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Kieran Crowe: The fight against austerity and the People's Assembly

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People's AssemblyWe have always been adamant that despite the terrible state of the left, we would not simply give up on trying to organise. This means we need to have a vision of what organising means in practice right now, and I think that necessitates a discussion about a socialist strategy on the question of the anti-austerity movement. In particular, I think we need to talk about how we are going to deal with the People's Assembly.

Anti-austerity politics have been with us since 2007/8 with the credit crunch – the government funnelled cash into reckless banks to keep them in business and the entire political establishment began the language of the cuts agenda. For the public, it meant that the relatively lenient borrowing they'd been resorting to was impossible while New Labour's privatisation agenda was suddenly ramped up into cuts and commercialisation of services that drove people to need credit more than ever.

Anti-cuts groups

The cuts did not come instantly as a single swooping chop. Richard Seymour has remarked on how the process of this late-stage neoliberal attack has an effectively built-in unevenness: outsourcing, subcontracting and even devolution of government (a key New Labour policy whose real function we may only now be coming to understand) meant that the material expressions of austerity affected almost everyone in Britain in subtly different ways. The response was similarly uneven – a proliferation in 2009/10 of local anti-cuts organisations, frequently entirely single issue, but also often attracting significant support in their particular areas.

There was no single model for any of these organisations. In some areas (significantly Barnet and Lambeth in London) local trades union councils and union branches set up groups. In others, loose alliances of service users and staff formed. The Labour Party left was very slow on this, Labour still being in government until 2010 – where Labour run councils, they are still divided. The issues the groups fought over were as varied as the range of things we have come to rely on the public sector for: schools, hospitals, care for the elderly, care for the disabled, libraries, swimming pools and even cemeteries have all been the cause celebre in some communities. (I'm not sure how a commercial cemetery would work, and it would probably serve me better not to find out.)

The experience of these campaigns has been highly mixed. The groups themselves frequently end up uniting people with considerable political experience with those who have none at all, are often quite idiosyncratic and sometimes rather parochial in their orientation. The tactics they employ are often highly diverse. There have been local demos against cuts, sometimes on a scale that puts certain 'national' demos to shame, but demonstrations are usually only components of any such movement. Industrial action by service providers has been just as significant in places, as has publicity stunt style activity and the often rather frustrating and unglamorous work of lobbying councillors and council meetings. The class make-up of these organisations can be extremely heterogeneous: while working-class people suffer the brunt of the cuts, middle-class people are not universal admirers of austerity. Some are concerned for ideological reasons (such as genuine care for the vulnerable) but in the 'traditional' middle-class there can also be rather urgent commercial reasons. Austerity reduces consumption and this will ultimately be catastrophic for the small trader and the shopkeeper.

I have been trying to locate some good data on the effectiveness of anti-cuts campaigns, and must confess I've drawn a bit of a blank. There does not seem to be brilliant data out there to say where cuts have have been successfully blocked. Suffice to say, the movements have not been without successes - though they have not been across the board anywhere, it has been far from impossible to organise against cuts.

The role of the left

The role of the organised left in the anti-cuts movement has, to say the least, been inconsistent and marked at times with gross sectarianism. As mentioned before, the Labour left has taken some time to find any footing at all with opposition to austerity, due to the key role of New Labour and Labour councillors, but they seem to have regained the initiative to a large extent with opposition to the bedroom tax. The smaller centre-left parties have been similarly contradictory: Green and Nationalist councils have pushed cuts through, while their activists in other areas have criticised Labour for exactly the same.

The role of the far left has not been particularly more glorious. The 2008 crisis prompted by the collapse of American hedge funds led us to a big push on anticapitalist rhetoric, but most of the tactical and strategic initiatives we produced were objective failures. Numerous campaigns and front groups were founded, usually as more or less exclusive tools of the founding organisation and with grand goals that they were objectively unable to pull off. The activists (often full-timers) pushing them were highly enthusiastic though, and often so adamant that 'their united front' was the one that would deliver victory that they would happily engage in Popular Front of Judea arguments with their counterparts for other groups pushing very similar looking campaigns.

Trotskyist parties did not, in general, integrate well into anti-cuts groups. Involvement was often sporadic and lacking in detail. Activists from the far left would sometimes be seldom seen around campaigns until a large demo occurred, giving themselves something of the image of a rent-a-mob too proud for the struggle on the ground and the work that went into it. Rival organisations to viable groups would sometimes be founded (I won't give specific examples here) creating considerable confusion and distrust. That's not to say the socialists weren't in those groups, but their involvement in them was very rarely integrated into any overall 'party' strategy. Indeed, the lack of data relating to the relative successes of anti-cuts groups is arguably something of a failing for the left, which failed to hegemonise or grow the movements. The apparent reduction in the profile and overall activity of anti-cuts campaigns since the militant protests at the passing of council budgets in 2011 is arguably another.

