what can the people’s assembly do for the people?

20 06 2013

This Saturday more than 3,000 people are expected to attend the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in London. John Keeley examines what it offers the people.

Launched in February 2013 with a letter to The Guardian signed by Tony Benn, President of the Coalition of Resistance (CoR), & many trade union leaders, it stated its aim as being to “bring together campaigns against cuts and privatisation with trade unionists in a movement for social justice”.

People's Assembly

The CoR is largely a Counterfire (John Ress, Lindsey German, Chris Nineham) initiative. As such it conforms to the united-front tactic of enabling revolutionaries to engage & shape things working alongside non-revolutionary workers. By bringing together those who are essentially social democrats, wanting to defend the welfare state but not challenge capitalism, with trade unionists who have the power to lead strike action, & those who are already clear that capitalism is the problem, there is the possibility of reforms that benefit the working class leading to demands for more reforms & the eventual overthrow of capitalism.

Obviously, the success or otherwise of such a strategy largely depends upon the material conditions. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I believe that capitalism is in real trouble, & what we are now seeing is the politics catching up with the economics. In otherwords, the workers have been suffering, there’s little prospect this will end, indeed it’s more likely to increase, & hence consciousness is now changing & more & more people want to do something about it.

Finally, this is resulting in the left starting to work together, realising that petty arguments over the nature of the Russian Revolution are not vitally important, even that ‘democratic-centralism’ has been largely undemocratic & totally unappealing to today’s generation.

The word that is catching on more & more is ‘participation’. People want involvement. They want to be involved in decision-making. They are sick of the elites; whether professional politicians, bankers & other corporate fat-cats, even professional revolutionaries & trade union leaders who have constantly sold out their members. So we will have to see how much power the union leaders have & whether they are brave enough to lead the fight or become a hindrance.

The draft statement that the People’s Assembly is being asked to endorse talks about defending education, health & welfare provision. It aims to unite the anti-cuts movement & states its goal as being to “make the government abandon its austerity programme”. All limited but quite sensible. It then goes on to say it intends to “develop rapidly key policies and an alternative programme for a new anti-austerity government”. What does this mean? For many, no doubt, it will be to get the Labour party elected. The ‘One-Nation’ Labour party of Ed Miliband & Ed Balls who have no intention of reversing many of the cuts already made or proposed by the Tories in their vain attempt to convince the City, & big business in general, that they are no threat to capitalism – which they clearly are not. The Labour party are now very openly a pro-business party & therefore cannot be a party for the workers. This will be a battle to be fought by all involved in the People’s Assembly.

There are positives though. Through the building of local people’s assemblies based upon participatory decision-making, there’s a real chance that a movement based upon real people power can take on its own momentum. The union leaders & professional politicians may well find that the people do not follow them in the direction they want to go – social democracy, for many – but get a real taste of their power & ability to shape things. One of the first tests will be the proposed national day of civil disobedience on Guy Fawkes Day – 5th November. Will the more radical elements end up being disowned by the union leaders or will there be a ground-swell of support for a General Strike? As protests spread throughout the world & an economy on a knife’s-edge, where things go is quite hard to predict.

The People’s Assembly, just like Left Unity, it’s an initiative that allows revolutionaries to reach a larger number of people who are being increasingly radicalised by the current crisis. As such I think it’s a vehicle that should not be ignored. For too long now revolutionaries have held ideologically pure positions where, in their own minds at least, they are right & everyone else is wrong. Here’s an opportunity to engage with others, & although many will not agree, increasing numbers will. The world is going to change, don’t let it pass you by.

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3 responses

20 06 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

I agree, particularly with any real potential being in the formation of local people’s assemblies where anti-capitalist ideas and reasoning can be explained. The national levels are likely to want to ‘guide’ any movement into one or other of two directions – or even split into both! Either to push for the return of a Labour Government pledged to another round of welfare capitalism or to attempt to create a ‘political party’ based upon the same essential electoral perspective. However, both are unlikely to succeed and ordinary working people are unlikely to have lasting illusions in such a project. Local assemblies, were they take off may create a space for self-organisation and activity along with an openess to consider alternative models of post-capitalism to the past failed ones. Regards, Roy

21 06 2013
Peter Pannier

I agree, both with the post and the comment. HOWEVER. In my area we already have the threads of a functioning ‘people’s assembly’ (our local anti-cuts group is able to organise meetings and marches of 100-500 people in a small market town), and was recently involved in a successful campaign that reversed one of the largest planned NHS privatisations. The People’s Assembly name/model are not necessary to the development of such local assemblies (I find ‘people’s’ potentially unhelpful, in its implied class collaborationism, but perhaps nomenclature isn’t that important).
To the extent that PA is able to catalyse genuinely democratic/participative and autonomous local assemblies in places that have not been able to develop effective anti-cuts or other resistance groups, I’m positive about it. However, I fear that autonomy will be restricted by three things:
1. The national, platform/panel based nature of the organisation/it’s first round of public meetings
2. The insistence on the centrality of the mainstream trade unions (with the implication that it is the leadership, not the membership, that are central)
3. The emphasis on local Trades Councils as crucial actors in local PAs. In my experience, these have not been particularly supportive or useful in building an effective local movement/campaigns (and have not sought to engage/generate much activity, but merely to approve/refuse requests for support)
In each case, I am accentuating the negative, and realise this paints a slightly unfair picture. However, these are concerns. The reason I raise them is because I feel that two idealised outcomes will follow. either:
a) PA will address these concerns and might help catalyse genuinely positive and exciting movement(s), or
b) it will co-opt a lot of time, energy and people into strategies that are ineffective, disempowering and, in short, destructive – both to movements already existing and to the potential that exists to challenge current govt policy and the mode of production of capitalism itself.

