People’s Assembly debates how to organise against austerity

Tom Walker gives his view of the People’s Assembly recall conference

paThe People’s Assembly conference in London on Saturday saw hundreds come together to discuss the way forward for the anti-austerity movement. This was a ‘recall’, following the big launch event last summer, and was a motions-based delegate conference. I was part of Left Unity’s delegation of five.

As you might expect, the conference had a packed agenda (especially as it did not break into workshops or sub-assemblies), but still managed to cover themes as wide-ranging as the economy, employment rights, housing, anti-racism, education, the NHS and climate change – even if some of them were only discussed for 10-15 minutes.

Motions were submitted by an array of groups, including local People’s Assembly groups, trade unions and local and national anti-cuts campaigns, which were given time to address the audience about their struggles.

Paula Peters from Disabled People Against Cuts outlined their campaign, and said about Atos, “Four years ago no one had heard of them – now we’ve got them on the run.” Dr Jacky Davis spoke about what’s happening in health, saying, “Our job is to keep the NHS at the top of the agenda.” And Adam from Cardiff People’s Assembly spoke about the “festival of opposition on the streets of South Wales” planned when Nato comes to Newport on 4 September.

Many more people could be quoted – Dave Kellaway’s report goes into some more detail. This was the feel of the day: a wide array of campaigns, and an almost dizzying calendar of dates, from the budget day protests this Wednesday through to the TUC’s planned mass demonstration on 18 October. Fittingly, the day opened with moving tributes to Bob Crow and Tony Benn, and finished with a call from the NUT’s Christine Blower to “stand with us on 26 March when we will be holding a national strike”.

Questions of organisation

I think it’s fair to say, though, that there was relatively little debate on these matters, as there was overwhelming agreement to back all the campaigns against the effects of austerity on every part of our public services and our lives – as ever it was worthwhile to discuss them, but the motions didn’t really come into it. Interestingly, the area that attracted more debate was the organisation of the People’s Assembly itself. This was expressed primarily through a series of motions contesting how centralised or decentralised the organisation should be, in particular under the ‘structure and finance’ zone.

Under structure, there was a radical amendment from the Manchester People’s Assembly, clearly influenced by activists’ experiences in Occupy Manchester. It called for a shift to participatory methods, including consensus decision-making. The Signatories group (that is, organisations and signatories to the original People’s Assembly appeal) acted as an executive, and made clear its opposition to this and other amendments as a bloc. While it was defeated, however, it did gain the support of around a third of the room.

The most contested debate though was under finance, where some local groups had taken exception to the Signatories’ plan to create an individual membership scheme for the People’s Assembly, with prices set at a minimum of £1 per month (though free for unwaged). The motion also, somewhat incredibly, included a provision that all local groups would have to pay the centre £60 a year for various items of administrative support. National secretary Sam Fairbairn had earlier set the scene for this approach when he said, “The truth is that the central infrastructure is far too small… Strengthening the national infrastructure has to be an absolute priority.”

Danni from the Brighton People’s Assembly noted that this was a model that “has all money flowing to the centre”. Brighton’s amendment instead called for 30 percent of membership fees collected nationally to be paid to local groups (Left Unity members may note that this is very similar to the model in our party’s constitution). Treasurer Nick McCarthy, however, put the case that “fighting austerity is an expensive business” and “it’s too early to start redistributing money to local assemblies that we don’t currently have”. Brighton was persuaded to remit its amendment.

This left the way clear for West Yorkshire People’s Assembly, which had put an amendment opposed to the whole membership scheme, arguing “the People’s Assembly should be a network of individuals and organisations with no barriers to participation” – or as the amendment’s proposer put it, “We don’t feel the People’s Assembly should be a membership organisation – it is an umbrella organisation.” It called for all funds to flow through local groups. In a surprise development, this amendment passed by 205 votes to 174.

Coordination and control

All that may sound like an account of a debate that would only matter to finance nerds – but, as suggested by West Yorkshire, this was really about what kind of structure the People’s Assembly should have. Is it a highly centralised national campaign office, or a loose umbrella group? Across several motions, local delegates sent a message loud and clear that while they want national coordination, they do not want national control.

It is no secret that many people’s concern about the People’s Assembly has been its top-down structure – declaring itself to be ‘the movement’ on the basis of a big conference, and then appointing various individuals to positions without a wider democratic process. As demonstrated at the conference, we can agree on most of the politics: the question is how to organise to put them into practice.

