Britain: People's Assembly strengthens anti-austerity fight

Sunday, March 23, 2014
The People's Assembly recall conference in London, March 15.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity was launched last year to help create a mass movement across Britain against the austerity measures imposed by the government in a bid to make ordinary people pay for the economic crisis. It was supported by quite a few trade unions, the Coalition of Resistance, many campaign groups and several MPs.

Its founding statement said it aimed to create “a national forum for anti-austerity views which, while increasingly popular, are barely represented in parliament. A People’s Assembly can play a key role in ensuring that this uncaring government faces a movement of opposition broad enough and powerful enough to generate successful co-ordinated action, including strike action.”

The first national People's Assembly, preceded by a series of local people's assemblies across the country, took place in June last year, attended by more than 4000 people. On March 15, a People's Assembly “recall conference” took place in London. In an article reprinted from Counterfire, Reuben Bard-Rosenberg writes on the conference and its significance. You can read more analysis on the debates and roles of different groups, at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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The People's Assembly recall conference was democracy in action. It was a representative conference, with delegates elected by local People's Assemblies, trade union branches, and other local and national campaigning groups. The fact that more than 650 delegates registered (many others came as observers) shows this was a conference that represents a real movement.

The conference opened with tributes to Tony Benn and Bob Crow. [Both passed away in the days before the conference. Benn, 89, was a veteran socialist and former Labour cabinet minister who was president of the Coalition of Resistance, one of the key founding groups in the People's Assembly. Crow, 52, was the militant general secretary of the railworkers RMT union.]

It was in the spirit of their legacy that delegates gathered, spending the day debating the way forward for the anti-austerity movement. Delegates voted on a number of motions sent in by local People's Assemblies across the country.

Introducing a motion against the government's “work-for-welfare” policy (known as workfare) and zero hours contracts, Andrew Coates from the Suffolk People's Assembly warned the conference of the government's designs to replace public sector work with unpaid labour.

“This is free labour which could be used to patch up the cuts in the welfare state,” he said. “We are particularly concerned about the use of free labour in the health service and local government.”

There was particular enthusiasm as the conference discussed the motions dealing with matters of war and peace. Calling on the People's Assembly to support protests in Newport against the upcoming NATO conference, a speaker from Wales provoked rapturous applause when he reminded the conference that Newport was the site of the great Chartist uprising of 1839.

So too did Stop the War Coalition convenor Lindsey German as she called on action against any plans to intervene in the Ukraine. “The current intervention,” she said, “is about one thing, and that's NATO's enlargement.”

Conference voted in large numbers to support the anti-war, anti-Trident motions.

The conference also voted, with near unanimity, in favour of Black anti-austerity group BARAC's motion for a boycott of “all non-essential” engagement with the police. The speaker explained that this would include a boycott of any attempts to recruit more Black police officers.

The point, he said, was that race needed to be forced back onto the agenda.

With various workers' strikes coming up, delegates were keen to discuss the question of how the People’s Assembly relates to the trade union movement. Proposing a motion to back strikes, Richard Allday told the conference: “This is not an abstract motion, this motion is calling on you to go back to your local People's Assemblies, and make sure that they get out on the streets to support the upcoming strikes.”

The conference rejected an amendment that effectively condemned the Unite union over the deal it accepted after an industrial dispute in Grangemouth. Delegates were reminded that the decision to accept the deal was taken not by Unite leaders but by workers at the plant.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett addressed the conference to propose a motion committing the People's Assembly to the fight against environmental destruction. Delegates cheered her call to create 1 million green jobs.

“What we need desperately,” she said, “is decent affordable and reliable public transport that runs when you want, it where you want it.”

Her call for the re-nationalisation of the railways was met with great support, as was her call for an end to fracking.

Bennett also reminded the conference that Greens MP Caroline Lucas is facing court for her involvement in a protest against fracking and called on participants to support her. She finished by calling on conference participants to get serious about planning for the reordering of society.

“Neoliberalism, globalisation, burning up fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow, this has all got to end and it's up to us to create a new model,” Bennett said. “And that should mean, in the sixth-richest country, that everyone has access to a decent life. For the pensioners struggling to heat their houses, they need more resources. But others clearly need less.”

The conference was closed by National Union of Teachers leader Christine Blower. To great applause, she called on delegates to stand with teachers on March 26, when they will shut down schools with strike action.

“This is just a one-day strike,” Blower said, “and there will have to be more action.”

For a start, People's Assemblies across the country organised local protests on March 19 against the British government's new budget.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about the conference was the movement democratically developing a real strategy to combat austerity. A timeline of resistance was developed, and delegates finished by discussing plans for June 21, when the People's Assembly has called a national demonstration in central London.

From GLW issue 1002