Britain: People's Assembly conference a step forward in anti-austerity struggle

By Dave Kellaway

March 17, 2014 -- Socialist Resistance, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Bob Crow’s family sent a message of solidarity to the People’s Assembly conference on March 15. They recognised that he was fully supportive of this movement. A truly nationwide movement if you listened to the accents and checked the delegate lists of those attending yesterday. A broad movement with over a dozen major unions affiliated. A movement that is not a top-down coalition, as some of its ultraleft critics have suggested, but one that is embedded in over 80 local groups. More than 660 people registered and there were around 500 in attendance. As someone remarked to me, you could tell it was a broad mobilisation because you did not recognise many people.

The Emmanuel Centre with its biblical exhortations beautifully marked out on the walls was full with activists actually fighting for some of those good intentions in a 21st century where hundreds of thousands have to go to food banks each week.

Following the 4000-strong national on- day rally last year it was important for the People’s Assembly to create a proper constitutional structure based on active groups combined with the nationally affiliated trade unions and other organisations. It was also necessary to democratically discuss a statement of aims and a series of policies related to the anti-austerity struggle. The conference organisers did a fantastic job preparing the documentation and the agenda so that it all ran extremely smoothly. More than 90 motions had been sent in. Most were useful additional points that were incorporated into the motions. A few were up for debate since they had a different position on various points and these were all discussed calmly.

The main statement of aims more or less overlapped the pre-existing People’s Charter (from 2008) that had already been supported by the steering group but was adopted after discussion by the whole conference. There are six points to the charter:

1. A fairer economy for a fairer Britain.

2. More and better jobs.

3. High standard homes for all.

4. Protect and improve public services.

5. For fairness and justice.

6. For a secure and sustainable future.

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.

Delegate voting

On structure the conference accepted the main recommendations for an assembly which would meet at least twice a year in which each local group could send a delegate which would balance and potentially outvote the representatives of the signatory organisations (the trade unions, political groups and others). The steering group would still be nominated by the signatory organisations but the assembly gave the overall structure a much more democratic set-up in which the voices of local groups would carry real weight. In my opinion this is quite a good way of organising a broad united front campaign like the People’s Assembly. You have to put a weighting on the contribution of a big union with millions of members against a local group of activists. Conference correctly voted down a proposal for a far looser "participatory" network.

There was a fascinating discussion on the financing of the organisation. An amendment to the finance motion was carried against the signatories who moved the main motion. It turned around the amendment which argued that 30% of the individual donations and membership fees paid to the national People’s Assembly should be remitted to the local group. In other words people were in favour of a more serious set-up with regular payments but wanted to keep some resources on a local level. In fact Left Unity has a similar system. The fact that people argued this in a comradely fashion and won the conference showed that the meeting was entirely democratic and demonstrates that some ultra-left criticisms of the People’s Assembly as being undemocratic are unfounded.

Kirstine Carbutt gave a rousing report on the struggle of the Doncaster Unison members who are engaged in a battle with Care UK over the attempted change to their working conditions and pay as support workers for people with learning needs. The new privatised company, as is normal practice these days, wants to cut back on all the usual provisions for extra pay for unsocial hours and on other matters. The union has already organised a one-week strike and is preparing another for next week. The conference raised more than £800 for the strike fund. This report introduced the discussion on future actions which approved the action already being planned such as the actions on budget day, the 21 June national demonstration, the action at the Tory conference in September and the October Trades Union Congress demonstration.

Boosterism and realism

It was noticeable in this discussion and at other times in the conference that there were occasionally some over-optimism about the present situation. People talked about a "weak government" that the coalition was "frit" and that the anti-austerity movement was on the offensive. We should remember previous movements like the anti-poll tax campaigns when we make such assessments.

Sam Fairbairn’s speech veered a little in this 'boosterist" direction when he talked of the impact of the November 19 actions. Other speakers, such as Rob Griffiths from the Communist Party of Britain, were much more realistic about where we were at and accepted that the Tories had won some of the arguments about welfare in public opinion. John Rees was also more measured in his assessment. His central message, which I think we can all share, is that the People’s Assembly had done what it has said it would do – establish a national movement with a democratic structure and carry out actions we agreed. He is right and this is in itself a real step forward.

