Tom Walker: The potential of a People’s Assembly

One thing is not in doubt: the People’s Assembly on Saturday 22 June will be a massive event. Local meetings in the run-up have been hundreds strong, and thousands of people will fill London’s huge Westminster Central Hall on the day. There have been quite a few anti-austerity conferences since the Tories took office in 2010, but nothing on this scale. If you haven’t registered already, you should go and do it right now. I’ll wait. (Yes, £8 is a bit steep, but really.)

OK, so we’re all going to the People’s Assembly. Great! The next question is: what are we, the organised left, going to do there? This is a contribution to that debate.

I want the People’s Assembly to be a success. It should be obvious, but I mean it. My aim here is not to ‘expose’ its leaders or some such, but to outline what I believe success would look like and how it could be achieved. The central argument of this article is that the People’s Assembly, already a good conference and a nice day out, has the potential to be something much more than that – but it’s going to need a little helping hand from the likes of us.

The ‘intervention’: how not to do it

The dominant far left model of what to do at big conferences (or at least, ones your particular group isn’t organising) is the ‘intervention’. This means organising groups of their members to get called to speak from the floor and push that left group’s ‘party line’. You can spot these people in a room quite easily – they are the ones who, as soon as there is a chance for contributions, shoot their arms high up into the air and keep them there. This also, happily, doubles up as a form of exercise.

Most of the groups present will have one obsession: the betrayals of the trade union bureaucracy. ‘We hear fine words from Len McCluskey,’ they will say, ‘but where is the general strike?’ This is so predictable as to be tedious. Focusing on denouncing the union leaders is a constant temptation, especially in any room that may contain Dave Prentis, but it achieves little apart from making us look like sectarian wreckers.

I am for strikes. Obviously. I am for a general strike. I am for an indefinite general strike. I am also fully in favour of the union leaders getting together to make me a big chocolate cake. Saying all this, whether in this article or at the People’s Assembly, does not make any of it an inch more likely to happen.

The far left getting up and calling for a general strike doesn’t put the union leaders under any pressure, whatever we might imagine. It is empty sloganeering, of the type we used to mock when it came from ‘stopped clock’ groups like the Workers Revolutionary Party. The real purpose of such slogans is not to make a general strike happen, because that takes organisation not slogans – it is a way that the far left attempts to differentiate itself, by posing as the ‘most radical’ wing of the conference, and then saying ‘join us, we’re the ones arguing for a general strike’.

No, this is not an article in which I argue to let the union leaders off the hook. What I am interested in is looking at how we can apply pressure that will work, instead of just shouting into the air.

Top tables, workshops and pressure

There has been an interesting example of pressure from below when it comes to the organisation of the People’s Assembly itself. Though they now deny it, the organisers clearly conceived of the event as simply a mass rally, where speaker after speaker would tell us how bad austerity is, the breadth of speakers demonstrating how broad the movement is. This embodied the ‘get a big audience for the leaders’ approach of the initiative’s prime mover, Counterfire. (If this was really never the plan, then I’ve no idea why they booked a space like Central Hall.)

It was only under pressure that the organisers – by then including some more sensible types from the unions – announced hardly a month before the event that it would now be mostly devoted to workshops, or ‘sub-assemblies’. This is already a victory for the movement, though it is one that must be built on as I will spell out below.

First though, I think it is important to identify the source of this pressure. It came not so much from the organised left as from the anti-austerity movement itself. The points IS Network has been making loudly about the problems of top-down organisation, top table speakers and a lack of democracy on the left are not things that we have invented out of thin air – they are ideas that we ourselves have picked up from the movements. These arguments’ popularity speaks of the lasting influence of the Occupy/Indignados movements, and the anticapitalist movement before them, in spreading ‘horizontal politics’. Anyone who has been part of an Occupy-style assembly, for all their occasional problems, has been imbued with the excitement and empowerment of a bottom-up method of organising. They cannot help but find it a dissonant contrast to a more old-school meeting.

A closely connected phenomenon is the rise and rise of the internet – and with it the ‘network politics’ that Laurie Penny was keen to emphasise at IS Network’s public meeting last weekend. There is a tendency to put this all down to social media, but it is far more complex than that, embracing the whole range of tools that the net has put at our disposal – not just Facebook and Twitter, then, but websites themselves, blogs, forums, photo-sharing, YouTube and other video sites, Skype and similar tech… hell, even something as prosaic as email is transformative for organising compared to what came before it.

We have gradually, almost without noticing, entered a world in which anyone with an internet connection can be part of a massive global conversation – and they no longer demand their participation, they simply expect it. The organised left’s failure to understand this ‘participation generation’ is a significant factor behind its failure to grow throughout the years of capitalist crisis.

The agency of the ‘audience’

So, we’ve got workshops, and ‘the people’ who would have been disappointed to be lectured at what’s meant to be their assembly may instead get a chance to be heard. There might still be another bump in this road if we turn up to the workshops to find them packed with top-table speakers, but hopefully that can be overcome.

The real issue, though, is that hearing from the ‘audience’ is not enough. This hall, after all, will be packed with incredible people. Big delegations of trade unionists. Dedicated local campaigners. People of experience, skill and sound political judgement. I don’t just want them to get a few minutes to speak from the floor – I want the people to be the ones calling the shots in this People’s Assembly. In short, I want to turn the idea of ‘speakers and audience’ upside down and put those thousands of people we’ve heard so much about in the driving seat. I want a meeting that is useful to the people at it, and builds their self-activity. I want to unleash the agency of the audience – in other words, I want democracy. Is that so much to ask?