It is not the case that the People’s Assembly’s structure is now perfect – Left Unity, with its regular conferences, national councils and most recently a membership-wide election, still has a greater level of democracy in my view. But the modest ability of local People’s Assembly groups and campaigns to set the agenda at the recall conference and begin to take some ownership over the organisation surely shows that there is more space within it than some had thought. The People’s Assembly leadership now faces a test: it must ensure it follows the will of the delegates in retaining an umbrella structure and making sure local groups, not the centre, hold the power in the organisation. That will be a sound basis for anti-austerity resistance to grow.

Overall the day was a step forward for the real living, breathing movement – and it was also, importantly, a step forward for democracy inside the People’s Assembly.

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5 responses to “People’s Assembly debates how to organise against austerity”

  1. John Penney says:

    It rather looks as if the west Yorkshire People’s Assembly’s successful motion to reject the creation of a centralised organisation has rather “put a spoke in the strategy wheel” of the self appointed organisers of the People’s Assembly project for a while. And there is of course a quite clear agenda at work , namely to assume by stealth the political leadership of the rising tide of disparate grass roots opposition to the Austerity Offensive – and then redirect it to , yet again, working to elect a Labour government – on of course “a left wing programme”. That’s it – the entire political perspective of Owen Jones, and all the founding promoters of the People’s Assemblies.

    Fortunately , the huge range of independent campaigning groups brought together to share experiences and co-ordinate action through the local and national People’s Assemblies are nowadays pretty streetwise, and obviously don’t want to be “hoovered up” into a new adjunct to the bankrupt old Left Labour route to nowhere agenda.

    As Left Unity, we obviously have to participate fully in the People’s Assembly process – but we have to be well aware of its leadership’s underlying bankrupt Labour-centric agenda. We have to constantly argue in People’s Assembly for the need for a completely new radical socialist political party to build on and deepen the Anti Austerity struggle at local and national levels, in the communities and the workplaces, and extend this challenge into the electoral arena – in direct opposition to New Labour.

    I think the now quite blatant agenda of the leaders of the People’s Assembly to seize control and political direction of what is by its very nature actually a decentralised , politically quite diverse locally-based mass movement of resistance, will produce more and more tensions within it.

    Our much more honest, open, declaration of our intention to build a highly democratic radical socialist mass movement willing to work openly and constructively with all genuine opponents of Austerity, will win through in the longer term as the political and campaigning “vehicle” required to co-ordinate and lead the struggle as it gathers pace . And the illusion of any “left” faction within New Labour having any chance of diverting it from its neoliberal collaborationist course is revealed as a complete diversion from building mass resistance to Austerity, and capitalism.

  2. J Charilaou says:

    Great to hear that Left Unity are committed to a decentralized organizational structure that favours grass roots organizations and communities.

    Top-down organizational structures can never meaningfully challenge the status quo. When decision making power lies in the hands of too few ‘representatives’ those representatives become all too easily infiltrated, appropriated and controlled. We see this plainly in modern political structures all over the world.

    The reason many of us are so interested and inspired by Left Unity, is it’s brave step forward towards a form of direct democracy. The only way to avoid internal corruption by vested interests is to give the people a voice and the means to articulate it.

    A leader (or leaders) of a hierarchy can always be bribed, threatened and extorted by those desperate to cling on to their money and power. Hundreds or even thousands of active communities, distinct yet connected and motivated by the same basic needs of food, warmth, shelter, health, education, a healthy environment, employment and a dignified existence cannot.

    It also seems wise to make membership ‘without barriers,’ as the West Yorkshire group suggest. I find that Left Unity have already done this, with very low membership subscriptions and a disclaimer for those unable to pay, who are invited to request a subsidy.

    All in all, it sounds like some very positive directions are emerging for a better future for all. You have my strong support. Thank you.

  3. Alex wedding says:

    A glossy spin on the day. It was on the whole a bit bureaucratic and rather underwhelming. The eulogy for Tony Benn was rather unpolitical (he liked cheese pizza and was a nice bloke). I think that the Yorkshire amendment passed due to peoples desire to organise and actually do things in their local area rather than building some grandiose structure dominated by the union bureaucracy. The latter really showed their teeth over the very mildly worded Grangmouth amendment which oddly you fail to mention. A figure from Unite attacked any notion that what happened at Grangmouth was not in the absolute interest of the workers there and did so in a way entirely reminiscent of the Stalinists in the 1970’s! This does not bode well for the political direction of The Peoples Assembly. About a third of the meeting voted for the Grangmouth amendment but it was clear afterwards that a significant portion of those present where not entirely certain as to what the issues were and may have voted the other way had there been a fuller debate.

    • Philip P says:

      I thought the Unite amendment was a disgrace and smelled like SWP-style left-opportunism. Apparently Grangemouth should have gone all out and lost their jobs to satisfy the sloganeering of some petit-bourgeois wannabe socialists whose jobs weren’t on the line.

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