21 06 2013

In an interview with Red Pepper, Owen Jones states that the Trade Unions are central to the people’s assembly, and above all, it is something driven by the trade unions, which he describes as the biggest democratic force in the country.

But, the Trade Unions are bureaucratic structures, not democratic. The lack of internal democracy goes some way to explain why the Trade Unions have failed to mobilise the rank and file to fight against austerity. The Trade Union leaders have failed or refused to defend pensions,jobs and conditions. Millions of trade unionists went on strike, in November 2011, only for the strikes to be called off, after a token opposition to pension cuts.

So the question is : If the Union leaders cannot fight austerity through the trade Unions, why would they fight austerity through the People’s Assembly? Unless the People’s Assembly, for these trade union leaders, is all about creating a popular anti austerity electorate, to vote Labour and generally put pressure on the Labour leadership in the absence of a Social Democratic constituency within the Labour Party.

This would fit in with the perspective of Owen Jones for the renewal of old Labour or Social Democracy. So with this view, we have yet another attempt to seek progress by voting Labour and transforming the Labour Party into a working class party. This is one hundred year old wine in a new bottle.

Luke Cooper of the ACI, while stating that Trade Unions are essential to the fight back against austerity, is critical of their failure to deliver on their platform rhetoric. He raises the need for a grass roots voice in the People’s Assembly. He is also critical of some undemocratic aspects of the organisation of the People’s Assembly : statements that cannot be amended by the Assembly and the possibility that the organisational committee will not be elected.

But, Luke still has an electoral outlook: ” what would really start to shift Miliband and co is a party to the Left of Labour, eating away at their electoral support” This looks like a modest British Syriza perspective. A grass roots party, campaigning in elections, to act as a real pressure on the Labour Leaders, rather than some vague Trade Union led campaign.

The classic United Front was a tactic directed at a mass Social Democratic movement in the 1920’s, following the revolutionary wave, after the first world war. The situation today is completely different. The tactic was for temporary unity with Social Democratic leaders, to gain influence with the mass of workers, via their leaders. So one set of leaders would compete with another set of leaders. Even at the time it was a bureacratic short cut. Despite endless talk of being where the masses were, it always assumed a loyalty to leaders, and was always about leaders rather than the grass roots.

Some of the leading elements in the organisation of the People’s Assembly were the comrades who gave us,in the past, the United Front of a special kind : the Respect Popular Front. John Rees and Lindsey German, like other Trotskyist/Leninist leaders, specialise in the tactics of a broad front organisation. In the Socialist Alliance they substituted for SociaL Democracy. Something similar is happening with the People’s Assembly, but with less political clarity. They specialise in the talking shop, top table, with the numerous leaders speeches, event. And the ritual national march around London. Leadership is seen as vertical and top down.

Given this focus and the electoral slant, will any genuine organisational roots at a local level ever receive priority? I can understand Comrades who want to engage or have a united front with the grass roots of the campaign when the People’s assembly and Left Unity are seen as the only show in town. But in the long term will it be a viable anti austerity organisation?

Having now seen the Draft Statement from the handful of leaders who initiated the People’s Assembly I can add the following comments.

The draft will be put to the Assembly ( rally? ) to be endorsed. No amendments will be allowed. Additions and amendments will be allowed at unspecified local group meetings, and a decision made at another Peoples Assembly the following year, when the leadership is established and the movement set on its course by the politics of the draft which will help determine its political character.This will be a corruption of the Assembly idea in which the people meet to determine their politics. Its manipulation.

The politics are narrow and minimal, not reaching even anti Capitalism, let alone an alternative to Capitalism. So those who consider themselves to be revolutionary socialists keeping their convictions private. Its all about realistic tactics. A realism decided by a small group of people, who do not have the courage of their convictions to subject their judgment to a debate at the founding Assembly.

So the limited aim is to defend universal welfare provision and oppose austerity measures.

In addition,there is an expression of support for the Trade Unions, as if their is no trade union bureaucracy. There is no criticism of Trade union leaders for the pensions fiasco. Not even a mild criticism that they could do better.There is no indication there might be a problem with Trade union conference rhetoric. No hint of grass roots organisation in the trade unions.Partnership with the trade unions (who are in partnership with owners, the state and managers in many cases) could tie local campaigns to what is acceptable to local trade union bureaucrats.

The comments about local organisation are minimal, and underdeveloped. How will any local democracy feed up to the leadership level nationally ? what democratic structure for local groups to determine policy exist ? Again an unelected provisional national leadership or a leadership by acclaim will set the tone of the campaign and determine its character, before any real democracy kicks in.


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