The People’s Assembly: what might ‘building from below’ really mean?

DPAC/BLACK TRIANGLE Position Statement on The People’s Assembly




The People’s Assembly does create the possibility of unity, but it also poses sharply a question of how to unite in a way that maximises democracy and participation.




Luke Cooper discusses the potential and pitfalls of this Saturday’s People’s Assembly Against Austerity

June 20th 2013 by Luke Cooper

The People’s Assembly has resulted in a considerable bout of energetic debate on the British left, ranging from the super-supportive, to the cynically-critical, and those, on the money perhaps, who are supportively critical. But no one is seriously downplaying the size or scope of the event. With over 3,500 people set to converge on Westminster Central Hall it is clearly going to be the biggest ever gathering against austerity in Britain. It would be foolish to not see this as a big step forward in its own right. Bringing together a grand coalition of trade unionists, grassroots campaigners, socialists, Greens, pensioners, disability rights activists, and maybe a fair few regular people who want to turn their anger into action, is a big step forward for the left and shouldn’t be sniffed at.

This is a particular achievement seen in the context of divisions that have blighted the anti-cuts movement since the Tories came to power. Those of you who have not yet experienced the fractured socialist left, will be shocked to hear that campaigners against austerity have had not one, not two, but three competing anti-cuts campaigns, none of which can seriously claim to have a strong, organic relationship to grassroots organisations.

Enough Life of Brian?

It’s an all too familiar example of the infamous Life of Brian sketch that satirically depicts the infighting of the left. What makes that scene so farcical isn’t that people are arguing. The farce lies in how the myriad of groupuscules all have ostensibly the same ideas. In much the same way there has been barely a rizla paper to separate the competing anti-cuts campaigns politically. The People’s Assembly does create the possibility of unity, but it also poses sharply a question of how to unite in a way that maximises democracy and participation.

To kick off an argument about how to do this doesn’t mean doing yet another Life of Brian rendition. It’s not about ‘splitting’ for no good reason, or having huge rows over nothing, because debate is what the People’s Assembly should be about.

There is no shortage of things to discuss and there have been too many left wing conferences over the years when everyone says the same thing, no one dares disagree with one another, and the audience is left bored. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other constructive critics, here are three things that deserve some critical attention. The last one is the most important – what comes next and how it’s organised to maximise democratic participation – because it’s here that the opportunity to build a really powerful anti-austerity movement might be lost.

1. Unions

First off, there’s the unions. It’s excellent that the People’s Assembly has won the backing of the major public sector unions. They are an essential part of the fight against austerity. But there is no getting round the fact their existing leaderships have failed to deliver the action we need to start to the turn the tide on austerity.

When millions went on strike in November 2011 it testified to the enduring power of organised labour. But hopes that this might be a new dawn for workplace radicalism were soon dashed. The strikes were called off. And many of the union leaders who will grace the platforms of the People’s Assembly were central to delivering a rotten pension deal when there was still all to play for. The People’s Assembly will have failed the very people it is seeking to represent, if it doesn’t provide a platform for trade unionists that feel let down by leaders whose pay packets far exceed those of ordinary members and who, for this reason, don’t feel the pain of austerity.

Unison, as the biggest public sector union, has big questions to answer. Not only did it lead the retreat from the pensions fight, but, worse still, its leadership have for many years witch hunted activists out of the union on trumped up charges, with bullying, intimidation and bureaucratic measures becoming the norm. It’s a classic example of an entrenched bureaucracy not wanting an activist union and doing everything in their power to keep the membership atomised and passive.

And this at a time when the Tories are on the offensiveAs Labour MP John McDonnell has put it in admirably undiplomatic terms:

“… In order for free market policies to flourish, for wages to be held back, for privatisation to continue unopposed and for workers to be made to pay for the crisis in the economy then it is equally necessary for the organisations of the workers, our parties, our trade unions, to be made impotent. One way to do that is to clear out fighters and militants. That is what this is. Unison’s leadership are doing the bosses a favour.”

It is little wonder that many Unison activists find their blood boiling when their leaders talk the talk, as they no doubt will at the People’s Assembly, only to the very next day carrying on doing nothing to fight back. It’s right that the unions are involved, but there needs to be be a voice for the grassroots in the hall too.

