First, the negatives.
The venue was entirely unsuitable. The acoustics were atrocious, and there was a shortage of suitable rooms for break-out sessions. The West Yorkshire contingent, for instance, had to meet at the back of the gallery, and as the (extremely helpful) hall staff pointed out, there were serious health and safety issues in view of the steeply raked seating, with some of us having to stand up to face the rest of the people there.
And that’s really it.
The 4000 people who crammed into the hall triumphed over all difficulties to inspire the next stage in the struggle not only against austerity, but for another way of life.
Of course, it was great, inspiring, could be the start of a real fight-back etc etc. But before we exhaust ourselves slapping ouselves on our collective backs, we need to evaluate exactly where we go from here.
Mark Serwotka, who leads the civil service PCS union, called for co-ordinated civil disobedience, protests and strikes.
He said: “If it is right to strike against austerity in Greece, in Spain, in France, then it is right to strike against austerity here.
“When Unite members are ready and willing” [my emphasis] “to take that industrial action to make the politicians change course, then we will not let the anti-union laws get in our way.”
What he did NOT say was “I will fight within my union to win the entire membership for industrial action, regardless of the anti-union laws.”
Len McCluskey‘s message was similar:
“Our message is . . . make the tax avoiders pay, make the wealthiest put their hands in their pockets to bail us out of the crisis they have caused. If the government spent one tenth of the resources that they do hunting down so-called ‘welfare fraud’ in tackling tax avoidance, in tackling tax dodging then the budget deficit would start to melt away.
“We need to demonstrate, protest and lobby, and we need to do more – take direct action to let the elite know we are here.
“We must all work together to build the fighting spirit which creates the climate for mass industrial action.”
Again, he did not pledge himself to work to build support for such “illegal” actions within his own union.
There was a sizeable elephant in the hall: the idea that Labour could be reclaimed and the Assembly should work together to ensure Miliband gets into Number Ten next time round. Nobody said this from the platform, but it could be encountered in the break-out sessions.
At the other end of the political scale was the advocacy of Ken Loach‘s “Left Unity” initiative as the way forward, envisaging yet another “new party of the left” to take the place of Labour. In the West Yorkshire breakout, this was put bluntly, when a Left Unity supporter raised the question of the relationship between local Assemblies and nascent Left Unity branches.
It is hard to see how unity would be served by setting up in opposition to other established left parties, like the SWP, CPB etc. Regardless of how effective the various left groupings may or may not be, it is unrealistic to expect them to liquidate themselves and join yet another new party.
There is a contradiction inherent between Left Unity’s name and its appointed role as a new party. True left unity will surely be achieved by building bridges between all the elements of the left, not excluding those (deluded, to my mind) who believe that Labour can be reclaimed.
The enthusiasm and hope that was tangible among the Central Hall four thousand had resonances with a gathering of 5000 times as many who demonstrated against the Iraq war in February 2003. Then we were similarly filled with hope that war could be stopped.
But we failed.
And the presence of Stop the War’s Andrew Murray on the platform raised the fear that the Assembly movement could become StW-II, in which the determination of the masses to take action was once again deflected into legalistic channels.
Fine words are only empty air and not our meat and drink, as Brecht put it when the left throughout Europe were struggling against the rise of fascism.
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- LEFT UNITY: Press Release (sparaszczukster.wordpress.com)
- Building a Movement from Below: The People’s Assembly (think-left.org)
- The beginning of the end for austerity (morningstaronline.co.uk)
- Get down to your local People’s Assembly event (morningstaronline.co.uk)
- People’s Assembly Speeches – John Rees and Mark Serwotka – The White Flag of Reformism or Red Flag of Revolution ? Peoples Assembly to People’s War ? (democracyandclasstruggle.blogspot.com)