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Keep the faith - a review of the UK's People's Assembly

So we assembled, over 4000 of us, for the People’s Assembly against austerity. Many of us were bleary eyed yet buzzing from the previous night’s TV coverage of yet more mass protests around the world - this time, against Brazil’s ‘crony capitalism’. Many were also unimpressed (to put it mildly) at Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party Policy Forum that morning, committing a post-2015 UK Labour government to fiscal “discipline”, whilst invoking the spirit of Clement Attlee. As Tony Benn later reminded us, Attlee had announced the founding of Britain's post-war welfare state, in the very hall in which we were gathered.

The attendees came from a rainbow spectrum of groups - and none.  As one 50-something told me - “I came in the hope that I’d find something I could be part of”.

Amidst the flags and pamphlets were people deriving strength from gathering with thousands of others who felt similarly about the policies being pursued by the current government. The day felt like a rallying cry to “keep the faith”, to “not lose hope”. A warning that hopelessness was the weapon of the “there is no alternative” brigade, as put most powerfully in a speech by comedian and disability activist, Francesca Martinez.

Shoots of hope

And shoots of hope there were, amid the litany of the assault on the welfare state.

The National Health Service was highlighted as a central issue with the long-awaited “national demonstration on the NHS” announced for 29 September, at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

In the NHS workshop, John Lister of London Health Emergency outlined how the government’s “reforms” were designed to fragment services and enable privatisation. His outline of how fragmentation, PFI debts and the huge ‘Nicholson cuts’ were creating a perilous situation where patients were jeopardised was echoed from many contributors on the floor. Privatisation was being put forward as the solution, when in fact it was part of the problem, Lister explained.

Dr David Wrigley, a GP from Lancashire, talked about how doctors needed to speak out more and work with communities engaging with their Clinical Commissioning Groups and Patient Participation Groups. He emphasised that the destabilisation was deliberate and unnecessary, saying “the NHS is not broke”. He said that even over and above the cuts it had been forced to impose - it had given an additional £2 billion back to the Treasury last year.

Speakers from Waltham Forest to Birkenhead talked of their local campaigns and paid tribute to the support they had received from national campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, which helps grassroots campaigners co-ordinate and share expertise. A string of local events were announced, many of them focusing on the NHS’s 65th birthday on 5th July, others looking to take direct action against those taking over the NHS, like Virgin.

Louise Irvine, Chair of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign drew a cheer when she announced that they were taking health minister Jeremy Hunt to court. She said that the success of their campaign was down to “giving voice to the people, their knowledge, passion and experience.”

There was a mood of steely determination to save the NHS. Gwyneth Powell-Davies, a Unite and anti-cuts activist from Bristol, called for the NHS to be “renationalised without compensation”, adding “we can take the railways back off Branson while we’re at it”. A woman next to me murmured that it had taken the general public 10 years from railway privatisation, to realise just how bad the service had become. Would we realise the danger of privatising the NHS before it was too late, she asked? (A comment I recalled later as I missed my last train home, the train operator not finding it profitable to run a service out of London after 9.30pm!).

These sorts of connections were being made by attendees across the event. There was a strong sense that the medicine was the “same for all of us” - for every public service, every worker, unemployed or retired person - and that it was the wrong medicine, doomed to fail even judged on its own purely economic terms.

One NHS worker highlighted how “cuts in community and social care services throw people onto A&E”. A child psychiatrist spoke movingly of how “our referral criteria have been tightened, we now have to turn children away until they are really very unwell.” She went on to tell the audience how the drive towards competitive tendering meant that “My colleagues and I are putting our time into writing defensive tenders, taking time away from our users. Crucial - often lifesaving - services are being cut.”

Other conference-wide themes came through. Tower Hamlets GP Kamliz Boomla made a rousing contribution on the dangerous divide and rule tactics being used by government, saying that the costs of immigrants using the NHS - in reality around £7 million a year - had been inflated to £20 million and then to £200 million, to justify the creation of a system where GPs would be forced to check “entitlement” to care, ultimately facilitating an insurance or top-up payment system.

Pacifism was another recurring theme, with Gilda from Leeds KONP highlighting the “Treatment not Trident” campaign.

One of the loudest cheers was reserved for a London paramedic and GMB member, who seemed to speak for many working in the NHS - and the public and voluntary sectors as a whole:

 “We cannot fix this by working harder and harder. We can only fix this through a collective battle over the kind of world we want to live in.” And she laid down a challenge to the union leadership, asking “Why are our trade union leaders letting us fight Trust by Trust, case by case? We need national co-ordinated action.”

Where next?

The NHS demo is welcome and long overdue. But I was left wondering - will demands for “national actions” result mainly in “set piece” forms of protest, and are these the best way to build confidence to act effectively against austerity and privatisation in our communities?  Do events like the People’s Assembly give new leaders the confidence to come forward - or even give communities the confidence to mobilise without “leaders”? What has been learned from ealier attempts to build a "movement", like the Coalition of Resistance and Unite the Resistance?

A few speakers - such as independent Cllr Rania Khan from Tower Hamlets - seemed slightly caught up in the mythology of the Stop the War campaign, which had not just “mobilised one million people onto the streets” but also, she claimed, brought down the Prime Minister.

