The People’s Assembly: Left Unity in Practice in Suffolk

by Andrew Coates on December 12, 2013

Britain’s Liberal-Conservative Coalition was founded in 2010 around a programme of austerity. The government laid down its immediate priority: deficit reduction. This, they argued, is because of the UK’s high deficit. It obliged an immediate Spending Review. The previous Labour Cabinet had committed itself to its own programme of cuts. But its reluctance to agree to deeper reductions played a part, it is reported, in the Party’s failure to attract the Liberal Democrats to last-ditch efforts to form a “progressive coalition.”

As decisions to reduce spending were made, and filtered down to local authorities, a large number of anti-cuts campaigns sprang up. Ranging from those defending particular services, such as NHS hospitals, to Borough and County campaigns, these groups held meetings and demonstrations to protest against the effects of the Coalition’s policies. A new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, elected with the support of most of the trade unions, did not actively join these protests, but was far from hostile towards them. Initiated by community groups and unions, with the visible participation of left organisations (Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and others), Labour parties joined in many marches and pickets of council meetings.

These protests were far bigger than most of the more internationally celebrated ‘Occupy’ movements’, with the exception of the Spanish ‘indignados’. The camp at Saint Paul’s in London attracted fewer people than, say, marches against Conservative-led Suffolk County Council in Ipswich. In London hospital campaigners mobilised (and still mobilise) whole communities.

Efforts to channel these movements into classic ‘front’ bodies, such as the Socialist Party’s TUSC ‘anti-cuts committee’ and, what is now (relabelled) the SWP Unite the Resistance (ex-Right to Work), came to little. By contrast the Coalition of Resistance – sponsored by Britain’s largest trade union UNITE – came to wider prominence, and gained the affiliation and backing of hundreds of groups. The TUC held a successful national March for the Alternative in March 2011. It attracted over 100,000.  A day of actions over public sector pensions that year was backed by large local rallies. The Ipswich one gathered over 1,500 people and was supported by the local Borough Labour Party.

But, as the Trade Union Congress pointed out as austerity began, those systematically opposed to heavy cuts in public spending, risked becoming isolated. This was borne out in Suffolk. Initial plans for a “big bang” privatisation of municipal services were delayed, a new Council leader elected and Head of Services appointed, and the original programme was introduced more slowly, but just as thoroughly. The most visible example is that the public Library Service is no longer publicly run. It is the responsibility of an Industrial and Providence Society, a private charity with no democratic structure, council funded, but with a heavy fund-raising role – and responsibility for its own reduction in provision. No effective protest against these changes has taken place.

The obvious conclusion is that something more than ‘anti’, anti-cuts in this instance, protests are needed. Michael Ford is not alone in the judgement that, “Reconstituting the labour movement so that it becomes a powerful expression of the working-class interest, and thereby a means of the working class giving a lead to everyone interested in a new and better society, is …. the main task for socialists to address.” We could expand that claim: rebuilding popular backing and enthusiasm for left politics – that is recreating a wide constituency for left politics – is the bench-mark objective of socialist activism in the UK. Faced with the multiple difficulties we face our goals have to focus on the development of a new socialist consciousness in which, in E.P.Thompson’s words, the working class is “present at its own making.”

The People’s Assembly was launched in February this year and held its first national rally in March. This appeared to fill the vacuum just sketched and offer potential for the bedrock socialism described. As Michael Ford stated, “Socialists and the unions need to reach out to each other more, integrate their work more closely where possible and elaborate common projects, of which the People’s Assembly is an example.” Owen Jones put it more bluntly, “Here’s the rationale for the Assembly. It is unacceptable that – five years on from the near-collapse of the global financial system – there is no broad anti-austerity movement.”

It would be accurate to observe (after Dave Renton, Britain’s People’s Assembly: an Auto-Critique) that the involvement of Counterfire, who had been behind the Coalition of Resistance (not to mention the Stop the War Coalition, StWC), was not universally greeted on the rest of the left (See Counterfire and the Coalition of Resistance: a critical analysis).  But the political weight of those signing the People’s Assembly’s declaration, which included all the major trade unions, left Labour MPs, a Green MP, and respected quickly removed any doubt. Our UNITE Branch immediately signed up.

