On 18 May, the first People’s Assembly took place in Nottingham to organise local resistance against the cuts by the coalition government. In this guest post, Alan Story, reflects on the lessons to be learned from the process of organising this event.
I could not agree more with the overall thrust of the 9 May blog post by Andreas Bieler where he wrote about the need for — and political potential of — of the People’s Assemblies against Austerity now being held across the UK (see Why we need local People’s Assemblies). At a moment when opposition to this government’s cruel cutbacks is ‘highly fragmented’ and the Labour Party, as well as many unions, have almost ‘given up the struggle against austerity…local and regional People’s Assemblies are of high importance to ensure a revival of resistance and overcome the lethargy at the national level,’ Bieler wrote. And as the historian Keith Flett reminds us, such mass gatherings have a long history in the British working class movement. Meetings in Birmingham and Manchester to choose local delegates for the Chartist Convention of 1839 attracted crowds of, respectively, 200,000 and 300,000 people (see On the History of People’s Assemblies).
So yes, the People’s Assemblies — IF they are organised democratically and transparently and actually do create a ‘broad space to bring together the diverse groups opposed to austerity’ —- do have some potential. (I also add the caveat: unless they also directly challenge the insipid role of the Labour Party in the growing anti-cuts campaign, PA’s have a potentially fatal Achilles’ heel.) That’s exactly why I actively participated in the organisation of the 18 May People’s Assembly in Nottingham. But I watched in growing disappointment for over six weeks as its planning committee fell apart after a series of undemocratic manoeuvres and local activists withdrew (or were excluded). This meant that the best possibilities of the Notts PA were not realised. Controlled by two trade unionists from Notts TUC, its planning committee reproduced capitalist relations of production — that is, there were bosses and there were workers — and its functioning mirrored the cabal politics of Westminster.
The Notts PA did give us a flavour of the anger that is ‘out there’ in the broader community and the event has been called the ‘best-attended’ local protest meeting in some years. But the words of PA plenary speaker and disabled activist Francesca Martinez that ‘I believe in better’ led me to write an open letter to the Notts TUC.
This guest blog expands on that letter. The trajectory of events concerning a proposed crÃ¨che for the PA gives us a series of lessons as to how activists and trade unionists must learn to work together in a far better fashion in future months and in future campaigns. As a large crowd was expected at the Notts PA and as the event was to last all day, the establishment of a crÃ¨che was agreed at a Notts PA planning meeting in early April. A child care expert then did all of the planning required, including engaging the top-rated mobile crÃ¨che unit of a local non-profit agency. But the crÃ¨che never occurred. What lessons does this regrettable debacle teach us for future collaboration?
1) BE INCLUSIVE — When establishing a crÃ¨che was first proposed, the head of planning committee clearly was rather cool to the idea. ‘I have never been to an event which had a crÃ¨che,’ he said, adding that he doubted anyone would need one. But those of us with a somewhat broader political experience and a strong commitment to assisting women to get involved in politics — as well as appreciating the need to send a clear political signal that the PA did as well — won that initial battle. We were, however, to lose the crÃ¨che ‘war’…as we found out a few weeks later and as we again learned our own lessons about how not to organise. The importance of inclusiveness also applies to disabled people (as it says in the open letter, ‘one accessible parking space on a steep road simple does cut it’), to working class people who may lack middle class confidence and, thankfully, glibness, and to people who are still novices at political campaigning. Concerning the latter group, one woman I know who is an extremely hard-working and talented campaigner, passionately hates injustice and who needed a crÃ¨che at the PA for her two children left the planning committee in disgust after a single session. That’s not surprising; read on.
