” - we should build homes. “We” should also freeze fares, etc, and give working people more to spend. And “with political will” you can stop tax avoidance. “Do all these things and the British economy will grow by three percent,” promised Ken.
James Meadway of Counterfire referred warmly to Ken Loach’s The spirit of ’45 and the “great reforming government” after World War II. For him, there is “no economic case for austerity - you don’t have to be some lefty to understand that”. As Keynes himself had pointed out, “If I spend less, someone else earns less”. But his Keynesianism was of a left variety: “To stop austerity, break up the banks.” Put the financial system “under our control and our democratic mandate”. That is the way to achieve a recovery, he said.
In response to a comrade from the floor who wanted to know why Keynesianism was ever dropped when it is such obvious common sense, comrade Meadway admitted: “Keynesianism did fail, which is why there was a turn to neoliberalism.” Nevertheless, we should “start where Keynes left off” - with the “socialisation of investment”, for instance - taking us “beyond Keynesianism”.
John Hilary of War on Want was also for “going beyond Keynesianism” - he specified public ownership, public service and a redistribution of wealth. But his main concern was to push the charity’s global ‘tax justice’ campaign. This was a recurring theme - if only the rich could be made to pay up, all our economic problems would be solved.
A little better was Marxist economist Özlam Onaram, who told us: “Austerity is class warfare.” In her response to the points raised, she reminded us that Keynes was wholeheartedly for the system, yet there is “no good capitalism”. She said we need to go “beyond capitalism” - an implicit criticism of the call to go “beyond Keynesianism”, which, she said, does not even guarantee growth. But she too was for a wage cap for high earners, in order to give “better wages for the majority”. There should be a national development bank and “participatory control”.
Amongst those who contributed from the floor was Counterfire’s Neil Faulkner. But he did not speak to the session’s theme. Rather he used his two minutes to urge: “Build a mass movement from below to stop them.” That meant setting up local People’s Assemblies. The aim should be to “make this country ungovernable for those who would destroy the welfare state”.
There was plenty of such rhetoric on Saturday, including at the closing plenary. Apart from McCluskey and Serwotka, this final session also heard from an extremely frail-looking Tony Benn, NUT general secretary Christine Blower, stand-up comedian and disability activist Francesca Martinez, former Respect member and now independent Tower Hamlets councillor Rania Khan, Zita Holbourne of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (Barac), and a buoyant John Rees.
Rania Khan was “sick of hearing other politicians saying there is no alternative to cuts”. In Tower Hamlets “we’ve kept open a youth centre that was marked to close, built a new library and introduced grants for local kids going to university. Did we do this by having more money than other councils? No! We had political determination.” So there is actually no real problem with austerity then. Provided you have councillors with “political determination”, you can avoid making cuts, it seems.
For her part, Zita Holbourne - a member of the TUC race relations committee as well as a Barac spokesperson - was keen to stress Barac’s separatist agenda: “We need black self-organisation.” In fact, “We don’t live in a ‘post-racial’ Britain, like the politicians say.” It is black people who are hit particularly hard by austerity. And, given that they do not have “an equal share in society”, they should at least have “an equal share in our movement”. Separate, but equal.
Like Len McCluskey (who reported that his “chief of staff”, Andrew Murray, had told him “he feels the same spirit here as he did during Stop the War”), comrade Rees was in ebullient mood. It had been a “magnificent People’s Assembly”, which, he said, must be “the beginning of a process drawing in hundreds, thousands, even millions of ordinary people”. While some may disagree over which forms of protest are best - “Is it strikes or direct action?” - for him the answer was simple: “It is both and all! We will need every form of resistance.” In order to “break this government” (he quoted Aneurin Bevin to the effect that “Tories are lower than vermin”) we must “hit them with everything in our armoury”.
It was a rousing performance which got the audience cheering. No-one was going to quibble over the wording in the take-it-or-leave-it draft statement, which was approved by acclamation. At one point there had been cries of “Where’s Ken Loach?” from a section of the audience (see Sarah McDonald’s report, p6), but by and large people were prepared to accept that the People’s Assembly movement was in its early stages.
If, as intended, local PAs are created in towns and cities across the country, the plan is for a recall national assembly next spring, bringing together people who actually are “delegates” - rather than individuals who happened to turn up, as on June 22. Such a body will be in a position to take democratic decisions, according to how it is envisaged by comrades Rees, Murray, Owen Jones and so on.
But there is a problem. The two main political groups behind the PA cannot rely on hundreds of committed activists to ensure all the local assemblies come good. In the case of the Stop the War Coalition a decade ago, it was the SWP who provided the core, helping to organise all sorts of local activities and feeding into the huge national demonstrations.
However, despite the fact that comrade Rees and co are no longer members, the SWP intends to throw itself into the PA movement. According to Party Notes, “In every area we need to take part in setting up the local assemblies, helping turn words into action, and shaping them to raise the level of the fightback. In many areas there are already report-back meetings organised. We need to be central to these and to begin mobilising for the actions immediately” (June 24).
The SWP hopes in this way to regain the initiative, using where necessary its own anti-cuts front, Unite the Resistance. Party Notes comments that the June 22 People’s Assembly saw “tremendous enthusiasm for a united fight against the Tories and for resistance - starting with the demonstration in defence of the NHS backed by Unite, Unison, GMB and the TUC on Sunday September 29 at the Tory conference in Manchester”. Undoubtedly this will be the next priority for the SWP and UTR after the July 11-15 Marxism festival.
All working class partisans should engage with and help to build this new movement. But we should be far from uncritical. We do not agree that ‘The movement is everything’. It can only succeed if it is armed with a coherent working class programme. There can be no return to the post-war Keynesian consensus and if such politics continue to dominate the PA they will cripple it, rendering it useless in the struggle for a genuine alternative.