A report on Austerity, resistance and the People’s Assembly by Counterfire steering committee


Why the People’s Assembly is central for the left

We are in an age of permanent austerity. David Cameron’s government is deeply committed to a long-term project of austerity, privatisation and re-structuring of the British economy. Cuts have already made an impact on living standards, public services and the welfare state. The Tories want to push this process still further. The election of a Labour government in 2015 could make a difference to some policies, but it won’t reverse the direction of travel or end austerity. Austerity is accompanied by the stigmatisation of the poor, scapegoating of migrants and vicious divide-and-rule. There has recently also been a sharp increase in scare stories about trade unions, and threats to further curtail workers’ rights.

All this is against the backdrop of over three decades of the largely successful imposition of neoliberalism by successive Tory and right-wing Labour governments, accompanied by a narrowing of political debate, the hollowing out of democracy and a huge increase in distrust of elite institutions and alienation from official politics. The People’s Assembly is a response to the ruling class offensive. Such a co-ordinating coalition is especially vital because of the nature of austerity, and of the resistance to it. Although austerity is a coherent project driven by central government, it manifests itself in a plethora of ‘single issues’ and specific cuts, many of them at local level. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a great deal of the opposition has been focused on particular cuts. We need to campaign against cuts at local level and at the same time link the struggles together into a single national movement.

The greatest challenge for the movement is to overcome fragmentation, localism and sectionalism by providing co-ordination, including national-level forms of protest aimed at central government. We need a coalition with such broad forces and social weight that it can offer people a sense that we really can make a difference. The People’s Assembly national launch in Westminster Central Hall, which attracted 4,000 people, was a springboard not only for action, but for the long-term national and local coalitions needed to deliver protests in the future.

If we want more co-ordinated strike action then we need to strengthen the unions by linking them with the rest of the movement in large-scale action. A bolder, bigger and broader movement on the streets raises the likelihood of renewed national strike action, feeding into the confidence of trade unionists. A national co-ordinating body is also an essential pre-condition for serious international co-ordination. Austerity is Europe-wide and so is the opposition. We need a common, continent-wide front against the disaster of austerity.

The People’s Assembly is the best context in which the left can promote its arguments, slogans and demands. This is the central way to build a stronger left-wing pole in British politics and society and shift the terms of mainstream debate. Extra-parliamentary activity, not electoral politics, is where we are at our strongest. A mass movement is the framework for articulating an alternative set of ideas: taxing the rich and pursuing the tax evaders, investing in jobs, transport and the green economy, scrapping the wasteful spending on weapons and war, democratising the banks and challenging the rule of finance capital. Such alternative demands can command broad appeal while confronting the core tenets of neoliberalism. A broad, united national coalition, with a consistent ‘no cuts’ stance, is also essential for countering the myths about immigrants or ‘scroungers’ being the source of our problems.

Extra-parliamentary activity includes a great deal of trade-union activity. Although strike levels have been low, unions have played a major role in mobilising anti-cuts feeling on the streets. Also, there have been protests by a wide range of groups encompassing all sorts of issues, from library closures to the NHS, from fire station closures to the bedroom tax. The People’s Assembly, by enhancing co-ordination of campaigns, has the capacity to confront the Tory assault on working-class living standards, welfare and public services, mobilising popular opposition on the streets and increasingly through workplace action too. The People’s Assembly process provides a chance to unite activity and politics on a sustained, on-going basis. It is through this process that we can unite and renew the left, drawing in new layers of activists and supporters, making left-wing politics relevant through meaningful mass activity against the cuts.

Arguments about the People’s Assembly

Some on the left are dismissive of any coalition that involves Labour members and supporters. But if we are serious about stopping cuts we need to unite the widest possible layers in common action. In particular we need to involve people who at least partially look to Labour for a response to the Tory-led government’s cuts; most such people are, it’s worth noting, highly critical of Ed Miliband’s weak opposition to cuts. Many millions of working class people will, however, vote Labour at the next general election and they must form a major part of the anti-cuts movement. With a hurricane of cuts upon us, people look for shelter to protect them. A number of factors – the low level of strike action, the small scale of the revolutionary left, the marginalisation of Marxist ideas – mean that only a small minority look to revolutionary ideas and organisation, while left reformism fares somewhat better.

Similarly, it is possible to be critical of particular failures by trade union leaders – and frustrated with the continuing low level of strike action – without dismissing the vital role such leaders have to play as part of a co-ordinated mass movement. Most of the left union leaders really do want greater opposition to cuts and to re-build trade union strength. This is the context we are working in. The People’s Assembly’s commitment to broad unity in action is, in current conditions, the most authentically radical strategy available to us.

