People’s Assembly delegate conference – a step forward in the anti-austerity struggle

Dave Kellaway reports from the People’s Assembly recall conference

Yesterday Bob Crow’s family sent a message of solidarity to the People’s Assembly conference. They recognised that he was fully supportive of this movement. A truly nationwide movement if you listened to the accents and checked the delegate lists of those attending yesterday. A broad movement with over a dozen major unions affiliated. A movement that is not a top down coalition, as some of its critics have suggested, but one that is embedded in over 80 local groups. Over 660 people registered and there were another 30 or so observers. As someone remarked to me, you could tell it was a broad mobilisation because you did not recognise many people.

The Emmanuel centre with its biblical exhortations beautifully marked out on the walls was full with activists actually fighting for some of those good intentions in a 21st century where hundreds of thousands have to go to food banks each week.

Following the 4,000-strong national one day rally last year it was important for the People’s Assembly to create a proper constitutional structure based on active groups combined with the nationally affiliated trade unions and other organisations. It was also necessary to democratically discuss a statement of aims and a series of policies related to the anti-austerity struggle. The conference organisers did a fantastic job preparing the documentation and the agenda so that it all ran extremely smoothly. Over 90 motions had been sent in. Most were useful additional points that were incorporated into the motions. A few were up for debate since they had a different position on various points and these were all discussed calmly.

The main statement of aims more or less overlapped the pre-existing People’s Charter (from 2008) that had already been supported by the steering group but was adopted after discussion by the whole conference. There are 6 points to the charter:

1. A fairer economy for a fairer Britain
2. More and better jobs
3. High standard homes for all
4. Protect and improve public services
5. For fairness and justice
6. For a secure and sustainable future.

In current conditions none of the policies under these headings are acceptable to the capitalist market or to either New Labour or Tory governments. But there are plenty of links to the more radical Labour Party manifestos of the past and it provides a bridge to the level of existing class consciousness.

On structure the conference accepted the main recommendations for an assembly which would meet at least twice a year in which each local group could send a delegate which would balance and potentially outvote the representatives of the signatory organisations (the trade unions, political groups and others). The steering group would still be nominated by the signatory organisations but the assembly gave the overall structure a much more democratic set up where the voices of local groups would carry real weight. In my opinion this is quite a good way or organising a broad united front campaign like the People’s Assembly. You have to put a weighting on the contribution of a big union with millions of members against a local group of activists. Conference correctly voted down a proposal for a far looser ‘participatory’ network.

There was a fascinating discussion on the financing of the organisation where an amendment to the finance motion was carried against the signatories who moved the main motion. It turned around the amendment which argued that 30% of the individual donations and membership fees paid to the national People’s Assembly should be remitted to the local group. In other words people were in favour of a more serious set up with regular payments but wanted to keep some resources on a local level. In fact Left Unity has a similar system. The fact that people argued this in a comradely fashion and won the conference showed that the meeting was entirely democratic and demonstrates that some criticisms of the People’s Assembly as being undemocratic are unfounded.

Kirstine Carbutt gave a rousing report on the struggle of the Doncaster Unison members who are engaged in a battle with Care UK over the attempted change to their working conditions and pay as support workers for people with learning needs. The new privatised company, as in normal practice these days, wants to cut back on all the usual provisions for extra pay for unsocial hours and on other matters. The union has already organised a one week strike and is preparing another for next week. The conference raised over £800 for their strike fund. This report introduced the discussion on future actions which approved the action already being planned such as the actions on Budget Day, the 21 June national demonstration, the action at the Tory conference in September and the October TUC demonstration.

