Britain: People's Assembly prepares for fight back (with videos); Success, challenges and politics

Ken Loach.

By Jody Betzien, London

June 30, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly -- Frances O’Grady, head of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), set the tone in the opening session of the People's Assembly in London on June 22, declaring: “The Bullingdon boys are waging class war against ordinary people. We will retaliate, it is time to fight back against a government of millionaires.”

O'Grady's reference to Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne by the exclusive upper-class Oxford University society they belonged reflects the anger at the Conservative-Liberal Democrats war on the poor.

More than 4000 anti-austerity campaigners packed Westminster Central Hall on June 22 to launch a national fight-back campaign.

The huge mass gathering was a joint initiative of unions, campaign organisations and left parties opposed to the coalition government's savage austerity, which is largely supported by the Labour opposition.

It was preceded by “people's assemblies” in cities across Britain, involving thousands of people.

The economic crisis in Britain has not reached the devastating scale it has in countries such as Spain and Greece, but it has bitten hard. One in four young people under 24 are unemployed and a recent survey showed that one in five families are borrowing money to buy food.

The Cameron government seized the opportunity provided by the crisis to launch spending cuts on a scale not seen since World War II. More than 600,000 jobs have been lost in the public sector since 2010. A series of “welfare reforms” have been rolled out in a make-the poor-pay response to the budget deficit.

The attacks include changes to disability support assessments that will result in as many as 600,000 disabled people losing on £2.62 billion ($4.35 million) of support over five years.

A particularly nasty attack, dubbed the “bedroom tax”, means a cut in rent assistance for anyone living in a house with an unused bedroom. The tax will force thousands of people, especially he elderly, to relocate. In many cases no alternative housing is available.

In the days leading up to the People's Assembly, the government an extra £11.5 billion in cuts. Police, nurses and teachers will lose pay rises and 145,000 more civil service jobs will be cut.

As part of the anti-austerity campaign, the assembly launched a national tour of two “People United” buses. Organised by key unions, the bus tour is part of an effort to extend the campaign into communities.

Green MP Caroline Lucas speaks at the People's Assembly.

Green Party of England and Wales MP Caroline Lucas told Green Left Weekly: “We don't need the official opposition to be Tory-lite. We need it to show real opposition.

“But if they're not going to do it then there will be other parties, including the Greens, who will be in their showing that opposition.”

Film director and socialist activist Ken Loach used his workshop on defending the welfare state to tackle the dilemma faced by the movement heading to elections with Labour offering no alternative. He told the audience the question of an alternative electoral formation needs to be on the agenda.

Loach is part of a new initiative for a left party called Left Unity that was launched recently. It distributed a broadsheet at the assembly seeking further support.

General secretary of the Unite trade union Len McCluskey was met with deafening applause in the closing session, when the leader of Britain's largest union said: “We must all work together to build the fighting spirit which creates the climate for mass industrial action.

“Let me make it clear to politicians of all parties ― if it is right to strike against austerity in Greece, in Spain, in France, then it is right to strike against austerity here.”

In an apparent response to criticisms of the lack of union strike action against the cuts so far, McCluskey said: “When Unite members are ready and willing to take that industrial action to make the politicians change course, then we will not let the anti-union laws get in our way.”

Len McCluskey.

The assembly resolved to organise a mass national protest at the Conservative Party conference on September 29, a national day of civil disobedience on November 5 and a mass demonstration in London early next year.

Another meeting of the assembly is set for September.

As more than 4000 people slowly filed out of the hall, the strong impression was the assembly represented a potential turning point for a movement desperate for national cohesion.

[For more details and speeches, visit The Peoples Assembly website.]

Owen Jones.

Tony Benn.

Comedian Mark Steel speaking at the People's Assembly on the apparently dominant economic theory that the poor have all the money.

People’s Assembly: success, challenges and politics

By Liam Mac Uaid

June 23, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance -- If anyone has made a film about a delegate’s day at the People’s Assembly it probably starts with her listening to the day’s early morning news bulletin. In it Labour committed itself to just as much austerity as the Tories. “So when George Osborne stands up next week and announces his cuts in day-to-day spending, we won’t be able to promise now to reverse them” bragged Ed Miliband. That rather helpfully set the political context for a gathering of 4000 activists and campaigners in London on June 22.

The initiative was a massive success. It was the largest gathering of trade unionists, representatives of community organisations and people from the whole spectrum of society which is looking for an alternative to cuts, poverty and social misery. Everyone who was there seemed enthused both by the size of the gathering, the level of discussion and commitments to further activity. Overhanging the event was also the question of political representation, a topic addressed by both Ken Loach and PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.

