DISCLAIMER: The following article is the opinion of its author and does not represent the views of the People’s Assembly or of any political party
Alex Snowdon is active in North East People’s Assembly.
The People’s Assembly on 22 June brought together 4000 opponents of austerity. Its aim was simple: to use the breadth and depth of the movement represented on the day to become a launch pad for co-ordinated mobilizations such as solidarity actions with NUT and PCS strikers, a national demonstration for the NHS, a day of local direct action and regional people’s assemblies throughout the country.
It marked a turning point in creating the kind of national coalition we sorely need, launching the action that can win results and generate greater confidence to resist among millions of people opposed to cuts. It is a hopeful sign that rallies and public meetings took place in many areas in the run-up to 22 June – including a big meeting in Newcastle – as these can help develop a mass movement nationwide.
Owen Jones summed it up for many when he referred to the anger over cuts not yet being matched by hope, saying that hope – and the confidence to take action that comes with it – is precisely what the People’s Assembly can offer. His fellow columnist Mark Steel drew a hugely enthusiastic response to one of his columns when he wrote about the millions of people shouting abuse at politicians on television, feeling isolated in their rage and frustration, but pointing to the Assembly as the way to pull those people together into a movement. Over three years into this Tory-led government, it reflects the weaknesses of the left and the trade unions that we are only doing this now.
The Assembly 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 and policies. Such protests and campaigns are necessary and extremely welcome, but also limited. The fragmentation of the movement can only be overcome through a broad-based national event like the People’s Assembly, supplemented by a commitment to sustain co-operation in the long term.
A successful national event like the Assembly is a boost to grassroots activism: national and local campaigning reinforce each other, providing that activists consciously make the links. The Assembly on 22 June was boosted by the participation of many grassroots campaigners from every part of the country; it, in turn, strengthened the networks between them and now provides 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. National co-ordination is indispensable if we are to confront austerity as a whole. If we want to stop all cuts, everywhere, nationally organised action aimed at the government is required.
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. There will always be differences of opinion – and it is necessary to air and debate those differences – but they should not be a barrier to united action.
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, to create an inclusive framework which can involve the diverse range of people in our movement. The main national event, through its large scale and broad composition, provided a powerful platform for generating grassroots forms of co-ordination, which will be more effective precisely because they are part of a national framework.
A few key points should be stressed about the on-going potential of the People’s Assembly.
1) The single greatest task for the movement at present is to overcome fragmentation, localism and sectionalism by providing co-ordination, including national-level forms of protest. We need to strike at the heart of austerity policies, which is the government. We need a coalition with such broad forces and such social weight that it can offer people a sense that we really can make a difference. Leaving protests at the local level, allowing campaigns to be separated from each other and keeping the movement narrow or divided are all recipes for defeat.
2) The 22 June event has to be seen as a springboard not only for action, but for the long-term national and local coalitions needed to call and deliver protests in the future. This is a process, not merely an event, one that has to be sustained and taken to higher levels of action. In the north east a major step forward will be our regional People’s Assembly in Newcastle on 14 September.
3) 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. The push for strike action is not simply a matter of what trade unionists do within their unions; it is a matter for the whole movement. A bolder, bigger and broader movement on the streets raises the likelihood of renewed national strike action, feeding into the unions and the confidence of their members.
4) A national co-ordinating body is an essential pre-condition for serious international co-ordination. Austerity is Europe-wide and so is the opposition. With the European Union figuring prominently in current domestic political debate – but in a way that is shaped by right-wing arguments, from both Tories and Ukip – it is more necessary than ever to develop a common, continent-wide front against the disaster of austerity, which in some countries is even more devastating than in Britain.
5) The People’s Assembly – not just the event itself, but as a continuing coalition – 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. 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, countering the myths about immigrants or ‘scroungers’ being the source of our problems, democratizing the banks and challenging the rule of finance capital.
No other strategy or initiative can come close to delivering all this. We have to make this work. The stakes are too high for us to fail.