The People’s Assembly (PA) recall conference is set to take place on Saturday 15 March with local PAs, affiliated union branches and campaigns able to send delegates. It comes at a time when there is a need to debate the way forward in the battle against austerity. This is an important event for socialists and activists.
The launch meeting in June 2013 drew over 4,000 people while local rallies have drawn hundreds of people. In some places meetings have been the biggest since the anti-war movement was at its height.
The PA is launching a series of initiatives with the first “Hands off our unions” rally in London on 11 February, and a Women’s Assembly on 22 February. It has now mapped out activities leading up to a national demo in June and beyond. The list includes initiatives by the Student Assembly. Union leaders Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka are to speak at the London rally on 11 February and the PA now has widespread union support.
From its inception the SWP has argued that activists should throw themselves into building the assemblies but of course the PAs are far from having a monopoly on initiating activity. Mobilisations in defence of the NHS, campaigns against the bedroom tax and for benefit justice have developed largely outside of the PAs. Work to build solidarity with workplace struggles and opposition to scapegoating, racism and fascism hasn’t centred on the PAs either.
But events called by the PA have provided a forum for debate, and initiatives such as the day of direct action on 5 November. Anything that links up workplace and community activists, gives them confidence and provides a place to debate must be a positive thing. Any “buts” that follow do not undermine the importance of the initiative and the need for socialists to be centrally involved.
However there are limitations. The PA is the child of the post-November 2011 world. When 2.5 million were on strike with the promise of more action, union power and organisation were seen by many activists as “the cutting edge”. The retreat after the mass strike on 30 November has seen a big gap develop between the anger against austerity and the level of action and activity on the ground.
Even the best of the left trade union leaders have pulled back from the kind of national coordinated strikes that developed in 2011. That hasn’t stopped almost every trade union and the TUC Congress for the last two years backing calls for a general strike. McCluskey, who is at the heart of the PA, has spoken out strongly against the Tories but also presided over the dispute at Grangemouth.
Unite was attacked by the Tories and the right wing media during the dispute. They faced a nasty boss in Jim Ratcliffe, a powerful multinational in Ineos and the weight of the anti-union laws. But an alternative to signing away workers’ conditions and rights to prevent the closure of the plant was a serious possibility. It’s also worth remembering that it was Labour’s attacks on Unite over the Falkirk by-election that opened the door to these attacks. So while it’s great that the PA took the initiative to defend Unite, the question of the role the union leaders play has not been debated.
That’s a real weakness in the project. We need unity against austerity but if the PAs are to prove a success they have to provide a forum where the events can be debated and lessons drawn. And with workers’ confidence low the willingness of union leaders to call (or not call) strike action has proved critical.
It needs to be possible within the movement to work alongside the union leadership while openly arguing about strategy. This isn’t about point scoring; it’s necessary if we’re to develop a strategy to win.
That’s because the decisions made by the union leaders have an impact on the level of resistance to the coalition government. The mass strikes of 2011 didn’t disappear. They were ended by the union leadership. Lack of confidence among rank and file workers meant that once leaders pulled back the movement wasn’t strong enough to go beyond the need for official support.
It is crucial that Labour Party members are involved in the PA project. Owen Jones has been at the centre of the project’s success and must now be the most popular Labour left speaker. But it’s also important that Labour’s role in shaping resistance is examined too.
Labour is committed to Tory spending plans and its concessions on immigration are helping the right to ramp up divisions. Labour has opposed industrial opposition to austerity and Ed Miliband is doing his best to distance “One Nation Labour” from the unions.
In the wake of the Grangemouth dispute McCluskey, Owen Jones and others argued that the setback was all but inevitable. The strength of the employers, the “footloose” nature of multinational capitalism and the anti-union laws meant a victory wasn’t possible. This leads to the argument that a political solution is required – but in reality for many union leaders this is a call for a more “supportive” government, as Frances O’Grady, the head of the TUC, said in an interview with the Guardian recently. In other words, a Labour government. So the question of what another Labour government will mean also has to be debated as part of any discussion about resisting austerity.
So will the question of whether union power is still capable of defeating austerity. The debates around the Grangemouth centred on this issue. The answer has implications for the whole movement. The question of the centrality of workers resistance was debated at the first PA conference. Of course, there is no contradiction in supporting direct action, mass protests and strikes. Demonstrations build confidence; direct action can catch the imagination.
