Sunday, 5 June 2011

Why nothing came of the Liverpool People's Assembly

Today was the Liverpool People's Assembly Against The Cuts. I've taken an active interest in this event and what could potentially come of it since it was first announced. However, the day ended as a massive wasted opportunity. Most impressively, it ticked every box as far as the limitations and hurdles I had anticipated for how the day would progress.

The first and most obvious one was turnout. Darren Ireland, chair of the Liverpool Trades Council, claimed that 144 people had registered on the day. But the capacity of the hall in the Black-E is around 550 people and there were a lot of empty seats. Most notable by their absence were the numerous community campaign groups which had turned out for Councillor Joe Anderson's ridiculous show rally for a "Fair Deal" back in February. There was one woman from a campaign to save a nursery in the Dingle, as well as the chair of the Liverpool Arabic Centre, but largely the hall was made up of the ranks of the professional left.

All photo credits to Graeme Lamb
The quite simple reason for this was that nobody had built for the day. Leaflets had been given out on May Day (itself a poorly promoted and thus poorly attended event), and it was claimed that leaflets had also been given to all the local trade union branches, but that was about it. Ultimately, if somebody else hadn't intervened to set up a Facebook event, the turnout may have been even less.

But then, for all the talk of building wider participation and of linking workplace and community struggles, there has been very little effort to actually do it. The very fact that this conference was happening in June 2011 - and that there was speculation that it might set up an all-Liverpool anti-cuts campaign (I'll come onto that later) - shows how far behind even of the moderates the movement in Liverpool is. Which is without going into the issues of how certain individuals or groups are sidelined by the mainstream for a variety of reasons, or the alienation currently paralysing the labour movement.

The layout of this so-called "People's Assembly" did nothing to challenge that, even accounting for poor turnout. In the current Real Democracy Now movement spreading out from Spain, people's assemblies are organised horizontally. They are, essentially, open forums for people to talk, discuss, debate, and organise. Which, I imagine, was the intention today - except that genuine people's assemblies do not particularly take the form of panel discussions.

My problem with panel discussions is that the open floor is only a "section" of the discussion. With a top table of speakers who get to both open and close the debate, there is a clear hierarchical delineation as well as the implication of whose opinions are worth more than others'. It is, in my opinion, neither open nor democratic. It certainly isn't horizontal in its organisation.

Moreover, what space for open debate we did have was quickly swallowed up by "contributions" from leftists with pre-prepared speeches. I heard the same points, the same sentiments, and the same language over and over again today, and where the speakers weren't repeating each other the floor contributors were certainly more than willing to fill the gap. If nothing else, this leaves little scope for those beyond activist circles to get up and speak. Or, if they did, the context of innumerable political speeches would've made it an overwhelming experience.

In the midst of this, there were some positive moments. In the first session, one comrade from Liverpool SolFed read out a statement of solidarity he had brought from the Cheshire West Against The Cuts campaign. Another was able to make the last point before the closing remarks and argue that we needed to stop looking to leaders to act for us. "We need to grow up and gain the confidence to organise for ourselves, as a class," in his words.

All photo credits to Graeme Lamb
The breaks between sessions also provided a good opportunity to talk to and network with people. For Liverpool SolFed, the bulk of this involved pushing our campaign proposal (PDF) and selling our new pamphlets on anarcho-syndicalist organising in practice. But, again, turnout limited what we could gain from this - not least because so few of the faces in the crowd were ones that I did not recognise as activists of some sort or another. Even many of those I hadn't met were also long-standing activists I'd simply not met before. Hardly a representative sampling for a broad-based campaign, at any rate.

This was noted a few times during the debates, but it too often boiled down to slogans. This was not the first time a 99% white audience had been told that "black and white must unite and fight," and I'm sure it won't be the last.

Even by lunchtime, it was clear that this was going to be little more than a talking shop. There had been no mention whatsoever of the "proposal from Liverpool Trades Council" meant to finish the day, and the only concrete proposition before that - to distribute leaflets on NHS cuts across the city - was brushed aside as something they could discuss later.

It was particularly telling that the main action people were urged to take throughout the the day was to affiliate to the Trades Council. The "proposal" that ended the day turned out to be little more than a statement, urging people to affiliate and stating that the council would support various demonstrations as well as the June 30th strikes. Good to do, sure, but hardly ground breaking stuff - and certainly an anti-climax given the context.

It was particularly infuriating because time shuffled on (ably facilitated by the last session of the day not being as strictly chaired as the others) until there was barely time to read the statement, let alone vote on it. This caused an uproar, where a number of people voiced the opinion that this meeting should have been about setting up an all-Liverpool anti-cuts campaign. From one side, Socialist Party activists kept shouting to "take the vote" and got more irate as people continued with the quite reasonable demand that something concrete ought to come out of the day.

I spoke up at this point, urging anybody who didn't have it to take a copy of the Liverpool SolFed proposal. I said;
Liverpool Solidarity Federation were also of the impression that setting up such a campaign was the whole point of today. We have drafted a concrete set of proposals on how we think it should function - if you don't have one already, we'll be happy to provide.

But if the Trades Council aren't yet ready to create such a campaign, we're more than happy to initiate it along with any group that is. This shouldn't wait. If your organisation agrees with our proposals, get in touch so that we can get the ball rolling.
After this, I and others abstained from the vote on the statement. It was, after all, a Trades Council statement which could as easily have been moved through a Trades Council meeting. This was supposed to be about something more, and represents a spectacular missed opportunity.

All photo credits to Graeme Lamb
What should have happened, as I said to others once the event finished, was that the event come together with the proposal of establishing an anti-cuts campaign. This could have been announced from the start, and the various sessions built around drawing out concrete proposals over the public sector, the NHS, and community campaigns, before formally ratifying the campaign at the end. Instead, what we got was a damp squib.

This reflects a number of issues. In the first place, it demonstrates the limits of the official leadership's ambitions. After thirty years of willing compliance with ever more restrictive trade union legislation, and with brand new libertarian and self-organised movements springing up in response to the harshest attacks on the working class in a generation, the rot has set in. When a demand for a 24-hour general strike is seen as revolutionary, it tells you just how stagnant the left has become and how incapable they are of responding to genuinely buoyant movements.

The answer to which isn't to try and revive the leadership. I'm not a great believer in alchemy, and 150 years of sell-outs, betrayal, ignorance, and inaction isn't going to convince me.

Rather, the task we have is to build the confidence of the rank-and-file so that we can take control of our own struggles. In this particular instance, that means making the real links between community and workplace battles and getting an all-Liverpool anti-cuts campaign off the ground even without the People's Assembly as a vehicle for it. The attacks continue, and we must continue to fight them.