Could this be the start of a mass mobilization of British people against austerity?
While in Brazil and Turkey protesters were once again taking to the streets to fight corruption, oppression and lousy public services, in Britain anti-cuts campaigners were having a meeting in London’s Westminster Central Hall.
But, in spite of the marked differences in style and scale, it was easy to feel that in London too history was being made on Saturday 22 June, as more than 4,000 people packed the first national gathering of the People’s Assembly. That’s more people than attend any of the annual conferences of the major political parties.
The idea of the Peoples Assemblies is to create a mass national and local movement against austerity. Saturday’s event brought together people of all ages and walks of life – trade unionists, direct activists, students, pensioners, hackers, disabled people, artists, politicos, greenies, lefties, occupiers, people working in or concerned about education, employment, housing, health and the welfare state in all its manifestations.
‘This movement must connect with every sector of society. We want Peoples’ Assemblies in every city, town, and village,’ said one of the organizers, Sam Fairbairn.
Britain is currently suffering severe and multiple cuts to its public services, including a furtive dismembering of the flagship National Health Service, far exceeding anything that Margaret Thatcher ever attempted. This is happening under a minority coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who are pushing through a radical privatizing agenda that was in neither party’s manifesto, under the guise of ‘austerity’ measures to tackle the national debt. (Look out for July 2013’s New Internationalist on The Debt Scam).
As in so many countries, the poorest are having to pay the highest price for the failings of the banking sector, while the super rich are becoming even richer. The logic, in the words of comedian Mark Steel, seems to go like this: ‘The poor are richer than the rich; they caused the financial crisis – lollipop ladies, people waiting on trollies in A&E... It’s all their fault. The rich haven’t two pennies to rub together.’
Even in its own narrow terms austerity is failing as the economy stagnates (down £39 billion/$60 billion since 2008) and the deficit stays the same (at around £120 billion/ $184 billion). Up to now there are have been several actions against austerity in Britain, including those defending the NHS, the Occupy movement, the People’s Charter, UK Uncut and others. The People’s Assembly initiative does not seek to replace these but to create a single united national movement to support every genuine movement and action taken against any and all of the cuts and so present a powerful and solid challenge to government policy.
And there are encouraging signs from sectors that, up to now, have been frankly disappointing. At last, that Britain’s trade union movement is upping its game. Frances O’Grady, the Trade Union Congress’s new and first ever woman leader, said that the organization would support strike actions against cuts. This is new.
‘The People’s Assembly is taking the campaign against austerity to a whole new level,’ she commented. ‘The Bullingdon boys [Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne] are waging class war against ordinary people. We will retaliate, it is time to fight back against a government of millionaires’.
O’Grady called for fair taxes the rich can’t dodge and a programme to build the council homes that Britain needs. Instead of a ‘bedroom tax’ for council tenants, she said there should be a mansion tax for millionaires.
She had this message for government: ‘Please don’t patronize us by saying the country has run out of money. We know that’s not true. Big business is sitting on a cash pile equal to half of GDP, and bankers once again have their noses in trough.’
Rania Khan, a politician from Tower Hamlets in London, suggested that many councils too have more room for manoeuvre than they let on. Hers had managed to avoid making cuts that would affect children and had even managed to instate a grant scheme for university students.
The coming weeks and months will see a ramping up of action and unity. This week, for the first time ever, the two teaching unions NUT and NASUWT will setting aside 90 years of ‘differences’ and will take industrial action together in the start of a series of strikes in relation to pay, conditions and in defence of public education.
Local demonstrations in defence of the NHS are planned for 5 July with a large national one at the Conservative Party conference on 29 September in Manchester. The People’s Assembly is also calling for a national day of civil disobedience and direct action on 5 November.
There was a call for more direct action: ‘We need to take UK Uncut into the workplace,’ said one speaker. UK Uncut meanwhile is planning to take their actions into banks. Rising poverty in Britain today means that half a million people now rely on food banks. So the direct action group is planning to occupy and set up food banks in banks that caused the crisis in the first place.
Along with the theme of unity and the need to set aside the many differences that exist on the Left, there was another theme that ran through the day: that there is a place for a wide range of tactics, be it direct action, marching, striking, writing or performance art. Different strategies appeal to different groups. Arguing the toss about which is better is a waste of time and energy.
For Unite union leader Len McClusky, a priority is to create the conditions for ‘a mass industrial stoppage’. While Andrew Murray, also of Unite had this message to the government: ‘If you want to govern the country like this we will make the country ungovernable.’
To a standing ovation, veteran politician Tony Benn, both hailed the creation of the People’s Assembly, and warned of the struggle ahead as the right to protest is restricted by an increasingly oppressive government, seeking ever greater recourse to heavy-handed, sinister and undemocratic policing methods.
To almost equal applause, comedian and disability activist Francesca Martinez asked: ‘We hear that disabled kids are a burden to the state. What about the bankers?’ On how the government spends public money, she commented: ‘I’m ashamed that my money is funding illegal wars that are making other people disabled.’
The closing words were left to Mark Serwotka of the PCS union: ‘Stuff your austerity; we want something different... If we are going to turn the tide, it’s time we socked it to those vicious ruling class bastards.’
Now those attending have gone back to the towns and cities, many to set up local People’s Assemblies in their areas. Several had already started the process, using mainly horizontal and participatory ways of organizing, and attracting large numbers of people. For example, Manchester’s People’s Assembly had 700 people at its first meeting; Bristol and Nottingham both drew around 400.
There will then be a recall national People’s Assembly meeting in early Spring 2014.
To find out more go to the People’s Assembly website.