Monday, June 24, 2013

Why I skipped Assembly

 MARCHING against A&E closures in Ealing. Resistance like this, involving trade union councils and local people, was not waiting for leadership from the "top". 

IT might be churlish of me, some would say "sectarian", to take a negative view of an event that I could not be bothered to attend, where if you believe supporters no less than 4,000 people gathered to hear rousing speeches by Frances O'Grady of the TUC, Len McCluskey of my own union Unite, popular young left-wing writer Owen Jones and others, and to launch the fightback against the Con Dem government's austerity.

At least you could say it was a better alternative than the Labour Party leadership's current output of statements supposed to raise voters' enthusiasm and supporters' morale by assuring us that Labour will carry on with cuts and taking away benefits, and won't even nationalise the things we are already subsidising. Mention of means tests for pensioners has reminded a historically-minded bod like me of Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. Could we be seeing another, wider coalition replacing this one?

But I had my reasons for wanting nothing to do with the 'People's Assembly'. For one thing the name reminded me of  a poorly-attended event I attended in the closing days of the Greater London Council, which was supposed to rally the masses to resistance against the Thatcher government. My erstwhile comrades on the Left who were backing Ken Livingstone had been talking about a "Council of  Action' thereby evoking the General Strike, but a "People's Assembly" was what we got.

It was held in Wembley, and it was one of my predecessors on Brent Trades Council, the late Tom Durkin, who spoke from the floor criticising the failure to turn to the organised workers' movement for support. Though he and I came from different corners of the Left (Tom was a member of the Communist Party) I had to admit he had a point. I had heard Ken Livingstone in meetings cheerfully recounting how he rubbed shoulders with the Lords, but never seen him campaign outside Fords in Dagenham, or at St.George's hospital in Tooting where I worked.

At this Assembly in Wembley, John McDonnell, then in charge of the GLC's finances, outlined how different services would be adversely effected if the authority set a budget to meet the government's wishes. Valerie Wise, who was chair of the GLC Women's Committee, got up to complain that this would all be unfair to women. She sounded as though she thought it was what the GLC intended to do. In other words our assembly was a waste of time.

"I reckon this lot are going to sell out and back down!" I remarked to friends when we broke for lunch. Some exchanged glances and said nowt. Perhaps they already knew. "What do you think of John McDonnell?", said a fellow who knew a bit about economics and possibly about what was going on behind the scenes at County Hall and in the Labour Left besides. He evidently approved of McDonnell, and invited me to. I guess he knew about the developing split. Livingstone removed John as his deputy in 1985, the same year as another acrimonious split was to happen. But as a mere naieve extra I knew nothing at the time. Beyond realising that the People's Assembly would achieve nothing and was probably not intended to.

But surely this new People's Assembly is different? Far from ignoring organised labour it had union leaders to the fore. Even Unison decided to get involved, though its participation may have been overshadowed this weekend by its advice to members that they must enforce the the bedroom tax.
By contrast, Len McCluskey from Unite took the occasion to urge civil disobediance and said we should make the country "ungovernable". I wonder which voice will prove most significant? Maybe the members will decide.
But with local people, often encouraged by trades union councils and informed by public service professionals, organising and taking initiatives against cuts even while Labour was still in office, I was suspicious from the start about a self-appointed leadership announcing itself , first as the 'Coalition of Resistance' and then by calling this Assembly, supposedly a forum for discussion, yet with enough speakers announced beforehand to leave little room for spontaneity from the grass-roots.