To be fair, John Rees - one of the organisers, and a Stop the War stalwart - said that it was “ridiculous” to suggest that only one form of protest was necessary. The closing statement promoted the formation of local People’s Assemblies, as well as the NHS demo on the 29th, and the announcement of a “national day of civil disobedience” on 5 November. Some commentators had criticised the fact that the statement was not open to amendments by the Assembly, but the plan is for it to be discussed and reviewed over the coming year in the local Assemblies.

This sounds a promising idea. It will be interesting to see if local People’s Assemblies get off the ground, and if they have space for serious discussion of tactics. If our political leaders seem increasingly hostage to “crony capitalism”, where do we carve out the space to challenge and resist this process?

Elsewhere, the session on “tactics” heard from groups like UKUncut and Leigh Day solicitors about their experiences of successfully using legal action and direct action. A workshop on union activism was - I was told - filled with inspiring stories of local struggles.

Unity is strength?

As for electoral tactics - there was a fair bit of criticism of both coalition policies and also Labour’s apparent commitment to “austerity-lite”, particularly from Mark Serwotka of the PCS union. But despite the presence of the Greens and various socialist parties there was little discussion of electoral alternatives. I wasn’t in the session where - according to Twitter, at least - Ken Loach complained that the organisers had refused him a plenary session platform to promote his new ‘Left Unity’ electoral initiative. But when a chap from the Exeter Woodcraft Folk raised the initiative asking plaintively “so who do we vote for?” there was an audible ‘tut’ from some in the audience. This attitude can perhaps be explained by the ‘broad front’ approach of the conference organisers, where all those opposed to austerity make common cause with with the ‘Labour left’ (represented most visibly by Owen Jones and of course Tony Benn, who received a standing ovation).

Mark Steel told attendees to “give up worrying about the ten seconds of the speech that you disagree with”. There was, in reality, little for most present to disagree with in the speeches from the top table. Speaker after speaker criticised the bankers’ bailouts, the corporate capture of government and the burden on the hardest hit. Hugely important points, but it would have been refreshing to have fewer of the familiar faces making them, to allow more grassroots voices to be heard, more discussion. Some ‘horizontal’ and direct action groups that have scored significant victories against austerity policies - such as Boycott Workfare - were notable by their absence.

One young woman told me as I was leaving, “They knew what they had to say to get applause.” Clearly many of the union leaders present felt that a key outcome of the day was building community support for trade unions, to strengthen their hand when negotiating for more progressive Labour policies on housing, tax, and wages. Whether the Assembly achieved this outcome remains to be seen.

It was good to hear a significant focus on the danger of ‘divide and rule’ and the anti-immigrant rhetoric. As for other forms of ‘divide and rule’, in the NHS session, doctors who spoke were openly critical of the passivity of most of their own profession in the face of reforms. But the thorny issues of low paid union members told to enforce evictions and benefit sanctions, of councillors who come forward as allies but are pushing through cuts - these issues were little discussed, at least in the sessions I attended. Perhaps the event was not the forum for this discussion. But given the flowering of activism by - and the devastating impacts on - the “hardest hit”, they are issues that the “movement”, if it is one, will need to address, perhaps at local level. There are wider constituencies of support to be potentially drawn on, than those who are won over by somewhat ritualistic calls to build for a “24 hour general strike”.

I hope the organisers - who had clearly worked extremely hard - will reflect on the constructive criticisms they have received. Engaging with our information- and social media-saturated world is about more than a Twitter feed screen behind the speakers. It means recognising that people have an expectation that events will structured in a way that is truly participative. That people already know the problem and are there to share solutions. The venue - redolent in progressive history though it was - was not really suitable for a workshop based approach.

But to criticise the People’s Assembly for not ‘empowering’ people feels a little harsh - given the hugely disempowering events going on around us, it would have been unrealistic to expect this to be transformed in a day. I also find myself reflecting, is it too easy for those of us who can carve out a space for debate online, to overlook the importance of older forms of association - including the rally, the “set piece” action, the discussions that take place in the lead up to such actions?

The NHS demo is welcome - particularly if it triggers more action than just mobilising people to get on buses to Manchester on 29th September - important though that is. There were other grounds for hope, too - initial regional gatherings with a view to creating more, the session on trade union activism, the clear appetite for local and radical action that came out of the NHS session I attended. It was these sessions that seemed to contain promising germs of a “movement”, as the whispering refrain went. 

UPDATE

Is the 29th September demonstration definitely a demonstration unifying everyone around the NHS issue, or something more general? Unite are advertising it as an NHS demonstration, and this is what was agreed in the Statement agreed by the Assembly, which said:

"We will work with the trade unions, campaign groups and others to organise and mobilise for a national demonstration at Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in support of our NHS on 29th September 2013."

However the email sent out by the People's Assembly today merely states that the Assembly called for:

"A mass national protest at the Tory Party conference on 29 September in Manchester" - and their website uses the same words - with no mention of what the protest is specifically about. 

We hope the organisers will swiftly clarify.

 

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