Peoples Assembly : what can it deliver?

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The People's Assembly will be a focus for many wanting to see a fightback. Charlie Kimber argues this is welcome, but we need to address the role of trade union leaders and the Labour Party if we are to build a movement that can break the government and its savage austerity programme

On 22 June, unless you have a very good excuse, you must be at the People's Assembly in London. Practically every trade union leader is scheduled to be in one room alongside hundreds of rank and file activists as well as people who have led campaigns against the bedroom tax, fought to defend the NHS and headed up the revolt by disabled people.

It will be a summit of those who reject austerity. And it will also be an opportunity to create bulwarks against the pernicious scapegoating that blames immigrants for the problems of workers in Britain, something made even more urgent with the wave of Islamophobia that has followed in the wake of the Woolwich attack.

The local People's Assembly meetings have, in some cities, seen the largest numbers of people coming together for years. There were 350 in Nottingham and a similar number in Newcastle and Sheffield. In Manchester up to 700 came to the meeting.

This is very welcome. There is a way on the left of saying "this is very welcome" which masks a gritted-teeth recognition that you can't be seen to denounce something but you would really be overjoyed if it disappeared to Mars. So let's be clear, the People's Assembly really is welcome.

Who isn't moved by the yearning for our side to start fighting effectively? We have a Tory party that lurches from crisis to crisis and whose base has been grievously split by Ukip. A large portion of Conservative activists hate their leader and might well prefer glorious defeat to another election victory alongside the LibDems.
Its economic policy is in tatters, and it does not know if they want it to make people think it has stopped being the nasty party - or set to become nastier.

And yet. And yet it gets away with murder on a daily basis. It flogs off parts of the NHS each week. It harrys people on benefits to suicide, it destroys hundreds of thousands of jobs, it slashes living standards, and it is going to sell off the Royal Mail.

It is out to use the crisis (as Lord Young Young delicately put it) as an opportunity to jack up profits, and to transform Britain fundamentally in the interests of the rich and powerful. Even if it loses in 2015, it will have delivered for its class.

The challenges are going to keep coming. Four days after the People's Assembly meets in London, chancellor George Osborne will force through £11.5 billion cuts. So let's start fighting. But there's the rub.

Our side doesn't agree about how to fight, and some of those who are meant to lead the fight are doing a very good job of surrendering.

An article on the Counterfire website by Alex Snowdon speculates that: "The People's Assembly is expected to use the breadth and depth of the movement represented on the day to become a launch pad for coordinated mobilisations such as solidarity actions with NUT and PCS strikers, a national demonstration, a day of local protests and regional people's assemblies throughout the country."

All power to that. But let's raise the difficult questions as well. Because if we don't then we're going to replay certain strategies that have failed. Let's begin with "solidarity action with PCS and NUT strikers". The unavoidable truth is that the civil servants' PCS has been largely left to fight on its own for nearly 18 months.

The 30 November watershed
On 30 November 2011 some 2.5 million workers struck over pensions. Just days later most union leaders, rather than building for the next phase of resistance, rushed to sign up to rotten deals. That experience deeply affected the battles that came afterwards. Perhaps it might be unwelcome to say it, but every trade union leader who speaks on 22 June ought to be asked to explain why they are not merely supporting the PCS and the teachers' NUT (and the NASUWT) in words, but also leading their own members out alongside them.

Perhaps this will be dismissed as "harping on" about a general strike. But let's not forget that, as well as passing the famous motion about considering the practicalities of a general strike, the TUC congress last September also voted to support coordinated strikes over the public sector pay freeze.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said ministers had "declared war on our people" and vowed to lead a "fightback".

It was on the eve of this same congress that Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union, said: "There is a real chance of coordinated action, if not this winter then certainly early next year. I see the issue of strikes and continuing protests actually increasing as we move closer and closer towards a general election."

What happened? Much too little. The chart on page 9 of "days lost" through industrial disputes is instructive. There's the massive spike caused by the strikes of 26 June 2011 and then 30 November 2011, another (much smaller) strike in May 2012 centred on the PCS, the lecturers' UCU and a section of Unite, and then a return to the very low level of struggle that followed the outbreak of the financial crisis.

It's not just the big strikes that show the way the bureaucracy has acted. It's also true that chance after chance has been missed to win significant smaller workplace battles and to mobilise on the streets.

Why, for example, was the closure of the Remploy factories for disabled workers not turned into a big political crisis for the government? The closures came just as Cameron and Co were hypocritically lauding themselves for their progressive role during the Paralympics.

Why have the health unions and the Labour Party dragged their feet over calling at least a properly-built national demonstration against the assault on the NHS? There are strong indications that Unite may now call such a protest, but why has it taken so long? And why has there been no attempt to follow up the mass demonstrations in Lewisham and Stafford with strikes?

This is not to say that union members are a seething mass of discontent that is held back by a thin layer of bureaucrats. The reality is that the mass of union members lack the confidence to move into struggle independently of the bureaucracy. But the general tendency is that, when the union bureaucracy gives a lead, people are prepared to fight. One example is the size of recent meetings in the NUT to organise for its regional campaign of industrial action - 500 in Newcastle and in Cardiff, for instance.