I've great respect for some of the people involved, not just union leaders but campaigners whom I'd listen to any time. Some I'm proud to call friends. But two names stood out at the centre of things to make me see this as something to avoid. John Rees and Lindsay German were leading figures of the Stop the War Coalition, who obviously acquired a taste for addressing large rallies, and then tried to take the movement with them into Respect. That they are no longer with George Galloway nor in the Socialist Workers Party has not given me any more confidence in them. But one way of staying leaders rather than followers is to ignore what other people are doing and start your own campaign. Ousted from the SWP leadership, these two began 'Counterfire'., which begat the Coalition of Resistance, and led to the People's Assembly, and along the way, a cafe in Camden which did the catering for the Assembly.
People who know the dynamic duo better than me have registered similar misgivings. Here is a former SWP member, Mike Pearn, writing on Facebook:
"From the moment the 'Peoples Assembly' was announced it was obvious that it was a top down event that would lead nowhere. All the hallmarks of the Rees clique were openly displayed. Despite which a number of comrades who really should know better became rather enthusiastic for the event.

Casting my beady eye across fb this evening however it has been curious to see more than one cynical remarks being made about the 'Peoples Assembly' by those who only yesterday were its best, if ever so slightly, critical builders. From what I see the most cutting political criticism they have of the 'Peoples Assembly' is that the commercial caterers are charging £2 for a samosa.

Personally I would be rather more concerned at the waste of energy and resources that this pointless jamboree represents. Personally I think it wise not to provide an audience for the likes of Rees and his band of acolytes. Personally those who are now concerned by the price of somosas have displayed their own lack of political judgement.

Dave Renton, an independent-minded comrade who has been lending his skills as a barrister to the anti-blacklisting campaign, seems to be no longer persona grata with my local SWP, though whether he has been shown the door by the Party yet or is finding his own way to it, I'm not sure. But here is what Dave had to say well in advance about the People's Assembly:

"The People’s Assembly (PA) is still 13 weeks away, but many aspects of how it will work are already clear. A very large number of national organisations have given the call for the Assembly their support. Nine national unions have already signed up ( good. The chief sponsor of the People’s Assembly is the Coalition of Resistance (CoR), on which something like around 100 different left-wing parties, campaigns etc, are represented. Most if not all of these, we can assume, will sponsor the PA. We can anticipate that there will be speaking roles reserved for individuals who have played prominent parts in the various hospital campaigns, and in the protests against the bedroom tax. Size matters; we are facing a government which is co-ordinating austerity measures in every area of the public sector, social benefits, private employment, health, housing, education, etc. It would be churlish not to welcome an initiative on a grand scale.

The PA will announce “action”, in other words a national demonstration, timed presumably to coincide with the return of students in the autumn. It will coincide with an international anti-austerity conference. It will announce the formation of further Coalition of Resistance groups / People’s Assemblies, which are to be set up in every area. So far, so reasonable. Among those in the audience of the PA there will be many hundreds of people who are not activists, or who have not have had a means of being active for several years. It is possible that some of them will become permanently involved in the movement, and, if so, this is to be heartily welcomed. But for those of us who have been part of the movement for more than a few months, there is a method here, and one that we know only too well.

It was John Rees of Stop the War (StW), Counterfire (CF) and CoR who led off the discussion of how the PA would work at the recent CoR National Council. ( We can imagine, without needing to be conspiratorial, that the plan for a People’s Assembly was first discussed round “that” Clapton Square dining room table, with Lindsey German. Lindsey will have been on the phone to Chris Nineham, then Clare Solomon, James Meadway and Sam Fairbarn, and only much later will the plan have been visited upon the world.

Like Terminator VI (“I’ll be back … back … back”), this is of course a sequel. The first People’s Assembly to be held at Westminster Central Hall was the Stop the War Coalition People’s Assembly against war in Iraq on 15 March 2003. This too was planned by John and Lindsey and then agreed with Chris. This too had various international speakers and spin-off events......

Above all, People’s Assembly I was a talking shop: with dozens of speakers making essentially the same points in lengthy succession.

There are more problems here though than mere repetition. If the various anti-cuts campaigns are to cohere into a national movement capable of bringing down the government (an ambition I anticipate we will hear from PA II, as grand ambitions are needed to keep the troops busy), key to this will be protests of a scale to make the country feel ungovernable, and to achieve that there will need to be a generation of movement activists with a shared political understanding. Don’t get me wrong, by “understanding” I don’t necessarily mean a shared, developed ideology. I just mean an idea, the simpler the better (“No Poll Tax” / “Peace, Bread, Land”).