Counterfire leaders stand for what could be called a residual Leninism. They hold the belief that “united fronts” (alliances of pressure groups and left parties) will form the basis of a revolutionary ‘party’. There is equally a more marked ‘movementist’ approach, which believes that once the masses are in movement there is a kind of sharp contradiction in capitalism, which can rapidly shift to outright challenges to the system.

Whatever John Rees and his comrades thought, the People’s Assembly rapidly became too big for any one group to do more than help build the movement as a “common project”. This was immediately clear at the June national People’s Assembly Rally in Westernmost. The over 4,000 people present were not going to adopt any elaborate strategy, or ideology. In the East Anglian get-together (Norfolk and Suffolk) we discussed how we had been set up locally, and what kind of protests we were planning to make.

The Suffolk People’s Assembly was created before the June meeting. Initially Ipswich based, we expanded to include other towns, such as Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds and Hadleigh, and villages. Based on the previously active anti-cuts campaign, the Suffolk Coalition for Public Services, and the network of trade unionists around the Trades Councils, it rapidly expanded to include social movement activists, the Labour Party (including councillors), members of left groups, the Green Party and individuals, that is the ‘people’.  It would be true to say that this would not happened without the active involvement of full-time UNITE officials.

Although the Suffolk Assembly does not work with the stultifying method of forced “consensus” decision-making of the Occupy and neo-anarchist movement, most meetings reach conclusions by unforced agreement. Our principal objective is to campaign for the Living Wage – which has meant close co-operation with the leadership of the Labour-led Ipswich Borough Council. In September we held a successful public meeting. Mark Fisher memorably describes this, (I make no apologies for citing him in full),

One of the things that broke me out of this depressive stupor was going to the People’s Assembly in Ipswich, near where I live. The People’s Assembly had been greeted with the usual sneers and snarks. This was, we were told, a useless stunt, in which media leftists, including Jones, were aggrandising themselves in yet another display of top-down celebrity culture. What actually happened at the Assembly in Ipswich was very different to this caricature. The first half of the evening – culminating in a rousing speech by Owen Jones – was certainly led by the top-table speakers. But the second half of the meeting saw working class activists from all over Suffolk talking to each other, supporting one another, sharing experiences and strategies. Far from being another example of hierarchical leftism, the People’s Assembly was an example of how the vertical can be combined with the horizontal: media power and charisma could draw people who hadn’t previously been to a political meeting into the room, where they could talk and strategise with seasoned activists. The atmosphere was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but refreshingly free of the paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion, which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog.

I know many, if not most, of the people in that room of around 130 people, and this is an accurate description – one young woman wrote a shorter, but similar, comment on our Facebook page. The ‘top-table’ included, apart from Owen, the Labour leader of the Borough Council, the head of the local teachers’ union, the Secretary of the Trades Council (and a Socialist Party member). The audience, including members of left parties (SWP, SP and Communist Party of Britain), spoke directly from the heart.

We have not paused. Suffolk People’s Assembly members took part in the TUC NHS demo in Manchester outside the Tory Party Conference on the 29th of September. On the 5th of November, there was a self-organised protest by the disabled against ATOS and the Workfare plans of the Liberal-Conservative Coalition, leafleting the railway station against private ownership of the train service, Living Wage leaflets were distributed to shoppers, and, in the evening there was a  ‘Bonfire of Austerity’. It was noticeable that it was a “people’s” day of action, not only known activists turned up, but the Ipswich public joined in. More actions are planned.

The People’s Assembly has perhaps something in common with the efforts of the European left parties and blocs, like the French Front de gauche (FdG). Like them it has not begun from a position of strength. But at the same time it has roots in enduring left traditions. If the FdG is sometimes said to draw on the memories left by the “absent” mass French Communist Party, so the People’s Assembly could be described as a (partial) return of the popular British socialist constituency and the labour movement.  In American terms it might be better to compare its project not with the ‘anti-capitalism’ of the Occupy Movement, but with the class ‘populism’ advocated by Thomas Frank.

The People’s Assembly faces great difficulties. Few see it demolishing the Government’s austerity programme. Will it help influence the Labour Party to take up labour movement policies? Nothing is less sure. Will the new Left Unity party make a difference to the left? This is even less certain. But what is absolutely the case is that the People’s Assembly is left unity in practice.

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