It was noticeable in this discussion and at other times in the conference that there were occasionally some over-optimism about the present situation. People talked about a ‘weak government’ that the coalition was ‘frit’ and that the anti-austerity movement was on the offensive. We should remember previous movements like the anti-poll tax campaigns when we make such assessments. Sam Fairbairn’s speech veered a little in this ‘boosterist’ direction when he talked of the impact of the 19 November actions. Other speakers, such as Rob Griffiths from the CPB, were much more realistic about where we were at and accepted that the Tories had won some of the arguments about welfare in public opinion. John Rees was also more measured in his assessment. His central message, which I think we can all share, is that the People’s Assembly had done what it has said it would do – establish a national movement with a democratic structure and carry out actions we agreed. He is right and this is in itself a real step forward.

Other noteworthy contributions were on independent movement of disabled people where there were eloquent speeches from the DPAC speakers and from the anti-bedroom tax campaigners. In the final session resolutions were passed that made the link between the anti-austerity movement and the anti-war movement or the Greece Solidarity Campaign.

What is the political significance of this conference for the left?

Firstly, this is the main and only real united front campaign against austerity that draws in broad layers and the trade unions. It is properly organised with full timers and serious resources. Front campaigns such as the SWP’s Unite the Resistance or the SP’s National Shop Stewards Network have been completely marginalised. Both organisations should start building People’s Assemblies. Indeed the SWP are actually beginning to do this in a number of areas. It is true some of the local PAs are fragile and at the early stages of development but a lot are doing important work – it is not so dissimilar to our experience in Left Unity. Furthermore the conference welcomed delegations from anti-cuts groups that are not called People’s Assembly. This is healthy and reflects debates that have taken place in the steering committee. Perhaps the most successful anti-austerity campaign has been in Lewisham. You cannot insist that it becomes a People’s Assembly.

Secondly, it shows that activists at a local level can have a real voice in decision-making in the People’s Assembly. It is democratic and showed this at the conference. It is not a campaign dominated or controlled by Unite the union as some left critics have dubbed it. We should welcome their contribution or the help of the Morning Star in providing office space.

Thirdly, it is mobilising exactly the same target audience that Left Unity is building from. All Left Unity branches should be actively building their local People’s Assembly. Activists involved in the People’s Assembly are nearly all both against the coalition austerity and New Labour’s austerity-lite ‘alternative’. We have to be working alongside these activists, not preaching from the sidelines that Unite has ‘sold out’ on Grangemouth or not yet organised a general strike, or that the People’s Charter is not a revolutionary programme.

We need to be there when these activists ask themselves whether consistent anti-austerity activity can co-exist with a belief that Labour can be reclaimed from the left. It was noticeable that there are a very limited number of Labour MPs or councillors signed up to the People’s Assembly and even fewer Labour Party branches affiliated.

We also have to be working in a positive way alongside groups like Counterfire who have done excellent work in this campaign but so far disagree with the Left Unity project. They feel it is premature and that we should put all our energies in building People’s Assemblies. Sooner or later they have to ask themselves whether the only perspective is building such united fronts and recruiting to Counterfire, or whether energies also need to be put into developing a broad political alternative to Labour like Left Unity.

Fourthly, this conference shows that Left Unity should be constructing alliances around the same sort of policies that were adopted at this meeting and not try to steer so far to the left on policy that we lose any access to the thousands involved in these movements. Some individuals and currents in Left Unity want to turn it away from this sort of engagement in order to ensure we have a true ‘left’ programme that ensures we do not betray people in some future revolutionary scenario.

It was an inspiring conference and you had the feeling Tony Benn and Bob Crow were in there spurring us on. Let’s all build for this week’s budget protests and the big demonstration on 21 June.

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8 responses to “People’s Assembly delegate conference – a step forward in the anti-austerity struggle”

  1. This is an excellent report on the Conference on Saturday. I was there as a LU delegate and was amazed at the consensus which is being created around the Charter. I left wondering just exactly how we are going to create a political party which gives voice to the demands in the Charter and will therefore bring the respect and support of the 30,000 people who are involved with it. The strength seems to be coming from the notion that it is not a political party and is not affiliated to one either, although there seems to be talk of the Assembly putting up candidates for election as Independants I guess. I think we need to make much stronger links somehow and not allow feelings of competition or superiority put us in an isolated position, preaching revolution and being dismissed before we have really begun.

