Marienna Pope-Weidemann Photo credit: Marienna Pope-Weidemann

The People’s Assembly demonstration on 21 June 2014 was the biggest protest not organised primarily by the unions since the student protests in 2010 writes Alex Snowdon

Perhaps the weirdest thing about the generally very positive post-21 June No More Austerity demo aftermath is the appearance of this article offering ‘reflections’ on the demonstration. It struck me as odd when I first read it. Not because I disagreed with it – although I did – but because there was nothing in it to suggest the author had actually participated in the demonstration.

It occurred to me that there was a huge dislocation between his commentary on the demo and the demo I had actually been part of. Numerous errors indicated that if he had been there he certainly hadn’t been paying attention.

So I looked at the author’s twitter timeline and, sure enough, he wasn’t there. In fact he spent Saturday attending the Sussex Phenomenology conference and watching World Cup football on TV. Is this a ‘thing’ now? Writing ‘reflections’ on events you didn’t actually attend?

Now it might be considered an insult to the tens of thousands of people who did participate - especially to those of us who spent a great deal of time mobilising for it - for someone who wasn’t there to pontificate about what they did wrong, and what they should do differently next time. It is certainly an intriguing stance for a phenomenologist.

Let’s turn to the substance, such as it is. The author makes 4 points. I will briefly take them in turn.

1 ‘It’s difficult to find anything special about the most recent march,’ he claims. In fact the demo was very significant. It was a big, diverse and vibrant demo – with politically radical speeches in the rally – organised by a left-led coalition. It was organised and built independently of the TUC but with good participation from several unions. It was the biggest protest NOT organised primarily by the unions since the student protests in 2010.

It was therefore a serious breakthrough for anyone committed to building an effective broad anti-cuts coalition. It wasn’t just a one-off demo, but is part of a process. It reflected the growth of the People’s Assembly as a genuinely national movement. Banners included many local PA groups, and those groups put serious work into making it a success. Let’s also remember that such mobilisations put pressure on the ‘official’ bodies, notably the TUC and some union leaderships, to deliver more action, whether demonstrations or strikes.

The involvement of unions like NUT, PCS, Unite and FBU is especially important ahead of the 10 July strikes. It holds out the possibility of the left shaping a more combative movement, with strong connections between trade unions and other social groups.

As for the demo itself, it is obvious from the article that the author wasn’t there. The rally at the huge March 2011 TUC national demo was dominated by union general secretaries (and Ed Miliband spoke) but even Tony Benn – then the movement’s most high-profile extra-parliamentary figure – wasn’t invited on to the platform. Saturday’s rally was a world away from that: a great range of campaigners, trade unionists and political figures speaking, with radical and militant speeches dominating.

2 ‘Yes the BBC is biased, but ‘media blackout’ is self-indulgent.’ The author argues that the BBC did in fact report on the demo and provides a link, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this meagre coverage followed a great many complaints from people who had marched. He also overlooks the fact that anger at BBC non-coverage – on this occasion and on others – is driven by the awareness that it is a public broadcaster funded by the people. It is therefore reasonable for protesters to expect a modicum of coverage. Going on a demonstration and finding that it isn’t covered is, for first-time protesters, often something that feeds a more critical view of the media.

The author also argues: ‘Unfortunately – and it is unfortunate – there was little about this demonstration or its message to offer anything new or provocative to either journalists or the public.’ Anyone who actually participated in the demo is aware of at least one major ‘news angle’ here: the fact that it previews the likely mass co-ordinated strike action on 10 July.

That is something all the media are interested in and will report. The 10th July isn’t mentioned once in the article, which perhaps says something about its author’s own indifference to trade union struggle and indeed ignorance about what is actually happening in the anti-cuts movement.

3‘The message needs to change and demands need to be made.’ Here the author is suggesting that alternatives were not put forward in the demo. He wasn’t there so he has no idea whether they were or not. I was there and I know that they were.

The People’s Assembly links blanket opposition to austerity – see the No Cuts placards, for example – with the articulation of alternative demands. This is a radical stance, at least in relation to the Westminster mainstream, and there were countless examples of demands being made in the speeches on Saturday – from building social housing to implementing a living wage, from investing in green jobs to scrapping Trident in order to fund public services, from dealing properly with tax evasion to ending the erosion of pay, pensions and social security. 

A key theme of the day was opposition to the divide-and-rule scapegoating – of benefit claimants and immigrants – peddled by the main political parties and exploited by Ukip. Shouting back against this scapegoating – and instead targeting the rich – is a vital part of offering an alternative. There is something rather offensive about an online ’commentator’ telling the people who are actually building a movement what alternatives they should be advocating, when they are already doing it.

4 ‘There is no going back to the welfare state,’ we are informed. As anyone on Saturday’s demonstration could tell you, we need to mobilise to defend the welfare state we already have. It is under massive assault from this government. That assault is wrong and we are right to defend past gains in relation to the NHS, education, social security and public services.

It is not ‘nostalgia’ to defend the NHS, insist on a decent social security system, or call for investment to create jobs. It is about confronting the current austerity drive which is having a devastating impact on people’s lives, and the fabric of our society, today. The author suggests that the impact of neoliberalism means that such struggles are futile and worthless. Those who marched for an alternative to austerity are right to disagree.

Building the movement

So, to conclude. There are really two issues in all this. One is the whole phenomenon of a layer of people on ‘the left’ retreating into lazy online commentary instead of contributing actively to the building of a movement. This is something I already find an irritant, but someone going so far as to write an entire piece critiquing something he didn’t attend illustrates this phenomenon with brutal clarity.

The author offers no alternative suggestions – for what activists should actually be doing – whatsoever, and there’s no evidence of the ‘autonomist’ milieu (from which he appears to come) providing anything that vaguely resembles an alternative approach. If you disagree with a strategy, stop moaning and instead outline an alternative and implement it in practice.

The second issue is to do with a) the significance of the demo (and the People’s Assembly more generally) and b) the question of how we advance the movement. These two things are inextricably combined because the demo indicates a way forward for the movement, especially through building a bigger, (even) more locally-rooted and powerful People’s Assembly.

In the coming months our movement will be participating in, and mobilising for, the following: joint strike action on 10 July, the Jarrow-to-Westminster March for the NHS, demonstrations at Nato’s summit (30 Aug-5 Sept), Ukip conference (27 Sept) and Tory conference (28 Sept), a massive TUC demo in October, and possibly further national strikes in the autumn.

All of that, even taken together, isn’t enough to defeat austerity. But it is what needs to be done in the months ahead, and it can take the movement forward. It can expand the movement and make it more radical and combative.

Everyone has a choice to make. They can either be part of it or they can moan from the sidelines, making ill-informed comments about what’s being done already (and talking vaguely about an alternative approach but delivering nothing). It shouldn’t be a difficult choice to make.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).