Building the People’s Assembly Against Austerity is the key task of the left

By Jane West

Recent weeks have seen a clear up-tick in the struggle against austerity in Britain.

The nationwide response to the Bedroom Tax, a number of very significant demonstrations against hospital closures, a jump in size of pickets and protests called against other local cuts and the decisions by NUT/NASUWT to call a series of one day strikes are among the evidence for this. The movement against austerity and the cuts has begun to move up a gear for the first time since the student struggles of late 2010 and the 2011/12 pensions’ actions.

This upturn in struggle is a reflection of the increasing problems besetting the Cameron-Osborne government. Osborne’s latest budget was a confession of failure.

Despite a third year of public sector cuts and below inflation wage rises, the economy continues to flat-line skating around the verges of a triple-dip recession, the accumulated government debt has risen from £760bn in 2010 to £1,160bn in the year just ended, while the year on year deficit remains stubbornly high. The latest figures on the 2012-13 budget deficit show the aim of annual deficit reduction has essentially ground to a halt – borrowing this year was at £120.6bn compared to £120.9bn the year before. Even the IMF has expressed its doubts that their policy is working.

Even by its own measures of success the entire policy has failed. This has led to a discernable slackening of the ideological grip of the claim that Britain has ‘overspent its credit card’ and that austerity is the only solution. For nearly three years this was effectively unchallenged, and almost unchallengeable. With the whole of Europe united on the course of harsh austerity in response to the crisis, there was no space for dispute.

Apart from Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman’s virtuoso performance on Newsnight in May 2012, anyone attempting to suggest their might be an alternative to – or alternative route to – ‘deficit reduction’ was dismissed with lofty scorn by the media and Tories alike.

The facts that the US had better outcomes than Europe, on the basis of a mini-stimulus rather than cuts and that Gordon Brown’s similar post-2008 policy had at least moderately lifted the British economy out of recession, were written out of history. Still less was any comparison allowed with the success China achieved with its 2009 mega-stimulus, avoiding recession entirely and maintaining a strong expansion that kept the rest of the world economy moving for three years.

As the Tories’ policy lurches into failure, the grip of the entire argument for austerity has begun to be broken. After Osborne’s 2011 budget and on the eve the first big TUC demonstration against austerity, YouGov found 67 per cent of the population thought the cuts were necessary. A post-budget poll this year found only 52 per cent supported the priority to cutting the deficit (which fell to 37 per cent support when informed this is Osborne’s policy!).

The growing sense that the policy does not work, and therefore that cuts and austerity may not be necessary, is kick-starting the struggle against the government and moving campaigns against its impact up a notch.

In this context, the launch of the call for a People’s Assembly Against Austerity – initiated by a combination of the Coalition of Resistance (CoR) and the leadership of UNITE – is both exceptionally well-timed and exactly the broad-based initiative that is needed, aiming to bring together all those who oppose the cuts and austerity, both inside and outside Labour.

The call for the Assembly is effective because it is careful not to be prescriptive around alternatives to austerity or precise forms of action against the cuts, creating a ‘broad church’ that can be a framework for all those opposing austerity or the impact of specific measures.

It has already attracted very wide support – the existing capacity is almost fully subscribed and discussions are underway on how to expand it. Meetings to build the Assembly are taking place around the country to engage with local anti-cuts campaigns and trade unions. The event on 22nd June will certainly attract several thousand. Advance registration will be vital.

The People’s Assembly is the most serious contribution so far towards creating a broad and unified movement against this government. It can set in place a framework to develop greater unity in the anti-cuts movement at a local, regional and sectoral level. The national conference in June can give an impetus to hold similar Assemblies across the country.

This begins to put flesh on the bones of a growing mood for ‘left unity’ particularly as expressed, for example, by Owen Jones in the Independent outlining the urgent need for the left to have a greater impact on the national political agenda and therefore for greater co-ordination of the left both in and outside the Labour Party (of which he is a member). Or as echoed by Mark Steel on his blog. Both he and Owen Jones have thrown himself into building support for the People’s Assembly.

The function of the People’s Assembly is above all to unify and strengthen the struggle against this Tory government and its cuts. But if it is successful it will also apply a countervailing pressure on Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership to that being exerted by capital and its agencies: particularly the media and the Labour right.

The right is stepping up its pressure on Miliband as the General Election moves closer and it becomes increasingly apparent both that Labour is likely to win and that this will be under Ed Miliband’s leadership. For the first two years of Ed Miliband’s leadership – after his narrow, shock defeat of his Blairite brother David – the right and the media were focused on the goal of undermining and replacing what they saw as a weak and temporary leadership. Plot after plot by the Blairite right were aimed at forcing Ed out, and replacing him with David Miliband in a new leadership election this side of 2015.

With Labour consistently outgunning the Tories in the polls for over two years, and with the Tories’ falling credibility on economic policy dipping into deep electoral woes with the rise of UKIP, Ed Miliband has become the sure-fire leader of Labour into 2015 and probably the next Prime Minister. This is the real motive for David Miliband’s ‘king over the water’ withdrawal to the US. Like Bonnie Prince Charlie, he may nurse his claim, but it is now clearly defeated. There will be no rerun leadership election.