Other noteworthy contributions were on independent movement of disabled people where there were eloquent speeches from the DPAK speakers and from the anti-bedroom tax campaigners. In the final session resolutions were passed that made the link between the anti-austerity movement and the anti-war movement or the Greek Solidarity campaign.

Natalie Bennett from the Green Party made a very well-received speech motivating the proposals on the environment and on climate change, which included a plug for Caroline Lucas’s private members bill on the renationalisation of the railways. National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower rounded the day off with a militant speech both about education policy and the upcoming NUT strike action on March 26th

What is the political significance of this conference for the left?

First, this is the main and only real united-front campaign against austerity that draws in broad layers and the trade unions. It is properly organised with full timers and serious resources. Front campaigns such as the Socialist Workers Party’s Unite the Resistance or the Socialist Party’s [CWI] National Shop Stewards Network have been completely marginalised. Both organisations should start building Peoples Assemblies (PAs).

Indeed the SWP is actually beginning to do this in a number of areas. It is true some of the local PAs are fragile and at the early stages of development but a lot are doing important work – it is not so dissimilar to our experience in Left Unity. Furthermore the conference welcomed delegations from anti-cuts groups that are not called People’s Assembly. This is healthy and reflects debates that have taken place in the steering committee. Perhaps the most successful anti-austerity campaign has been in Lewisham. You cannot insist that it becomes a People’s Assembly.

Second, it shows that activists at a local level can have a real voice in decision making in the People’s Assembly. It is democratic and showed this at the conference. It is not a campaign dominated or controlled by Unite the union as some left critics have dubbed it. We should welcome its contribution or the help of the daily Morning Star left newspaper in providing office space.

Third, it is mobilising exactly the same target audience that Left Unity is building from. All Left Unity branches should be actively building their local People’s Assembly. Activists involved in the People’s Assembly are nearly all both against the Coalition [government] austerity and New Labour’s austerity lite "alternative". We have to be working alongside these activists not preaching from the sidelines that Unite has "sold out" nor not yet organised a general strike or that the People’s Charter is not a revolutionary program.

We need to be there when these activists ask themselves whether consistent anti-austerity activity can co-exist with a belief that the Labour Party can be reclaimed from the left. It was noticeable that there is a very limited number of Labour MPs or councillors signed up to the People’s Assembly and even fewer Labour Party branches affiliated.

We also have to be working in a positive way alongside groups like Counterfire who have done excellent work in this campaign but so far disagree with the Left Unity project. Counterfire feel it is premature and that we should put all our energies in building Peoples Assemblies. Sooner or later its members will have to ask themselves whether the only perspective is building such united fronts and recruiting to Counterfire, turning it into a better SWP, or whether energies also need to be put into developing a broad political alternative to Labour like Left Unity.

Fourth, this conference shows that Left Unity 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. Some individuals and currents in Left Unity want to turn it away from this sort of engagement in order to ensure we have a true "left" program that ensures we do not betray people in some future revolutionary scenario.

It was an inspiring conference and you had the feeling that Tony Benn and Bob Crow were in there spurring us on.

Let’s all build for this week’s anti-budget protests and the big demonstration on June 21.

People’s Assembly debates how to organise against austerity

By Tom Walker

March 18, 2014 -- Left Unity -- The People’s Assembly conference in London on March 15 saw hundreds come together to discuss the way forward for the anti-austerity movement. This was a "recall", following the big launch event last Northern summer, and was a motions-based delegate conference. I was part of Left Unity’s delegation of five.

As you might expect, the conference had a packed agenda (especially as it did not break into workshops or sub-assemblies), but still managed to cover themes as wide ranging as the economy, employment rights, housing, anti-racism, education, the National Health Service (NHS) and climate change – even if some of them were only discussed for 10-15 minutes.

Motions were submitted by an array of groups, including local People’s Assembly groups, trade unions and local and national anti-cuts campaigns, which were given time to address the audience about their struggles.

