Phil McGarry and Keith Stoddart welcome the Corbyn advance but worry about duplication of efforts
The People’s Assembly had some 100,000 folk marching past the Tory conference in Manchester on 4 October followed by a week of meetings, concerts, comedy nights all full with people calling for an end to the government’s policies of austerity. Scotland with its own STUC supported demo in Dunfermline the day before made it clear that the country was against austerity regardless of whether it emanated from Holyrood, Westminster or even Brussels. Tories at their conference were left in no doubt that the People’s Assembly was the leading anti-austerity group throughout Britain.
These activities were building on earlier demos held in London, Glasgow and Swansea capitalising and channelling people’s anger at what was happening both to them and their communities. These demos led to an explosion of local campaigns on a variety of issues that were causing concern and fear for working class people.
There are campaigns opposing the wholesale sell off of housing estates, cuts to benefits and local services, ending of working tax credits for many, job losses, end of school bus services, education, the fight for peace and against fracking, all in some way relating back to the struggle against austerity. It seemed that there was no issue large or small, local or national that did not have a grouping either promoting or fighting against it.
The People’s Assembly, building on the earlier demands of the People’s Charter, brought together these activists and the wider union and labour movement. Together they have become the political counter offensive to the war being waged on our class by the forces of capitalism largely, led by the Tory party (but aided and abetted by an assortment of others including those who supported ‘new’ Labour).
So-called ‘anti-austerity’ policies with attacks on the poor’s income and workers’ rights to organise in protection of their interests via the ‘Trade Union Bill’ are their current weapons of choice. It is opposition to these actions that is the Peoples Assembly’s frontline fight for the coming period.
We believe Corbyn’s victory, unexpected as it was, has immeasurably helped us in this. The panic in both ‘new’ Labour and Tory elites along with their friends in the banks and financial institutions is not only because Corbyn won but why he won.
Corbyn is not part of these elites despite being a long term parliamentarian – he has always stayed true to his beliefs, working locally while thinking globally. With his work within CND, international solidarity movements alongside continuous support for unions and the wider labour movement in the struggle for change and justice, he stands apart from many in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
His candidature characterised by simplicity and clarity of message clearly ignited a latent resentment to the perpetual spin of the wealthy and their representatives with their justifications for inequality. In other words, Corbyn made class and class inequality an issue.
In saying this, he exposed one of the fundamental illusions of capitalism, namely, that we’re not all in this together and that neither national identity nor middle class aspiration can deny the fundamental structuring of society that allows an elite immiserate the majority.
During his campaign he correctly argued austerity is not an economic necessity, it’s a political choice. He promised a real living wage; Labour would force Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon and Google etc. to pay their fair share of taxes; there would be cuts to subsidies paid to companies taking money but not providing the jobs; and there would be cuts to the billion pound tax breaks given to buy to let landlords for repairing their properties, whether they undertake
the repairs or not.
However, Corbyn’s problem is that most of those who sit behind him in parliament will have no truck with much of his programme. At present, they are waiting for the opportunity to discredit him aided by their allies in the capitalist press and in business elsewhere by whom Corbyn is seen as a threat.
Corbyn recognises this and calls upon his supporters to remain engaged with politics locally building grassroots campaigns to support those in parliament. This is interesting – not because it is wrong to build up community supports – but because rather than directing those new activists towards the People’s Assembly he has set about creating a new organisation Momentum.
It is being launched in an attempt to keep the army of volunteers that had developed throughout the leadership campaign engaged and probably also in the hope that they will become full Labour members rather than supporters. A political party seeking to recruit members from its supporters is not unusual and its part of what they do.
What is unusual is that it plans for Momentum to become a social movement similar to the people’s movements. But rather than a loose arrangement where people come in and out often based on specific issues, Momentum intends to be a membership organisation with branches, campaigning against national and local cuts, promoting voter registration and encouraging members to develop local campaigning initiatives.
All of this would appear to duplicate the work already being done on the ground by local People’s Assemblies in partnership at least in Scotland with local Trades Union Councils and major unions.
Momentum’s organiser Jon Lansman in the Morning Star describes it as ‘the biggest movement of the organised left for decades and that it will ‘create a space for debate and creative solutions’.
Somewhat tellingly he also said policy would be “debated and agreed in a democratic Labour Party’. So not with the wider labour movement but within a Labour party made more democratic by increasing the membership through their involvement in Momentum.
The plan is to begin campaigning on local issues inside and outside Labour with Momentum’s intention to act nationally as an umbrella organisation for local groups across the country. However Momentum does not plan to have any formal links with other organisations, although it will work with other campaign groups and trade unions on issues like TTIP and the Trade Union Bill.
This is unfortunate as the anti-austerity movement is not the property of one party. The People’s Assembly’s success in mobilising across divisions against those actually implementing austerity and the cuts shows this. This is its greatest strength – it has been able to do this by remaining unaligned to any party. In Scotland, it took no position on the independence referendum recognising that there is not a YES or NO anti-austerity campaign only the campaign against austerity.
In Scotland, we have seen in local government a limited ‘Corbyn effect’ with some councillors perhaps emboldened by his victory showing themselves willing to engage albeit in a limited way with uniions and the People’s Assembly. Often this is to discuss how to lessen the impact of the cuts rather than opposing them but it’s a start and one that we can build upon.
We see MSPs and other elected members from Labour and perhaps more significantly the SNP joining in demonstrations and actions organised by the People’s Assembly. No doubt Labour members whose spirits were lifted by Corbyn’s victory are now more able to push their representatives into beginning some form of challenge to cuts has helped this.
SNP members are now no longer able to claim the moral high ground of being Scotland’s anti-austerity party and are fearful that a Corbyn-led party will challenge the Scottish Government’s own record of support for the politics of austerity and cuts while not being written off as ‘Red Tories’.
In Westminster, the Tories are not now having the easy ride they enjoyed under ‘new’ Labour. So his victory will help those opposing the attacks on working people not least by the fact that he presents an alternative to what has become the established orthodoxy (even though Momentum may pose some issues for the wider anti-austerity campaign). That we have had to rely on the Lords to challenge the changes to tax credits shows however there is still much for our movement to do.
Phil McGarry is the Chair and Keith Stoddart the Secretary of the People’s Assembly Scotland