2. Labour

Secondly, the major union leaderships all have a strategy: to do everything in their power to ensure Labour wins the next election. If Labour were presenting a powerful and coherent alternative to austerity, this strategy might well look appealing. But what if – as is obviously the case – Labour have no intention of turning back the cuts and, in a stream of recent announcements, have even expressed their commitment to many of the Tory spending and welfare policies.

It’s tempting to see recent policy announcements on welfare as falling into line with Tony Blair, who back in April took a swipe at Miliband’s leadership and warned against Labour becoming a ‘party of protest’. But these announcements have been long prepared for. Labour are happy to vote against the government today, but everyday make it crystal clear they stand for austerity-lite tomorrow.

These facts pose big questions to all of us who want to see a real alternative to austerity. And its one recognised by many Labour Party supporters of the People’s Assembly. Independent columnist Owen Jones, who has gone up and down the country rallying support for Saturday’s meeting, is the first to admit that Labour has offered no alternative. He sees the Assembly as ‘giving Labour some real competition’ because ‘finally, the left is entering the ring’. Jones might sound convincing, but think it through for a moment and the logic starts to unravel.

The People’s Assembly might, hopefully, become a powerful social movement (more on which in a moment). But the Labour Party has long been unresponsive to those – remember the Iraq War when millions marched to say no to Bush and Blair’s crusade? Despite funding the party to the tune of millions, even the unions have no say over policy. But Labour is not entirely immune from pressure. Ultimately it is accountable to a working class electorate that it arrogantly takes for granted:

What would start to shift Miliband and co is a party to the left of Labour eating away at their electoral support: a party doing the same to Labour as UKIP is doing to the Tories.

A debate has to take place at the assembly about Labour and the possibility of alternatives. Its one the unions aren’t keen on because it challenges the very heart of their strategy: to sit on their hands, wait for 2015 and hope for a Labour return. To go away from the Assembly having not talked about Labour, and having not had the opportunity to subject its leadership to trenchant criticism for not putting up an alternative, would be a terrible waste. This is especially so when an exciting call has been put out by filmmaker Ken Loach for a new party of the left, one that has already been signed by over 8,000 people. So, Labour has to be at the centre of the discussion. Loach, who is speaking at the Assembly, can use the platform to inspire a debate on a political alternative to the pro-austerity parties. There is far too much at stake for it to be otherwise.

3. Unity

Finally, there is the democratic deficit in how the People’s Assembly is organised that others have highlighted. A statement will be put to the Assembly that neatly side steps the first two big issues – Labour and the union leaders – and can’t be amended by conference participants.

This might seem reasonable. After all, with over 3,500 people set to turn out what if they all wanted to amend the statement? Chaos would indeed ensue.

But it’s not as simple as that. Imagine if the local people’s assemblies that took place all over the country had discussed the statement. Imagine too if they had been able to submit amendments that could then have been composited into the main debating points. Even then perhaps not all of them could have been taken but the most popular amendments could then have been put to a vote. The base at the bottom would have then had a genuine sayabout the outcome at the top.Unfortunately, this isn’t set to happen – the statement will only be amendable by local people’s assemblies in the run up to a conference in… 2014. Not only that but it doesn’t appear that the organising group will be elected at the conference either. Despite the many workshops on excellent subjects – a refreshing difference from the day-long-rally-conference – the People’s Assembly risks being a top-down affair, when the movement we need has to be a bottom-up one.

This is intended as an entirely constructive criticism. Because at the very least it’s worth reflecting upon how this new People’s Assembly Movement – which I certainly hope is here to stay – can be organised democratically after Saturday.

A big problem with how the left in Britain does things can be summarised as ‘the cult of the next big thing’. The huge spectacle of the grand conference. The next major protest and demonstration. It is all too easy for activists on the left to jump from one thing to the next without laying down proper roots in communities.

If the People’s Assembly is to play the role that Owen Jones clearly wants it to play – a mass social movement, rooted in localities and built from the bottom up, promoting an alternative to austerity – then it needs to develop a democratic structure that grassroots groups can relate to.