Writer and Labour Party member, Owen Jones, set the scene in the opening session by outlining the impact of austerity and the government’s success in redirecting anger away from the bankers to the poorest people in society. He offered an alternative programme, which was echoed in various forms through the day, of home and infrastructure building; paying a living wage to all workers; democratic public control of the banks and clamping down on rich tax dodgers. Like many speakers he refused to limit campaigning activity to lobbying politicians to be kinder and offered the example of the Chartists, Suffragettes and anti Poll Tax movement as examples of British working class traditions which should be reasserted.

Frances O’Grady, Trade Union Congress general secretary, was well received. Whatever we make of her claim that she’s proud to be leading a movement that’s fighting austerity, she said that the Bullingdon Club Tory millionaires are waging class war. Using a line that would have reminded some listeners of Arthur Scargill she said  that “we will fight as hard for our people as they do for theirs” and went on to pledge support for any group of workers who vote to strike.

The first person of the day to bring up the question of political organisation was Mark Steel. Noting that the left has a habit of making itself unattractive to outsiders, he observed that it would be a much more powerful force if it collaborated more and stopped finding fairly second order questions over which to fall out. You can see the video here.

Lively discussions

It’s impossible to do justice to the range of workshops in a short account and readers are invited to add their observations in the comments section.

An estimated 500 people attended the session on climate change. This is encouraging. The rising movement around climate change was hit hard when people’s attention shifted to the impact of the cuts and resisting austerity. Our movement has to insist that its alternative vision of society has to have an ecological heart and the high level of engagement with the discussion at the People’s Assembly suggests that this is something that is being reasserted.

In the workshop on local government Barbara Jacobson of the Barnet Alliance for Public Services described an exemplary local campaign against that council’s project to outsource virtually everything it does to capital. The campaigners have made films; organised protests; run meetings and discussions and put the whole process under a level of scrutiny that has frightened the Tories. Theirs is an experience many others can learn from.

Ken Loach was perhaps thought to be the bearer of a message too uncomfortable for a slot in the closing plenary. He used some of his time in a workshop on defending the Welfare State to tackle the question that an anti-austerity conference inevitably raises. Since all three big parties are committed to virtually identical programmes, what sort of political representation is there for people who want something else? His view is that Left Unity, or something very much like it, has to meet that need. It would have been wrong to make the question of political organisation a theme of the day at such an event but Ed Balls and Ed Miliband forced it into the discussion. You can see the video here.

Child friendly?

One disappointing aspect of the day was the total absence of child-care provision. A labour movement conference, at which participants were often reminded that women and carers are being hardest hit by austerity, has a duty to set a positive example. Finding the resources for a crèche should be as much of a political priority as the gender balance of speakers and the representation of diverse viewpoints and experiences. The idea that a parent could have brought a child to such an event and engaged with it for the whole day is untenable. During the changeovers between sessions the packed crowds of people would have been impassable for anyone with children. It would be good if this lesson is learnt for the recall conference.

And now what?

The closing plenary was where strategic direction was given. National Union of Teachers general secretary, Christine Blower referred to the joint action her union will be taking with the other large teaching union the NASUWT. She was followed by Unite’s Len McCluskey. He argued that if it’s right to strike against austerity in Greece, Spain and Portugal, it’s right to do it here. He reinforced this by saying that when Unite members are ready to take strike action he won’t let anti-union laws get in the way. In an aside which was aimed at Labour, he said that was his message to “all the parties”.

Speaking on behalf of the People’s Assembly organising committee, John Rees invited the day’s participants to get involved with local assemblies and to return to the recall conference as delegates representing many more people. He proposed a statement outlining a programme of action which was passed by acclamation and said that this will be open to amendment at the recall conference.

The last speaker of the day, Mark Serwotka, also invoked the spectre of political representation. He set out an alternative programme for the Labour Party, one which amounted to a total rejection of austerity and neo-liberalism. Like most people in the hall he knew it was one they won’t adopt. He then drew the obvious conclusion and, citing the emergence of new political movements in Europe, said we should have one in Britain. He left the details vague but he was unambiguous about the need for it. You can see the video here.

Later this week large numbers of teachers will be taking industrial action as a prelude to more strikes later in the year. Frances O’Grady, Len McCluskey, and Mark Serwotka indicated their willingness to support similar action. The People’s Assembly may turn out to be the start of a rising tide of resistance to the next burst of Tory class war.