  2. Bazza says:

    Seems to have been progress made and I like the 6 simple points but perhaps would have liked them to havev been a bit more internationalised . For example no. 1 A fairer Britain add and World. To all the rest just add global and I suggest this in a comradely spirit. It’s time for Democratic Global Economic Justice to take on Undemocratic Neo- Liberalism! X & Peace.

  3. marcr says:

    The finance amendment that was discussed and I believe carried by the conference against the wishes of the national organisation’s leadership was from Leeds. Our amendment identified that the strength of the PAAA is in the local groups and that rather than local groups having to request funds from London is that local PAs retain subscriptions and the national group request funds from local groups rather than the other way round.
    If the Leeds amendment was passed then your characterisation of how funding and organisation should be structured is inaccurate. There was a sense from delegates returning to Leeds felt that we need to avoidethe PAAA becoming another London centred anti cuts grouping and that local campaigns should retain financial autonomy. It will be interesting to read the final minutes from the conference to se how our amendment is incorporated into the PAAA structure.

  4. Helen Olney says:

    A couple of corrections:

    “Kirstine Carbutt gave a rousing report on the struggle of the Doncaster Unison members”

    Although Kirstine was listed as the speaker in the conference pack, she was unable to make the conference. The speech was given by Andy Squires as can be seen here:

    “It turned around the amendment which argued that 30% of the individual donations and membership fees paid to the national People’s Assembly should be remitted to the local group. In other words people were in favour of a more serious set up with regular payments but wanted to keep some resources on a local level.”

    This is describing the Brighton Amendment – amendment 2.2. The amendment was remitted and therefore conference did not vote on this amendment. Conference did however vote in favour of the West Yorkshire Amendment – no. 2.3 which resolved to seek union contributions and voluntary standing orders paid to local branches.

  5. M. Jones says:


    The problem with this is that it is yet another appeal to the ruling class to be “fair” when they are set on driving down living standards by the most brutal class warfare. The capitalists own political hacks also give us this “fairness” rubbish, but as justification for whichever section of the working class they want to persecute at the time having something removed from them. We also have the horrible spectacle of the Irish trade union bureaucracy droning on about “A Better Fairer Way” while publicly conspiring with the gombeen politicians and capitalists to destroy jobs and wage levels. We should put it this outfit that we are engaged in a class war against the ruling class and our job is to prosecute it effectively. The job is also to expose the politicians garbage about “fairness” as a cover for attacking workers and the unemployed in the most inhuman ways rather than parroting notions of “fairness”.

    • Dave K says:

      Yes thanks for the clarifications, you are absolutely right on that. I did check with another cde but this was not picked up. I don’t think the amendment changes the decisionmaking structure with the new regular assemblies. Also there is still a need to raise some funds for the central coordination.

    • Dave K says:

      The problem is that most people and even a lot of activists concerned about he cuts do no see it as brutal class warfare so we have to find the appropriate language to reach them. This where the idea of fairness comes in and it is a good socialist value that should not shrugged aside. If you read the Peoples Charter it is quite clearly incompatible with what the capitalist class would accept today and on most other occasions so the policies passed are not about going cap in hand to the bosses at all.

      • M. Jones says:

        I would put money that a substantial section of those who set up the People’s Assembly will support Labour’s “fairer” cuts as opposed to Tory cuts if the Labour Party gets in 2015. This is a resurrected version of the old CP “Popular Front” originating with the Communist Party of Britain. we should be involved, but we need to be clear on two points: Firstly the political forces involved – what are their perspectives for the organisation and what is our alternative. Secondly the bankruptcy of a “Popular Front” approach particularly in a time of capitalist crisis – the working class needs fighting organisations not something that appeals to the “fairness” of the capitalists and their political hacks. As we know the “fairness” of the ruling class plus Labour, Tories Lib Dems, UKIP etc. can be summed up as “the working class will pay for the crisis of capitalism”.

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