There is no great mystery in how this might be organised. If the wide variety of local and national campaign groups and unions that will all be there on Saturday are able to affiliate to a People’s Assembly Movement, then they can send delegates to a conference to represent their views. The organising group can be elected by and accountable to this delegate conference. Delegation sizes can be suitably weighted from different organisations to make it appropriately democratic. Local People’s Assemblies can be convened to channel proposals into the next huge conference – which should should aim to be 10,000 strong. The People’s Assembly, with this structure, would soon be transformed from a meeting into a real movement.

It’s good that ‘building from below’ is becoming a new mantra on the left. It’s a sign of a cultural change in thinking we are only slowly coming to terms with. But it’s equally important that we start to take it more seriously. That we don’t just let it become a phrase divorced of all meaning. If the People’s Assembly kicks off a debate on what ‘building from below’ looks like in practice – as material prescriptions, and not just vague aspirations, then that will be really welcome. The People’s Assembly is already a success as a conference. The question is what comes next?


This article first appeared on the Anticapitalist Initiative website

13 thoughts on “The People’s Assembly: what might ‘building from below’ really mean?

  1. Geoff REYNOLDS says:


    Judges to explain benefit assessment decisions….

    Benefit assessments ‘are unfair’
    MPs attack disability benefits tests

    Judges in England and Scotland are being asked to explain why they believe someone is unfit to work, in a move ministers hope will improve the decision-making process on benefits.

    Tribunals in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham will offer feedback when they overturn rulings on employment and support allowance (ESA) on appeal.

    Critics of the test used to determine eligibility claim it is flawed.

    But ministers say 85% of decisions have been upheld on appeal since 2008.
    ‘Learn lessons’

    All those in receipt of ESA – formerly known as incapacity benefit – and new applicants are having their claims reviewed in a process begun by the last Labour government and accelerated by the coalition.

    The Work Capability Assessment conducted by private contractor Atos has proved controversial, with campaigners saying that it has made too many wrong decisions which are overturned on appeal.

    The explanations provided by the judges will be analysed by the Department for Work and Pensions over the summer.

    Work and pensions minister Esther McVey said: “With recent changes to disability benefits we need to make sure the appeals process is transparent and working well.

    “We will use this information to learn lessons and improve the standard of decision-making and appeals processes. It will also be helpful for claimants to understand why an appeal has been allowed or dismissed.”

  2. Geoff REYNOLDS says:

    Rather than admit they got it wrong, the government intend to ask tribunal judges why they support claims at ESA tribunals….

    The only reason that they are doing this is to shift the blame elsewhere as the spiraling cost of appeals is said to be hitting the billion mark.

    Our government never expected the amount of appeals that have been lodged. They honestly expected the most vulnerable in society to take it on the chin and roll over in defeat. Our defiance has shown we can win, and we will!

    Everybody knows the ATOS medical examination is flawed, that was its intention from the outset, to rob, steal and cheat the disabled……

    Hopefully, the tide is turning as the truth begins to leak out from, what can only be described as “an attempt at ethnic cleansing of huge proportions”.

    Nobody in Westminster wants to carry the can, utilising judges decisions is the cowards way of saying “we are in a corner”.

    The persistant little bastards at the DWP, rather than lose face, keep sticking to the poisoned mantra that 85% of appeals are upheld…….
    This is media bullshit, that is proved to be so, by their move to question the judges on why they find in favour of claimants.

    The answer is glaringly obvious, the disabled are not in a fit position to work, some may be, but not the vast majority who have been targeted by the devil incarnate, ATOS.

    Keep on fighting till the truth finally surfaces. The cracks are widening as the perpetrators try to apportion blame elsewhere…

  3. Linda Ashford says:

    Here in the heart of the UK, in the 2nd city, there has been nothing that makes the Peoples Assembly relevant to us. There has been no pre-22nd June assembly here, even though a venue was offered. No reply resulted. If, at the very heart of the nation, in a city whose larger reaches there are nearly 2 million people, there is no presence, what other places are not being reached. It is time for the Peoples Assembly to take stock and realise that what people want is a movement that represents them, and that means it should be truly inclusive. Here in the Midlands we are not the neglected North, or the over-burdened and often over privileged South. We are the invisible people. It would have been good to have something to build on. Instead many look from a distance; unemployment is rife, and few can afford the journey, but would have liked the opportunity to have a voice, and to be a part of the discussion.