2) OPERATE DEMOCRATICALLY — One of the reasons that more activists are getting involved in the struggle against austerity — and indeed government policies are bringing forth new activists daily by the barrow-load — is because they detest the increasingly dictatorial attacks on their lives, as well as the resulting alienation and sense of isolation they feel. Or they appreciate how others at the pointed end are feeling. Not surprisingly when such activists join protest campaigns or plan events AS VOLUNTEERS, they expect to feel at least some sense of community and solidarity with those who are working in the same campaign. And they can also expect a minimum level of democratic functioning. Time and time again this did not happen in the People’s Assembly planning process here in Nottingham: democratically-taken decisions (such as to establish a crÃ¨che) were ignored, some meetings were packed while others were held unannounced, and some genuinely bizarre events occurred. For example, about four weeks before the PA was to occur and before any distribution of 3,000+ flyers had even begun, the group’s chairperson decided — without consulting anyone in the group —- to post at midnight on the Notts PA website these words: ‘Sorry, this event is sold out.’ Such shenanigans, whether the campaign is about the lack of NHS beds or the bedroom tax, do not promote group cohesiveness and trust.
3) OPPOSE ‘CONTROL FREAKERY’ – Anyone who has ever participated in a protest campaign or organised a large event understands the need for strong leadership. But strong leadership is not the same as ‘control freakery.’ Take the question of access to a campaign’s e-mail lists, website, Facebook or Twitter accounts. In these digital days, all four of them can provide campaigners with simple, powerful – and cheap – rapid response units that allow them to connect with, inform and mobilise their target audiences. In the case of the Notts PA, there were more than 625 names on an e-mail list of people who had taken the initiative to personally send in an RSVP to say they would be attending this event. For more than a month, members of the planning committee repeatedly requested that the planning committee chairperson announce the fact that a crÃ¨che would be held and tell parents how they could register their children. A minuted meeting in late April unanimously made the same request. (You might ask: why couldn’t they do this posting themselves? Because the chairperson was the sole person in the group with digital access rights to this media.) But these minutes were never circulated and, after that, those on the committee who wanted a crÃ¨che — and thus wanted the group to carry out what had been agreed — were never told where or when committee meetings were held. The committee chairperson simply did not want a crÃ¨che; so none was held. Thus the aptness of the analogy to bosses and workers made earlier. One of the first decisions any campaigning group needs to make is how, AS A GROUP, it will get out its message into cyberspace.
4) USE EVERYBODY’S TALENTS — Some trade unionists have long experience organising campaigns. But lots of activists have many talents and experiences as well. Good leadership decides how to harness and co-ordinate the talents of all who want to work together to plan a large event or campaign against Iain Duncan-Smith’s hare-brained and cruel schemes, such as the bedroom tax. (See the open letter for a couple of examples of how this scheme is working here in the Midlands.) But it simply won’t do to have a very sickly child care expert spend many hours organising a crÃ¨che and then to scrap the idea without discussion because the building chosen to host the event would obviously be too cramped, as it proved to be, and because several people wanted to use the space selected for a crÃ¨che (and agreed to at a group meeting) for their own particular workshop. Word of a ‘bad experience’ working with — sometimes, more accurately working for — trade union officials advancing their own narrow agendas, personal or sectarian, can spread quickly in the community.
5) BE ACCOUNTABLE — Most activists join campaigns as individuals. Trade unionists, however, often join as official representatives of their union or local trades’ council and claim to speak on their behalf. But what if they, bluntly, ‘screw up’ as occurred at the Notts PA? To whom are they accountable? To the campaign group? To a local TUC? And is it national TUC policy to create another barrier to the wider political involvement in our movement of women, likely the main people requesting a crÃ¨che for their children? These are questions, and others, which I think trade unions need to address.
It will be a while before 300,000 people attend a protest meeting held outside London; even acquiring 300,000 followers on Facebook would be an accomplishment. Bur we will never reach such a plateau unless we ALL start constructing a radically transformed opposition culture. Trade unions have a key role to play in this construction project…which can’t start too soon.
Alan Story lives in Sherwood, Nottingham and would be interested in learning your comments on this guest blog (firstname.lastname@example.org). All of the events mentioned above are fully documented.