Paula Peters from Disabled People Against Cuts outlined their campaign, and said about Atos, “Four years ago no one had heard of them – now we’ve got them on the run.” Dr Jacky Davis spoke about what’s happening in health, saying, “Our job is to keep the NHS at the top of the agenda.” And Adam from Cardiff People’s Assembly spoke about the “festival of opposition on the streets of South Wales” planned when NATO comes to Newport on September 4.

Many more people could be quoted – Dave Kellaway’s report goes into some more detail. This was the feel of the day: a wide array of campaigns, and an almost dizzying calendar of dates, from the budget day protests on March 19 through to the TUC’s planned mass demonstration on October 18. Fittingly, the day opened with moving tributes to Bob Crow and Tony Benn, and finished with a call from the NUT’s Christine Blower to “stand with us on 26 March when we will be holding a national strike”.

Questions of organisation

I think it’s fair to say, though, that there was relatively little debate on these matters, as there was overwhelming agreement to back all the campaigns against the effects of austerity on every part of our public services and our lives – as ever it was worthwhile to discuss them, but the motions didn’t really come into it. Interestingly, the area that attracted more debate was the organisation of the People’s Assembly itself. This was expressed primarily through a series of motions contesting how centralised or decentralised the organisation should be, in particular under the "structure and finance" zone.

Under structure, there was a radical amendment from the Manchester People’s Assembly, clearly influenced by activists’ experiences in Occupy Manchester. It called for a shift to participatory methods, including consensus decision making. The Signatories group (that is, organisations and signatories to the original People’s Assembly appeal) acted as an executive, and made clear its opposition to this and other amendments as a bloc. While it was defeated, however, it did gain the support of around a third of the room.

The most contested debate though was under finance, where some local groups had taken exception to the Signatories’ plan to create an individual membership scheme for the People’s Assembly, with prices set at a minimum of £1 per month (though free for unwaged). The motion also, somewhat incredibly, included a provision that all local groups would have to pay the centre £60 a year for various items of administrative support. National secretary Sam Fairbairn had earlier set the scene for this approach when he said, “The truth is that the central infrastructure is far too small… Strengthening the national infrastructure has to be an absolute priority.”

Danni from the Brighton People’s Assembly noted that this was a model that “has all money flowing to the centre”. Brighton’s amendment instead called for 30 per cent of membership fees collected nationally to be paid to local groups (Left Unity members may note that this is very similar to the model in our party’s constitution). Treasurer Nick McCarthy, however, put the case that “fighting austerity is an expensive business” and “it’s too early to start redistributing money to local assemblies that we don’t currently have”. Brighton was persuaded to remit its amendment.

This left the way clear for West Yorkshire People’s Assembly, which had put an amendment opposed to the whole membership scheme, arguing “the People’s Assembly should be a network of individuals and organisations with no barriers to participation” – or as the amendment’s proposer put it, “We don’t feel the People’s Assembly should be a membership organisation – it is an umbrella organisation.” It called for all funds to flow through local groups. In a surprise development, this amendment passed by 205 votes to 174.

Coordination and control

All that may sound like an account of a debate that would only matter to finance nerds – but, as suggested by West Yorkshire, this was really about what kind of structure the People’s Assembly should have. Is it a highly centralised national campaign office, or a loose umbrella group? Across several motions, local delegates sent a message loud and clear that while they want national coordination, they do not want national control.

It is no secret that many people’s concern about the People’s Assembly has been its top-down structure – declaring itself to be "the movement" on the basis of a big conference, and then appointing various individuals to positions without a wider democratic process. As demonstrated at the conference, we can agree on most of the politics: the question is how to organise to put them into practice.

It is not the case that the People’s Assembly’s structure is now perfect – Left Unity, with its regular conferences, national councils and most recently a membership-wide election, still has a greater level of democracy in my view. But the modest ability of local People’s Assembly groups and campaigns to set the agenda at the recall conference and begin to take some ownership over the organisation surely shows that there is more space within it than some had thought. The People’s Assembly leadership now faces a test: it must make sure it follows the will of the delegates in retaining an umbrella structure and making sure local groups, not the centre, hold the power in the organisation. That will be a sound basis for anti-austerity resistance to grow.

Overall the day was a step forward for the real living, breathing movement – and it was also, importantly, a step forward for democracy inside the People’s Assembly.