Assemblies can become the new democratic politics of the people
The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, the first major rally against the ConDems’ austerity programme since last autumn’s TUC demonstration, showed that many rank-and-file activists are looking for a way forward that is beyond protest.
Endorsed by a range of well-known personalities and financially backed by the trade unions, the Assembly drew some 4,000 people. At a time when anger against austerity has reached boiling part, it was no great surprise that it would be well supported.
There was also a sense that calling it as a People’s Assembly might provide an opportunity to go beyond the usual top-down speechifying and empty left rhetoric, of which there was quite a lot. In fact, there was too much altogether!
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, whose union provided support for the event, spoke about the possibility of mass industrial action and demanding of the corporations: “Pay your tax, you greedy bastards”. If they didn’t, he even called on people to make Britain “ungovernable”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We are all in this together ... you can count on us. The TUC will back strike action all the way, whenever people vote for it.” The semi-religious theme of hope was on everyone’s lips, including everyone’s favourite, Owen Jones.
But behind the speechifying, there was precious little in terms of perspective. The two elephants in the room – capitalism and the Labour Party – received no mention from any of the main speakers. As for the global economic crisis, that might as well have been taking place elsewhere in the solar system.
While McCluskey’s call is welcome, where have Unite and other union leaders been in the three years of ConDem onslaught? There have been local, independently staged anti-cuts protests, but at a national level, the trade union leaders have sat on their hands.
There was a half-hearted fight on pensions which ended in capitulation and nothing in defence of the NHS. A pledge made at last September’s TUC conference to fight the public sector pay freeze was, for example, abandoned.
The main speakers never once mentioned that on the very same day, the two Labour Party Eds – Miliband and Balls – were pledging to continue the government’s austerity programme if and when they were elected in 2015.
People’s Assembly chief organiser John Rees, writing for the Morning Star, kept schtum about the democratic deficit and the subservience of parliamentary politics to the corporate agenda. By directing his fire only against the Tory Party’s conference in Manchester, the unstated suggestion is that Labour could be the alternative when clearly it is no such thing.
Rees called for “a culture of resistance, a supportive protest environment where strike action can become widespread and co-ordinated”. That’s how he sees the role of People’s Assemblies. It’s a narrow, limiting view.
One of the few contributions that got to heart of the matter came from the eloquent disability activist and comedian Francesca Martinez. She emphasised that “most of us are unrepresented” under the present coalition “between politicians and big business” and that this leaves us in new terrain. We live under “neo-capitalism”, she said in a daring reference to what is.
The calls from O’Grady and McCluskey should not be ignored, however. They reflect the huge anger within the working class which the trade union leaders are trying to corral. At the same time we must be acutely conscious that limited strike action will not turn this government nor any other.
The creation of People’s Assemblies around the country would be an important step. Campaigning to make them more than a way of letting off steam and turning anger into protest actions is the way forward.
In an overflow venue down the road from Central Halls, thanks to the work of campaigners from the Occupy movement, there was a well-attended session on democracy. A range of views revealed a real desire for a way forward other than waiting for a Miliband government.
In a workshop held by the Agreement of the People campaigners, there was support for Assemblies to become nationally networked, permanent, standing bodies and for a consensus to break the power of the current political system. There was backing for the idea that Assemblies could become a different way of doing politics and could discuss and draft a new constitution.
Instead of an “ungovernable” Britain, as McCluskey wants, we actually need a Britain governed democratically by the people. That can be achieved through a network of assemblies to create a new democratic economic and political system that replaces the power of capital and finance once and for all.
24 June 2013