The immediate consequence of this is a belated, and therefore very fierce, campaign of right-wing pressure on the Miliband leadership rather than a campaign simply against it. This will have a consistent theme: Ed Miliband is risking the possibility of winning the election in 2015 by tacking too left, and by failing to explicitly distance himself from Keynesian chimeras of debt-bought growth, ‘tax and spend’, and any softening of austerity.

Tony Blair was early off the blocks with an article in the New Statesman that combines charm-offensive and threat in arguing that Miliband must turn further to the right on austerity, tax and cuts. The same argument was set out in the Financial Times in the first of what will be many articles to come on this theme – Ed Miliband can still lose if his economic policies are too left i.e. do not propose a total continuation of Tory austerity.

A countervailing pressure from the left is vital. Stepped up struggle against austerity will objectively make the major contribution to this. Events like the People’s Assembly, which amplify the voice of all those opposed to the economic policies of this government also contribute, including through giving confidence to more of those within Labour who oppose the right.

That is why it is correct that the approach of the People’s Assembly is to engage all those who oppose austerity whatever they think are the alternatives, whatever their political affiliations, from both the base and also the leadership of the labour movement. This has been correctly expressed by Counterfire – which has been key to establishing this initiative from CoR – on their web-site. For example, Chris Nineham wrote: ‘Anyone who opposes the cuts should be in. To get them in we need the support and involvement of the biggest most influential and most representative organisations in the movement – particularly the trade unions. We also need platforms that represent the politics of the movement – where people are at – rather than where others think the movement should be.’

Of course, this latter point is moot, as at this moment no speakers for the Assembly have been announced. A crucial art of the united front – in addition to the wisdoms that it has to unite political forces ‘from above’ as well as ‘from below’ on the basis of drawing the correct class line of divide on any particular issue – is it has to draw in the maximum forces who agree with the demand of the movement, which in practice means the ‘left’ has to reach as far to the ‘right’ as possible in uniting forces on the correct basis.

So, for example, in opposing the Iraq war in 2003, Lib Dems, Tories, Labour of all shades who opposed Blair’s war were drawn onto platforms. Despite two decades of decimation of the Labour left, those opposed to austerity in the ranks of Labour extend considerably further into the Party than the three left MPs that signed the People’s Assembly launch statement. For example, 43 Labour MPs broke the whip to oppose workfare. To be really effective the Assembly has to try to reach as far as possible into Labour in gathering forces for the fight against austerity.

Building the movement against austerity relates to the issues of rebuilding the left more generally in British politics, reversing the fragmentation and dissipation not just of the last few years but of two decades – a generalised decline seen since the qualitative defeat of the Bennite Labour left after the miners’ strike and the 1991 overturn in the Soviet Union. There have been significant mass movements since then – particularly that against the Iraq war – and some new developments on the left – Respect’s successes. But these have not consolidated into a renewal of a left force in British politics of the type that emerged in 1968 and fought for the leadership of the Labour Party in the 1980s.

We have written previously that the question of left unity is a crucial element in this rebuilding. But a qualitative step forward for the left requires some new radicalisation in sections of the masses, which are currently tending more to regroup around Labour and placing their hopes in a Labour government under Ed Miliband. While these hopes will be disappointed – as Miliband and Balls do not propose to reverse the existing cuts or end austerity – at present the upturn in struggle against the Tories is tending to strengthen Labour on its existing line and leadership, not produce a new force on its left.

But the weakening of the Tories and the strengthening of Labour is objectively a shift to the left, and therefore strengthens all left currents. It is noticeable that there are increasing signs of leftist activism in the Labour Party: in many areas CLPs have engaged directly with anti-cuts movement; have organised their own public meetings against austerity and cuts, on Greece, Cyprus and the banking crisis; CLP agendas are becoming decidedly more political in many cases; and Labour Party members are the mainstay of many local anti-cuts and other campaigns. Left fringes at last year’s Labour Party conference marked an upswing in attendance for the first time for many years.

However, at present any resurgence of the left – both inside and outside the Labour Party – is only occurring in a molecular fashion. The vanguard is getting more active, there is a strengthening of opposition to the Tories and the Blairite right, which reflects a shift in the mood of the masses which are becoming more confident that the Tories can be defeated. But – so far – there is no radicalisation to the left of Miliband with an expression in the masses, and it is unlikely this will occur before a General Election in 2015 unless a new war or economic catastrophe intervenes.

Therefore, despite the feeling among the most committed activists that there ought to be such a radicalisation – especially after Liam Byrne engineered Labour’s abstention on workfare for example – proportions should be guarded and attention given to what can actually be achieved now to take the left forward.

The reality of a Labour government imposing austerity will pose the likelihood of a significant radicalisation in the masses to the left of existing Labour policies, with an expression both outside and inside the Labour Party.

For the left to be ahead of the curve – and take maximum advantage of future radicalisation to shift the agenda in British politics as far as possible to the left – it is important to overcome sectarian divisions and begin to work together now, inside and outside the Labour Party.

The chief expression of this today is to work together in united fronts to defeat the Tories – like the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.