But organised workers’ ability to use strikes makes them potentially the most powerful force. This is a discussion that’s worth having at the recall conference on 15 March. There is an idea at the centre of the PA’s politics, expressed by Jones and others, that until we convince a majority of the anti-austerity case we can’t really hope to stop the Tories.
Of course, it’s critical that we win the argument that “the money’s there”. If people are not convinced that pay cuts and cuts in the welfare state are unnecessary it will undermine their confidence. The success of the Labour government of 1974-79 in pushing through the Social Contract rested on convincing militant workers that there was no alternative to the cuts. The result was wage cuts across the working class for the first time since the Second World War.
So putting the anti-austerity case and winning ideological hegemony are crucial. Victories bring confidence. But sadly even the best of the left union leaders have spent two years stepping back from the kind of action that could bring victories.
We’ve seen that when workers are given a lead by the union bureaucracy they are prepared to fight. Last year’s regional strikes by teachers are a good example. They were a powerful expression of the anger against Gove. Thousands of young, mainly women NUT and NASUWT members poured onto the streets. But teachers have waited months for the promised national action that was to follow.
The victory by the bakers’ union BFAWU at Hovis showed what could be achieved in even the most difficult circumstances. Workers at the Wigan plant smashed zero hours contracts despite months of media coverage declaring that precarious employment had broken union power. The Unite the Resistance initiative played a key role in building solidarity and in spreading the word of the victory.
So alongside a forum to develop alternatives to austerity we also need forums to develop solidarity and spread the news when our side wins. We need the leadership to put some more wins under our belt too. So there’ll be a lot to talk about on 15 March. The development of its democratic structures and an honest debate about the state of the resistance can arm PA activists for the fight ahead.
There is much at stake. Austerity will go on no matter how many “improvements” in the economy the Tories trumpet. How we organise is key for activists in the months ahead. Socialists have to be at the heart of united front organisations like the PA.
But while working alongside others we also have to be prepared to raise the difficult questions. The PAs can provide a place to organise and debate, and for socialists they offer an audience for the ideas and strategies that could halt austerity for good.
Birmingham People’s Assembly was launched on 24 October at a 250-strong rally, one of the biggest meetings for some years in the city. Speakers included Paul Novak from the TUC, Salma Yaqoob, local trade unionists, Disabled People Against Cuts and bedroom tax campaigners. Len McCluskey had been due to headline but that was the day he was doing a deal in Grangemouth.
The rally was held in a banqueting suite, not a normal left wing haunt, and had a band and a choir perform during the evening. The night was rounded off with a Love Music Hate Racism/Love Music Hate Homophobia gig in a pub by the venue.
The initial steps to form a Birmingham People’s Assembly came after the national launch last June with several planning meetings bringing people together. We held a public meeting on the NHS in July and used this to help build September’s TUC demonstration in Manchester, distributing 10,000 leaflets advertising the demo.
In the build-up to the launch rally we distributed 12,500 leaflets, particularly around trade union branches. The launch rally brought together forces that have never been in the same room together in such numbers in Birmingham.
A large turnout from Unite combined with a significant group of Unison members, plus NUT, PCS, UCU, CWU and other union delegations. Anti-cuts activists and an impressive group of bedroom tax activists brought current campaigns into the room. Hundreds of pounds to cover the event’s costs were raised from union branches with Unite underwriting the event.
The expectation that the event would be a success, and break new ground for the left, was set by Socialist Workers Party and Communist Party members in particular and we have worked closely together to build the People’s Assembly, alongside other organisations and individuals including the Unite community branch and full-time organiser. Following the rally the local group meets monthly, with 20-plus people in the room.
We held a protest on 5 November alongside Anonymous activists where we demonstrated both outside and inside payday loan company offices in the city centre. We are planning a number of events in the coming months, including a “Hands off our unions” meeting.
We are also looking at holding a festival type event in the summer. The People’s Assembly network is being used to advertise support for other initiatives in the movement including a trades council meeting in the NHS and solidarity for strikes.
I represented the Birmingham group at the first People’s Assembly national delegate meeting in December. It is clear from that meeting that the groups are very diverse, reflecting local political priorities and organisations. There is a lot of space for local groups to take their own initiatives.
The recall conference in March is an opportunity for trade unionists, local campaigners and People’s Assembly groups to come together and discuss how we help push resistance forward whether that be in our communities or our workplaces.
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