Thinking about a crisis

Why didn't the left work effectively with anti-cuts groups? Part of the answer could lie in inherent sectarianism - being obsessed with not letting another party get a 'bigger' front than themselves. But I suggest there is probably also an ideological reason. It may be that during the initial shock of 2008 we all just got a bit too carried away with the apocalyptic finality of the economic crisis. If you start from a point that this is already a crisis like the late 1930s, or worse, you can start to extrapolate conclusions and some of those may not be helpful.

We from the IS tradition normally identify the crisis of the 1930s as having only been brought to a final end by the destruction to the economy that came in Second World War. Does this mean the present crisis has no resolution other than a terrible war? In one sense, I am overstating the case a bit, but it is difficult to sense much else when you read egregious cases, such as Joseph Choonara's current cut & paste epic in the ISJ: “The temptation for those presiding over the system is to bail out failing firms and to seek to put a floor under the crisis through forms of state intervention. But this very action can prolong the crisis.”

This line is a very deterministic view of how the crisis will play out. Unchallenged, it will encourage a mindset that says fighting the destruction of peoples living standards is historically impossible “because economics says so”. Now, it may be that truly terrible collapse of society will occur, but this is never guaranteed and is not, so far as I can see, round the corner. I would argue that this approach promotes a doomsday cult attitude toward the crisis and a propaganda-only mode of operation that does not take the work of opposing cuts with the seriousness it deserves.

Where to from here?

The coalition government will be with us for at least two more years, during which it has said it intends to bring even more cuts than the previous three combined. While official opposition from Labour remains so convoluted as to be nearly non-existent, we can be sure that massive anti-austerity feeling will be expressed one way or another before the election.

One development we are going to have to discuss is the People's Assembly Against Austerity (PA). The PA is, in some ways, not really new as a concept – it is an outgrowth of the 'Coalition of Resistance' campaign that the was launched when several left groups were founding similar initiatives and that has received significant backing from the leaderships of several trade unions, notably the centre-left leadership of the mass Unite union under Len McCluskey.

There have been numerous rallies against austerity held over the past half-decade, and it has been a fear of mine that the national picture may not break out of a repeating process of “demo, conference, demo, conference”. The PA has, to say the very least, managed to stand out by being on a considerably larger scale than previous conferences. With a venue for over 2,000 booked, there is already the possibility of spill-over space being hired. This would make the PA four to five times larger than its nearest rival and probably one of the biggest activist conferences for a generation in Britain. The publicity it has generated has similarly been far greater than previous events: it has been plugged in the Guardian and denounced in the Spectator, which is a rare breakthrough into the mainstream, recalling a little the publicity that Stop the War got at its height.

What the content of the event will be is, at the time of writing, still undetermined. A large platform of speakers has been assembled, combining 'grandees' like McCluskey and Tony Benn with radical journalists and cultural figures. This large top table may be nothing new in itself, or not to many of us, but it has succeeded in appealing to a genuinely large number of other people, presumably many of them from far beyond the ranks of the left as we have known it. It is likely that the bulk of these will have been, at various levels, involved in anti-cuts campaigning and they are a significant audience for ideas and strategies.

If we want these people to continue to coalesce into a movement and not simply listen to fine speeches and then drift away, it is surely incumbent on us try to provide ways to get that outcome. Yes, you can write Mark Serwotka's speech before you've heard it, but the majority of these people certainly can't. It is also not the case that denouncing the event for being 'top down' will be very meaningful to many delegates, who will not take kindly to being told they are being manipulated by a top table. To put it most simply, if someone who isn't on the organised left is coming to the PA, is it better to be enthusiastic and talk about taking the struggle forward, or is it better to be cynical and denounce the big names for a range of slights, some of which happened a long while ago?

There is, inevitably, a layer of the left that will attack the PA this way and make a point of principle out of it: witness the anarcho-miserablist Ian Bone of Class War, a man who famously advised people to stay away from anti-war demos in 2003, who has pledged to stand outside the PA venue, telling attendees how very wrong they are. If we take our activism seriously, we must find a mid-position between nodding along to McCluskey and abstaining on the sidelines with people like Bone who just think they're smarter than everyone else.

My guess is the right approach to the PA would be to intervene through and as part of delegations to it from genuine campaigning groups. Most IS Network members ought to find this easy: we have, most of us, been part of anti-cuts groups at some stage, or can easily join one. Going into an anti-austerity body with the express purpose of getting it to participate in the PA would, in fact, be a useful thing to do and might help reinvigorate groups that have stalled.

Something I feel to be worth throwing into the debate is the role of trade union councils – in Barnet the trades council was central to the founding of the anti-cuts group and manages to remain in alliance with it even as it operates with its own autonomy. Anti-cuts groups elsewhere that have become moribund and trades councils that have been conservative for decades could potentially be revitalised in local areas if they get encouragement and support from similar groups that are doing better, giving us a far wider pool of activity to operate.

There is also likely to be an interesting debate about regional People's Assemblies later in the year – which have the potential to be very large and attract further layers of activists. Regional PAs would be quite different from a national one - indeed if you want a version of the event that is less 'top table', this may be what you would end up producing. It is still not counterposed to the national event.

One thing I do not believe can be argued is that that the event can be simply abstained from, though if other people do have other ideas for fighting austerity, we should hear about those too.