There is no-one holding up the supermarket queue paying for value food with a fistful of vouchers and copper coins. There are no stressed out mums and dads who’ve dragged kids out in the rain to charge up the electricity key, no arguments in the Post Office over missing benefit payments and no mob-handed gangs of police frisking and harassing defiant teenagers.
For some austerity means at worst one less holiday this year, a dip in the investment portfolio or a slighter cheaper pair of designer shoes. For others it is just a dinner party talking point, little more than a pose, a nostalgic game of thrift played out in vintage clothes shops and antique markets.
This is the pampered reality for most of those who spoke from the top table at this weekend’s People’s Assembly. Len McClusky, boss of Unite union, never experiences the chill of fear that accompanies a brown DWP envelope dropping through the letter box. PCS Secretary Mark Serwotka does not lay awake at night worrying about how he will pay his bedroom tax, or which city he will be relocated to due to the benefit cap. It is true that unlike some involved in the People’s Assembly, trade unions leaders have all had real jobs at one point. But it is astonishing how quickly the experience of poverty is forgotten once basic needs are met and how once undreamed of luxuries become everyday normal things as pay packets swell.
This does not mean that their anger is not sincere, or that their political convictions are invalid. But fighting austerity is part of their job descriptions, it is not them fighting for their lives. We are not all in it fucking together. Only the poor are being forced from their homes, driven to suicide, forced to work unpaid or lining up outside foodbanks after benefits have been slashed or sanctioned.
This is why Len McClusky can call Labour’s recent workfare proposals and commitment to brutal sickness and disability benefit assessments ‘a good start’. Len will never have to go on workfare or face an Atos assessment. And that’s why he would have the rest of us believe that Labour, perhaps nudged slightly towards the left (stop laughing), is the best deal on the table. Vote Len, vote Labour, pay your union subs and leave it to them to negotiate our surrender.
The People’s Assembly was largely organised by Counterfire, a left wing sect which began within the Socialist Worker’s Party. Many of those involved in Counterfire were formerly active within the Stop the War Coalition which emerged to dominate the resistance to the war in Iraq. There are two significant facts about the Stop The War Coalition, the first being that they didn’t stop the war. The second is that despite this, the leaders of the Stop The War Coalition considered the organisation a great success.
There is a danger that The People’s Assembly lays the groundwork for a similar managed defeat in the fight against austerity. It is not in the interests of the Union bosses, or MPs who spoke at the People’s Assembly, to have the kind of radical changes to society many people want and increasingly need. That is why so many of them have little more to offer than empty platitudes, largely abandoned one day strikes, and a quiet commitment to the idea that a Labour government will make everything alright again.
And to fight for the Labour Party is to fight to lose. There will be no end to austerity if Ed Miliband is elected, as he chose to make clear himself in a speech elsewhere over the weekend. The struggle we face now has little or nothing to do with party politics and everything to do with class war – and the modern Labour Party is on the wrong side.
Of course the People’s Assembly became more than just a crude attempt to rally support for the Labour Party and an attempt to resurrect the glorious failure of the Stop The War Coalition. The people themselves saw to that. There have been encouraging reports that when the assembly broke down into local groups, and the celebrities fucked off, far more was achieved than just hot air with some concrete plans emerging for local organising. Even Counterfire’s proposed day of direct action on November 5th could be a good start, but only if it is more than a day of theatrical stunts, ten minute walks outs, A to B marches, and yet more political speeches from self-styled leaders.
Strikes, occupations, sabotage and riots have been the real tools of social change throughout history. Any day of direct action cannot be left in the hands of trade union bosses, journalists, MPs or anyone else who has simply too much to lose from any meaningful confrontation. A day that will truly make the rich and powerful tremble will not be organised by the ever so slightly less rich and powerful.
The legacy of the People’s Assembly could be manufactured surrender, but it could be something else. Or it could just be ignored completely. It will be down to the people themselves to decide. Owen and Len can nip to the bar and get the drinks in whilst we make our own minds up about how to resist the onslaught we face.
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