What of those who argue for ‘grassroots activism’ instead of a national coalition? In fact national and local campaigning reinforce each other. The national People’s Assembly on 22 June 2013 was boosted by the participation of many grassroots campaigners from every part of the country; it, in turn, strengthened the networks between them and provided a mechanism for developing greater unity and coherence in the movement at local level. Local activity is essential but not enough: this hospital is saved, but the one 30 miles away still closes. If we want to stop all cuts, everywhere, nationally organised action aimed at the government is required.

Some critics have argued that the People’s Assembly is ‘top-down’ and ‘bureaucratic’. The essence of the People’s Assembly is the notion that broad working class unity is of fundamental importance if we are to defeat the government. We have the numbers on our side, but we need organisation to turn that into a social force to be reckoned with. Above all, we need to combine the size and organisational capacities of the trade unions with the numerous disparate campaigns involving single-issue activists, disabled people, students, pensioners and more.

Doing this effectively requires the support and active participation of national organisations, especially but not exclusively the unions. If this is what some activists mean when they refer to doing things ‘from above’ then so be it: organisation ‘from above’ i.e. involving national organisations, is exactly what we need as a means for involving the maximum social forces and delivering the largest-scale action imaginable. The united front ‘from above’ is precisely what facilitates the united front ‘from below’. The former is important primarily as a means to the latter, since it is the class struggle itself – not the rhetoric of leaders – that ultimately shapes history. Millions of people look to reformist leaders – whether Labour politicians, trade union general secretaries or prominent individuals – so to draw people into activity we seek alliances at the top with those leaders.

Furthermore, it is possible for grassroots forces to pull more moderate or reluctant leaders to the left. When most workers lack confidence to fight back at work, and still look to reformist leaders, it is essential for revolutionaries to build alliances at the top if they want united struggle at the base. If we ditch the leaders’ support we create a barrier to unity. But if we achieve a united framework for struggle, workers will learn from experience that the revolutionaries are the most consistent fighters and capable of offering a way forward, a clear ‘line of march’, for the struggle. For this to happen, though, there first has to be a meaningful coalition.

Some critics tend to complain of ‘top table’ speeches, when what’s really needed is workshops or smaller-scale gatherings that allow the voices of grassroots activists to be heard. Again, this is a false juxtaposition. It was precisely the success of the big national event last June that facilitated the burgeoning of local and regional assemblies, which have also pulled together a diverse coalition but with more scope for the voices of local activists.

There are also those who support the People’s Assembly, while stressing the electoral field as being of primary importance. This emphasis on electoral work takes two very different forms. The first is to invest hopes in Labour, despite Labour’s leadership being deeply committed to some version of austerity. It is, in any case, extra-parliamentary activity (more than electoral campaigning) that is likely to shift the terms of political debate between now and spring 2015.

The second route is to create an alternative outside the Labour Party. Such an approach is desirable in principle, but it would certainly be a mistake to prioritise such initiatives over the building of a broad, mass movement that encompasses everyone opposed to cuts. Not least is the question of timing: developing a credible electoral party is a long-term process, but cuts are biting now and there’s an urgent need for an active response. Current attempts at ‘left unity’ are unfortunately back-to-front in trying to create an electoral front principally out of fragments of the existing (and very small) radical left, instead of first creating a mass movement encompassing new political forces (as happened with the emergence of Respect from the mass Stop the War movement).

Revolutionaries, movements and the working class

Since the turn of the century, the radical left has faced a series of opportunities to influence wider movements of resistance. The anti-capitalist and anti-war movements were an extremely welcome shift in our political direction and provided a vital new audience for us. The political movements of the last decade or so have been a response to three decades of a generalised ruling class re-structuring of the world, involving neoliberalism at home and, more recently, the new imperial offensive of the ‘war on terror’.

Our long-term commitment to movement building reflects, as it has done for over a decade, two core understandings: in an era of political radicalisation and protest movements, revolutionaries can most effectively build their own organisation and spread their ideas by participating centrally in the movements; and, secondly, movement-building is not an alternative to the working class, but rather a particular expression of working class resistance and organisation. Trade unions remain hugely important and need to be an arena of political action for revolutionaries, but limiting ourselves to them would be foolish.

The emergence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, against a backdrop of continuing low levels of industrial struggle, meant that working class resistance followed a very different pattern to the 1960s and 1970s. It was also very different to the downturn of the 1980s. It was generally political and ideological issues which provided the cutting edge for resistance. This ‘political upturn’ was typically expressed in street protest, but it’s important to recognise that this phenomenon was – and continues to be – reflected in political trade unionism.