  4. bobchewie says:

    by the way everyone..i came across this stuff..its the bio of a steve mason ex A4E who seems to have played a part in this welfare fact maybe a bigger part..imagine that A4E designing the whole welfare reform of which they profit from…so thats a well know bunch of crooks formulating policy just to suit quaint..

    quotes from steve mason (ex A4E) “Contributed to work of Lord David Freud regarding welfare reform (he claimed to have got many of his ideas from A4e and specifically named Mark Lovell [A4e Executive Chairman] and myself for our contributions)”

    “• Regularly worked with DWP to help them to form ideas and strategies (mainly disability-related) ”

    “• Contributor to the Tory-led Committee for Social Justice, chaired by Ian Duncan-Smith, looking at reform of the Welfare State, culminating in the publishing of “Breakthrough Britain”.

    “• Member of the Workchoice consultation group with DWP”
    “• Worked with DWP on Work Choice; Specialist Support into Work; and Pathways, the way forward.”

    • Contributed to Professor Malcolm Harrington’s first two reviews of the WCA, including working directly with Professor Harrington.

    “• A key member of the Work Programme Mental Health Group – established at the request of Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform. The Group has the interest of Downing Street and the Prime Minister. The work of the Group will conclude with a mental health toolkit. The Minister will launch this in November 2012.
    • A founder member of the Supported Employment Coalition, chaired by Liz Sayce (CEO Disability Rights UK) – joined at the direct request of IDS (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) ”

    “• Designed A4e’s customer journey and provision methodology and played a leading role in the bid development process”

    Sorry but am I getting this right? A4E a well known crooked outfit is / was pretty much running the DWP policy..why didnt they just let A4E run the whole DWP since that is what DWP is running the department for,, not us silly old unemployed this why DWP doesnt want us to know about Workprogram providers?? it makes you wonder dont it?

    1. John Lanigan says:

      Unum are the architects of the welfare reform in the UK and were consulted extensively to come up with a wrecking plan especially for disability benefits. They have a lot of experience doing this in the US and have been fined millions of USD for illegal practices. They have never paid the fines. The Tories apparently love companies like UNUM and so do Labour for that matter.

    2. GEOFF REYNOLDS says:

      Agree with everything you say Bob.

      This country is governed by a huge septic tank of persons within organisations who oil the cogs of industry with hidden backhanders………..

      Whether it be electricity, gas, fuel or the lonely liquorice allsort, somebody behind the scenes has a controlling interest.

      All ministers probably entered politics with the view of representing their parishioners only to be misguided by the temptation of greed of office………

      Each and every one of the toerags who purport to represent our views are tainted by conflicts of interests that if known, would blow westminster out of the water!!

      Parliament is a facade, the rules are written behind closed doors with ominous brown envelopes stuffed with cash and lucrative deals becoming the norm.

      Corruption is like a huge jigsaw, with certain pieces dropping into place, exposing the true crookedness of the world we live in.

      They say power corrupts. Indeed it does!….

      As we communicate, someone in power will be trying to influence a major decision involving the governments arming of Syrian rebels….

      That individual will be accepting lobbying payments that will seem astronomical to us….
      They in turn will be recruiting more influential ministers to support the move.

      Before long we will be in another theatre of war, fighting an unknown enemy, sending our finest to their deaths….

      …….just because some arsehole with influence decided to take a bribe, blood money that will be lost in the corridors of power’s internal machinery, the human cesspit….


    Each and every key you strike on the keyboard when investigating “mysterious links of people with influence”, uncovers a web of deception………….

    Parliamentary standards are breached every day…..

    What we witness is a puppet theatre, with wealth pulling the strings……

    Open your eyes and witness what is happening around you, don’t blink it’s getting worse each day…..

  6. jed goodright says:

    “Bringing together a grand coalition of trade unionists, grassroots campaigners, socialists, Greens, pensioners, disability rights activists, and maybe a fair few regular people who want to turn their anger into action, is a big step forward for the left and shouldn’t be sniffed at.”

    so we still have to do as you tell us the Luke???????
    sniff off

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