Let’s briefly consider the proposed statement that will come out of the People’s Assembly, published a few days ago. It says:

‘This declaration represents the views of all those who initially called for the People’s Assembly. We hope it will be endorsed by the People’s Assembly on 22nd June. It will then be open to the local People’s Assembly’s, union bodies and campaign groups who support the People’s Assembly to suggest amendments, additions, or deletions. These will then all be discussed and decided upon at the recall People’s Assembly in 2014.’

So you can amend the statement…but not until 2014! And in the meantime, what? We do whatever the organisers have pre-agreed we should do? None of their statement is anything that anyone would disagree with – but what a dereliction to exclude the wealth of ideas that could come from below on the day. What a lost opportunity to give people a feeling of ownership over the initiative, instead of feeling like fodder when all the decisions have already been made. It would be a great shame if this approach went unchallenged at the assembly.

Where do movements come from?

Isn’t that just a complaint about process? Why does that matter? Surely we can all pull together to create a movement against austerity? This, though, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what a movement is and where it comes from.

In the Independent, Owen Jones – a prominent supporter of the Assembly – asserts several times that it is ‘the movement’ Britain has been waiting for. ‘A movement demanding an alternative to austerity…is being born,’ he writes. ‘The fragmented strands of progressive Britain are coming together; the anti-austerity movement is making its belated appearance.’

But the People’s Assembly is not a movement – it’s a conference. These are not the same thing. Movements can have conferences, but I can’t think of any example of a conference creating a movement. Movements, in general, are not declared from on high – they are spontaneous, complicated, messy things that often appear when you least expect them.

A strange elision here is the assertion that there hasn’t been an anti-austerity movement until now. Yet there have been anti-cuts groups in almost every town and city in the country. Local campaigns have sprung up over everything from hospital closures to the bedroom tax. Owen obviously knows this, having spoken at hundreds of such meetings. This is the movement! Of course in many areas it is not strong enough, but that surely requires a focus on grassroots organising more than it demands a sparkly conference.

It is worth pausing on this, because it reflects a commonplace mistake on the left. Narratives of Britain’s early 2000s anti-war movement, for example, tend to focus heavily on the organisational form it took as the Stop the War Coalition. Of course Stop the War was important – but Stop the War was not the movement. (Hence the problem with book titles like ‘Stop the War: the story of Britain’s biggest mass movement’.) A movement is an expression of a widespread feeling in society. Initiatives like Stop the War and the People’s Assembly are an attempt to organise and give voice to that feeling – and also, simultaneously, an attempt by particular political forces to channel the feeling in the direction they would like to see.

Challenging Labour

What direction do the forces that have created the People’s Assembly want for the anti-austerity movement? Owen Jones, as part of the radical left of the Labour Party, clearly wants it to put pressure on Labour to oppose austerity. This is very compatible with the perspective of Unite, by all accounts the Assembly’s main union backer, which has launched a big push to get its members to join Labour in order to ‘reclaim’ the party. Counterfire, meanwhile, has made clear that it no longer believes an alternative to Labour is possible.

Unfortunately, if we’re talking about a movement against austerity, we can’t put the question of Labour to one side so easily. Of course we need the maximum possible unity against the cuts. But the Labour leadership is not against the cuts, and has failed to defend the people at the sharp end of the government’s attacks, even refusing to say it would abolish the bedroom tax. In fact, last week Ed Miliband and Ed Balls finally raised the surrender flag over the whole question of austerity once and for all, by committing to stay within Tory spending limits (‘iron discipline’) and not to reverse Tory cuts.

Some have suggested these were just one-off speeches. But according to Labour sources who spoke to the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley, this is the beginning of a long-term strategy. Rawnsley writes, ‘Preparing for his speech, Mr Balls thought about 10 specific spending cuts that he could list. He decided to hold some of them back in the hope of getting further impact by announcing them later.’ That’s a treat I’m sure we’re all looking forward to.

So having told you at the start of the article not to denounce the union leaders, I’m now suggesting we get up and denounce Labour? No – that’s not the point. Really there’s little need. People already ‘get it’ – they know the Labour Party is not on their side over austerity. The forces that are still tied to Labour drastically underestimate the level that this feeling has now reached. That is why 8,000 have signed up to Left Unity, the project to set up a new party of the left. This is an initiative people want.

This is not about setting up Left Unity somehow in opposition to the People’s Assembly (far from it, it fully supports the Assembly), but saying that if we are really going to challenge the austerity consensus that dominates all the big parties, we need to go further. The way create a force that can give a voice to the ever-growing numbers who stand to Labour’s left – and incidentally, the way to put the frighteners on the Labour leaders – is to go beyond the left’s long established rhythm of conferences and A-to-B marches, and create a more permanent form of organisation that scraps both the Labourist and left-sect models in favour of a party that is driven from below.

A new party of the left is our positive project – and one that will, I promise you, get a very positive reception from the thousands at the People’s Assembly. If we want to see the potential of a People’s Assembly realised, then we should put all our resources on the day into getting the word about Left Unity out to as many people as possible.