About 250 people attended the Bristol Rally for the People’s Assembly at the Malcolm X Centre on Wednesday evening. As well as the expected audience of long-standing trade unionists and political activists there did seem to be a large number of ‘new faces’.
The first hour was contributions from the six panelists. Surprisingly the most radical speech came from Joanne Kaye (Unison South West Regional Secretary). Unlike many of the others she said she was not going to talk about how bad things were because she assumed everyone already knew and that’s why we were at the meeting. She made several relevant points about the importance of union organising, that the things we are now defending – such as the NHS – are relatively recent inventions that were only won because of mass struggle, and that the power of a union lies not in its leadership but in the members themselves.
Mark Steel made a very amusing speech highlighting the absurdity of the government’s political position and also making some encouraging points about the history of disunity on the left and the potential for current initiatives to break from this. Owen Jones was the only panelist to address what the politics of a new left might be. He identified housing, wages and jobs as the three big issues which were both relevant to people’s lives and to the economic crisis and deficit. Pointing out how tax evasion by the rich and corporations had been forced onto the agenda by UK Uncut he was enthusiastic about the ability of the left to ‘shift the centre ground’ and affect the political agenda. From what he said and what he has written elsewhere he seems to still hold out some hope that Ed Milliband will live up to his (totally undeserved) ‘Red Ed’ nickname and take the Labour Party to an anti-austerity position.
What most surprised me was the complete absence of any discussion about what the PA is, how it’ll function organisationally, how decisions will be made etc. The closest comment to this was Owen Jones describing it as a ‘hub’ providing support/contacts etc for local campaigns – which is in theory what BADACA does in Bristol already. In practice i suspect it’ll be used as a coordinating lever to apply pressure on Labour via the TU leaders, and it’ll call one or more big national demos. We didn't hear any mention of a permanent PA for Bristol, although no doubt those who called this meeting will feel empowered to call another when it suits them. There was also no real discussion on strategies & tactics to build resistance to the austerity regime currently in place; no real consideration of where we are now as a class/wider movement; and no real presentation of an alternative to austerity beyond opposing the cuts/making the corporations & rich pay more etc.
There was a very limited time for debate from the floor and with the chair calling for people to ‘share their experiences’ we got lots more about how terrible things are. This information has its place but it was very much preaching to the converted and meant that there was absolutely no debate about what we are actually going to do. The next stage of the People’s Assembly campaign is the mass rally in London on the 22nd June and a cynic might say that the organisers have no desire to encourage any debate until the agreed line has been set out there. This is a grave mistake given the seriousness of the situation we are facing and the actual massive disunity there is on the left when it comes to strategy. The only way to overcome this challenge is to have this debate in the open involving both those that have been politically active for years and those new to the movement.
As well as those such as Jones who see the People’s Assembly primarily as a way for the trade unions and the left to flex their muscle and encourage Labour to be more left wing, many of those involved would like to see much more radical change than this. Surprisingly the radicals and the moderates are at the moment advocating the same tactics – campaigns, strikes (perhaps even a general strike), and possibly standing candidates for parliament and councils. The strategic differences – whether to influence Labour, replace Labour with a more radical party, or to replace the parliamentary system with a more grass-roots and democratic form of society – mean that any perceived unity on the left could very quickly unravel. If the People’s Assembly generates a movement that looks like it might take power or if Labour win the next election and find opposition from their left unhelpful, many of the unions that like playing radical today will quickly fall back to political inactivity.
The dangers around any general strike are particularly serious. That said, if done at the correct time and with proper preparation it is the one strategy that could lead to a fundamental change in society, taking power from the rich and giving it to ordinary people. The problem is that many in the labour movement are more afraid of radical change than they are of things staying the same. This was seen in the General Strike of 1926 – with solid support in many areas and many workers determined to see it out until the government fell, the union leaders folded and ordered everyone back to work. They were prepared to start a fight but not prepared to win. This submission enabled the government to go on the offensive ensuring that many thousands of workers involved in the strike were demoted or dismissed from their jobs.
The general strike being talked of at the moment is of a different kind. Most people talk of a 24 hour strike which means that the government can very easily sit it out and wait for it to be over. Unless it is part of an escalating campaign that will remain solid it is hard to see why the government would be troubled by it. It is also likely to be an exclusively public sector strike as most of the private sector is un-unionised and there is not a tradition in this country of class-solidarity when it comes to strikes. There would be an impact on the wider economy if schools and public transport are affected but this will again be limited if it is explicitly a 24 hour stoppage.
There are examples of one day strikes being successful but these have occurred in circumstances quite different to those today. Firstly they have been carried out by large and militant trade unions with almost total support from the community. These strikes have been the unions merely ‘baring their teeth’ with concessions being won because both sides know the union could escalate the action. The other condition is that there is an alternative government ready to step in if the current government is brought down. We don’t have that today – the Conservatives could probably ride it out, there is certainly no chance of a revolutionary government stepping in, and if an election was forced we could just as easily end up with a Conservative-UKIP coalition as a Labour government. Not that anyone is enthusiastic about having Labour back anyway.
Just because it might be possible for union leaders to be encouraged into calling a general strike it does not mean it is a good idea. There is a lot of work to be done to re-invigorate the unions and win the support of the public before the left is strong enough to force events. That is not to say we should give up but that we should take what we are doing seriously. A spirit of unity of on the left is a great first step. It’s quite right that we should not be diverted by arguments over how to solve the Palestinian question or analysis of the Russian revolution but we must not shy away from discussing the fundamentals of what we are doing because some things are too important to be swept under the carpet.