Industrial action cannot be seen in isolation from the political context and from developments in the wider labour movement. This is a general truth that finds particular resonance in the present period. In the last few years the biggest street demonstrations have been organised by the trade unions; the 26 March 2011 TUC national demonstration, involving half a million people, fuelled momentum towards the co-ordinated strikes on 30 June 2011 and, on a still larger scale, 30 November 2011. Those strike days involved the biggest local anti-cuts protests many areas have seen to date, with several hundred thousand people protesting nationwide on 30 November.

Recent trade union advances have proved very fragile: postal workers’ union CWU, for example, struck a poor deal instead of pushing ahead with a national strike. Nonetheless, we saw national action by teachers, university and colleges staff, firefighters and probation workers in the last few months of 2013. Rebuilding trade unions – and workers’ confidence to take strike action – must be a central priority for the whole left. But as well as winning arguments for strike action – and the projects of recruiting and workplace organising which are linked to such action – the process of rebuilding confidence also involves the development of wider movements of resistance.

Trade unionism is being reconfigured. The unions have to organise the actual working class of today, reflecting its diversity and the strengths and weaknesses of the context we find ourselves in. Women workers are more integral to working class organisation than ever before, migrant communities are an important part of the class, and there is a huge diversity of occupations and workplaces. It is not a question of re-running the 1970s, an ‘upturn’ built on the back of the post-war era of full employment, rising living standards and strong shop floor organisation, much of it in traditional industries that have now declined or been obliterated.

Where unions are having success in re-building today, it is through a number of avenues: political trade unionism, recruitment drives in parts of the private sector with low levels of unionisation, community organising (e.g. Unite Community), working with the People’s Assembly, street protests (sometimes aligned to strike action), and so on. Strikes can be an important part the wider project of re-building the labour movement, e.g. the RMT’s recruitment of low-paid cleaners on the Tyne and Wear Metro which led on to a successful series of strikes for a living wage and other benefits, Unite’s recruitment drive and strike campaign among London bus workers and the strike movement at Hovis in Wigan.

Too much of the radical left is content to repeat the same slogans and calls for action regardless of concrete circumstances.  This involves downplaying the role of protest movements, ignoring the complexities of today’s working class, and overlooking many of the actual developments in the trade unions. Simplistically repeating dogmatic assertions, accompanied by ritualised denunciations of trade union leaders, takes the place of charting a way ahead.

Building the People’s Assembly movement in 2014

It is useful to briefly reflect on the main lessons to emerge from successful local People’s Assemblies such as those in Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and East Anglia. A key lesson is to involve the maximum number, and broadest range, of people in planning such events. It helps to start early and allow time to build a successful coalition through the process of organising and promoting the event. Frequent open planning meetings, with a focus on practically organising a major event (with a shared sense of purpose, avoiding getting distracted by minor differences), can play a hugely positive role.

The most successful events have been quite audacious. It has been necessary to think very big. Such ambition has a galvanising effect and signals to everyone across the broad labour movement that we are building something credible and significant. The aim has to be to create a game-changing, breakthrough event for the broad movement in any given area.

Most of the effective local or regional Assemblies have echoed the national launch’s combination of plenaries and workshops. September’s North East People’s Assembly, for example, attracted 500 people to a programme consisting of two major rallies (one in the morning and another in the afternoon), 10 workshops in the slots between the rallies, and an evening show in the main auditorium of the Newcastle theatre which served as the main venue. A long list of campaign groups and unions were represented in the workshops – inviting them to offer a workshop speaker proved to be a great way of getting so many different groups involved and creating a truly broad coalition.

Such local Assemblies are geared towards overcoming the fragmentation of the movement. They are about on-going practical unity, not just a day of dialogue and co-operation. They aim to forge connections for the long term. They must therefore be followed up with regular co-ordinating meetings which provide a way in for new supporters. It may prove possible to establish more localised groups in different areas. It’s important that any local groups promote local anti-cuts protests and solidarity with strikes as well as building national initiatives.

In the next few months there will be a national conference for the People’s Assembly, a day of direct action to coincide with the March 2014 budget, further solidarity action with strikes, co-ordinated campaigning called by the Student Assembly over privatisation, and a series of rallies and public meetings, nationwide, to promote the Hands off our Unions initiative. All of these must be addressed seriously by local People’s Assembly groups; Counterfire activists need to be pushing for local groups to be contributing to them.

All Counterfire members should be active in the People’s Assembly; all members should be reporting and reflecting on their experiences in building the People’s Assembly in our meetings. Local Counterfire groups are where we reflect, discuss and plan our work in the movements and trade unions, as well as discussing general politics and ideas. As revolutionaries we want to make an impact on the world around us, rather than being reduced to either sectarian position-taking or, on the other hand, tailing more moderate elements in the broad labour movement. Our role in the People’s Assembly is central to our work in 2014.