Behind PA II there is an unstated analysis of how this generation will be formed. And it is based on reasoning that is – ultimately – bleak and unrewarding:

 I have only quoted extracts from Dave Renton's critique, which is based on experience, and also quotes that of others: 

'When you read George Galloway’s description of the last days of Respect (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, some of the most moving passages are those where he describes the seemingly-inexplicable shift in John and Lindsey’s behaviour, from wooing him and other leaders of Respect, to ignoring them. He focussed on the treatment of Salma Yacoob:

“There is a custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us. This began with Salma Yaqoob, once one of our star turns, promoted on virtually every platform, and who is responsible for some of the greatest election victories (and near misses) during our era. “

“Now she has been airbrushed from our history at just the time when she is becoming a regular feature on the national media and her impact on the politics of Britain’s second city has never been higher. “

Not impressed by those who tell him "John and Lindsey have changed", Dave nevertheless makes clear that he is not just talking about two individuals but about a method which they share with others.

How many national “Stop the Cuts” movements do we have now anyway: PA, CoR, UtR, NSSN, do Right to Work or the People’s Charter still exist? How has the left been strengthened as we have “grown” from 2 to 3, 4 or 5 of them? Do any of them work to strengthen the self-activity of the majority of people?

My real criticism is of the “front” method; and of the assumptions behind it.
Bearing in mind such warnings I was initially surprised by the way so many unions (or at least their leaders) were throwing their weight, and their members' money, behind this event. It is not as though they are simple, trusting folk, and it surely can't be from fondness for John Rees and Lindsay German politically? We remember the union leaders largely pulling back from support for Stop the War, and though the majority of the British public was opposed to the war on Iraq it was left to two brave railway workers to take industrial action, and to schoolkids to try 'civil disobedience'.  Maybe it was because back then Labour was in government. Does that mean that any 'disobedience' will be replaced by collaboration with the cuts once a Labour government or even a coalition with Labour support is implementing them - just as Labour councils already are doing? 

That Unison decided to take part seems quite a change from its attitude a few years ago towards  the National Shop Stewards Movement, and the reported discouragement of branches from affiliating or sending delegates to local trades union councils - a constituent part of the TUC.
Unite under Len McCluskey has been another story. Not long after taking over McCluskey over-ruled Steve Hart, the union's political director, telling him Unite was going to support the Coalition of Resistance. On June 11, Hart stepped down, and according to Patrick Wintour of the Guardian , tweeted that he had been told he was "too close to Labour". But his replacement, Jenny Formy, is on the Labour Party's National Executive Committee, which Hart was not. As Oscar Wilde used to say, the truth is seldom plain and never simple.

Unite continues handing over millions of pounds to Labour, despite our general secretary being rebuffed by Miliband for having the temerity to say the Party should stop listening to Tony Blair and his cronies and stand with working people and the poor against Con Dem cuts.

It could be Len feels funding an anti-austerity conference and encouraging resistance is cheap at the price.He told the People's Assembly that the labour movement should put itself "at the heart of this coalition of resistance" against the coalition's assault on the public sector."We need to demonstrate, protest and lobby, and we need to do more - take direct action to let the elite know we are here,"

He seems to think 'direct action', civil disobediance is one way of getting around restrictions on the right to strike and engendering a mood that, in defiance of law and government will reawaken willingnes to use industrial strength. Well, we shall see.

But when Bro. McCluskey says local People's Assemblies should be established and become a mobilising force against the cuts, he seems to forget that around the country members of Unite and other trade unions are already mobilising,  with scant resources but a wealth of experience, in the trade union councils and campaigns they support.

Nobody will object to any moves to bring greater unity and co-ordination between campaigns. But we should certainly object to any attempt to divide or subordinate them to something coming down from on top.



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