Furthermore, there is a harder minority, probably up to a third of the activist base in key unions, which is critical of the union leaders. This is reflected in the 36 percent of the vote won by Jerry Hicks in the Unite general secretary election and in the similar percentage that backed a motion at the NUT conference, against the union executive's advice, for a one-day national strike in June.

Union leaders matter
Our argument is that the actions of the union leaders matter - even more so when there is hesitation among the rank and file. The People's Assembly is itself an indication of this. When the union leaders give their blessing it is much easier to bring thousands of activists together.

Therefore the retreats by the union (and Labour) leaders play a big role in explaining the generally low level of struggle. The role of the bureaucracy is one of the reasons why putting together a "united front against austerity" is different to a united front against fascism or the "war on terror". The union leaders' role in the battle against cuts and job losses is much more direct than their role in the fight against the Nazis or the opposition to imperialist intervention.

Therefore there is a tendency for the anti-austerity front to be reduced to platitudes and generalities so as not to upset those union leaders who have shied away from a fight.

The participants on 22 June must try to ensure that it produces a real programme of action going beyond a demonstration. Of course a demonstration (called by one or two big unions or many) would be another chance to rally the forces against the coalition. But it's not enough. The pressure has to be stepped up for serious coordinated strikes - and quickly.

To quote McCluskey again, in April this year he said: "I very much doubt the TUC will name a day [for a general strike]. But some unions, including Unite, might go away and talk about whether there is anything else they might wish to do, over and above the collective decision of the TUC." It's time to do that, not just talk about it.

Unite the Resistance
For all these reasons, we believe it's necessary to continue developing and strengthening the Unite the Resistance (UtR) project. Since it was formed in 2011 it has focussed on drawing together the forces, centred on the unions, who want to see the development of a movement of industrial action. This means working in a relationship with left union officials, but also voicing criticism where necessary.

At present the key role for UtR is to draw together networks of those activists who are bitter about the betrayal of the pensions dispute and who want to see a serious fightback, as well as being able to provide real solidarity with those groups of workers who are fighting.

UtR has held a number of successful regional events following its 1,000-strong conference last year. It has also called a demonstration at the Tory national conference in Manchester on 29 September. This is already backed by the local trades council, some union branches, Benefit Justice and others. The Unite union is expected to call a national demo over the NHS at the same place on the same day - which UtR will, of course, coordinate with. This can lead to the prospect of a really big focus for anti-Tory fury.

Another big issue on 22 June will be the Labour Party. It's absolutely right that Labour Party members should be welcomed to the assembly and Labour MPs should be speaking at it. Not to do so is to write off large sections of workers who still believe (however inadequate) that Labour is still the only credible way forward.

But again there has to be real debate over the role Labour is playing. Remember that it was Labour leader Ed Miliband who refused to back the pension strikes and then told the union leaders last September: "The public doesn't want to see strikes. Nor do your members. Nor do you."

It is Labour which utterly fails to campaign for an alternative to austerity and to challenge the foundations of Tory policies. Labour doesn't even seem capable of definitely saying it will repeal the bedroom tax, let alone wipe out the rent arrears it produces.

Furthermore (and again this is different to a united front over war or fascism) Labour is actively implementing the cuts in councils across Britain. So protests against the cuts will involve many Labour Party voters, but they will often be protesting against Labour-run councils.

Election on the horizon
And if, as we all hope, the Tories lose the next election, it will be Ed Miliband who is most likely to enter Number 10. What will he be like? For the answer look across the Channel at France and Socialist Party president François Hollande who was elected almost exactly a year ago. When he won there were wild celebrations on the streets. Now many of those same people are on the streets against him as unemployment rises, the rich still soar away from the rest, corruption infests the government and racist policies continue. Would Miliband be different? Possibly, but worse. He offers much less than Hollande promised.

And too many of the union leaders remained tied to Labour, whatever their criticisms. McCluskey has talked about "reclaiming" Labour and has on more than one occasion said that Labour is facing its last chance to deliver for working people. Yet Unite continues to funnel huge sums of money towards Labour and shows no signs of seriously engaging with or initiating any project for an alternative.

Indeed there is a real danger that if, the union leaders don't call action on a scale that matches the assault we face, then electing Labour, however little it is offering, can seem the only option for many workers desperate for some protection against austerity - after all by this autumn it will only be 18 months at most to a general election.

So we should discuss Labour's role now and in the future. The emergence of Left Unity shows there is a thirst for such a debate. It will be a problem if the assembly excludes that.

The follow-up to 22 June will be as important, perhaps even more important,than the day itself. The local People's Assemblies have already shown they can be focuses for debating action and broadening the range of speakers on the top table, in workshops and from the floor. There can be much more of a sense of ownership and participation at such events than at a set-piece national one.

Activists should seek to promote and shape such gatherings so they reflect the urgent discussions we need about strikes, protests and the role of Labour.

In the SWP we believe that, at the centre of resistance, we need to build an independent revolutionary socialist organisation. But we do not raise that in sectarian opposition to united efforts to raise the level of fightback. Indeed, any revolutionary party that is worth anything has to be built as part of involvement in the resistance.

To quote Alex Snowdon again: "The purpose of the [22 June] event is to launch action at a higher level than we could achieve without it." That will be extremely welcome.

The People's Assembly is on 22 June and you can register online for it at http://thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/register/