It was billed as the start of a movement. Initially called by big names of the British Left, including journalist and author Owen Jones, MP Caroline Lucas and filmmaker Ken Loach, the national People’s Assembly in London was a chance for people to come together and build a ‘movement of millions’ to resist austerity.
On Saturday 22 June, after months of local assemblies, media coverage and planning, over 4,000 people crammed themselves into a sweaty Westminster Central Hall, across the road from the House of Parliament.
The atmosphere was electric from the beginning. Inside the ‘Great Hall,’ decorated with campaign and union banners, a packed schedule offered up rousing speeches from the likes of Owen Jones, and comedian and author Mark Steel. The galvanising voices continued throughout the day and included members of the audience in some of the smaller sessions. A big highlight was comedian Francesca Martinez’s passionate speech in the closing plenary about the devastating effect of austerity and the need to fight it, which was received with booming applause.
Throughout the event, unity was a common theme – perhaps directed at some of the criticism of the campaign from some on the Left. There were concerns that the £8 ($12) tickets (£4 unwaged) were likely to price out many of the people most deeply effected by austerity. There had also been questions raised as to how a true grassroots people’s movement could be formed when called by ‘leaders’ in the trade union movement, media and politics.
The potential influence and connection with the Labour Party was another complaint. Although organizers had denied official connection with any party, many of the leading figures of the People’s Assembly have strong links to Labour or are from the unions which are affiliated to it. Many assemblers felt fed up with support for a party that would just implement cuts under another name.
A lack of urgency is another fear, especially with a reconvened People’s Assembly not due until 2014, by which time austerity will have a tighter grip. This factor was echoed by a small group that gathered outside to speak out against the Assembly in the afternoon. They were frustrated that people were sat listening to speakers within tantalising distance of the seats of power, while people took to the streets in Turkey and Brazil.
‘It’s all talk and hot air,’ said Ray, a veteran campaigner who stood among them. ‘What for? To agree to go another march? It’s what I’ve been doing for 40 years. I’m 71 in September... Only radical action on the streets will change anything.’
It was clear blood, sweat and tears had gone into making the People’s Assembly happen, and getting such an impressive turnout, but it felt like more of an enthusiastic conference than a radical political meeting. To many it will have been a welcome boost of inspiration but some will have been left feeling they’d heard it all before.
The few concrete follow-up ‘to the streets!’ style action calls were to demonstrate at the Conservative Party conference in September, as well as taking action on 5 November, Guy Fawkes night. Commitment was made to support mass industrial action when the ‘climate’ was right.
Ultimately a grassroots movement needs to come from a broad, inclusive base. With or without the People’s Assembly badge, local communities are already organizing against austerity, yet this coming together could be what’s needed to push things forward, including a jolt for those who disagree with its methods, to take ownership and shape it and do better.