A vital initiative – but is it a People’s Assembly?
As a new organisation you need to know where you stand and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity Recall Conference was about voting on a structure and policy to move on.
At the start of the day tributes were paid to Tony Benn and Bob Crow, not only very respected left wing leaders but also original signatories to the People’s Assembly founding letter. The conference had started with a minute of applause and their campaigning spirit and dedication was remembered throughout the day. I think it’s fair to say that the conference felt that a fitting tribute to them both would be to carry on campaigning for the issues that we believe in.
Much of the conference involved the process of passing motions, which will now become the basis on which the Peoples Assembly works, structurally and financially, the campaigns it supports, and the actions it takes. These were organized into Aims, Structure and Actions.
There was agreement the vast majority of the Action motions, which formed the largest part of the motions document, so these were largely not debated, but were proposed with supporting speeches, with none against. The breadth of the issues covered demonstrated clearly the far-reaching affects of the austerity agenda and there was a strong feeling of solidarity for the motions, campaigns and the groups leading them.
It must have been no mean feat for the organising committee to pull together the 90 motions on 10 themes sent from around the country into something coherent. There was a main motion on each theme with any number of supplements to the main motion, giving more detail to the main theme. A few motions had amendments however, which contained proposals that were contradictory to the main motion.
I do not fully understand how the main motions were drawn up and how it was decided what should constitute a main motion, but listing the motions as such gave more weight to the main motion over the amendments and supplements. The amendments I felt particularly were therefore somewhat sidelined. A number of the main motions were also proposed by “the People’s Assemblies Signatories”, it was not clear who these actually were in this context and by doing this I feel further weight was given to these motions.
This design did not cause a problem on the Actions motions, as all but one contained no amendments and were therefore not contentious. However the Structural and Finance motions did contain amendments, and it was obvious from the debate that opinion was not as clear-cut and that delegates had differing views. This is where I felt the influence of the Conference Organising Group (or whoever had drawn up the motions document) and also the top table on the stage in the room, pushing for the main motion. Thus then, that a top down structure had already evolved.
This was important to me because I had written one of the proposals that had been classed as an amendment, a Participatory Democracy Motion, which had been submitted through Manchester People’s Assembly. This motion, sought to install a decentralized structure alongside calling on the People’s Assembly to exercises participatory practices and to set up a working group to look into how this could be achieved. I felt that there was an opportunity, as we structured a new organization, to lead the way in democratic process.
The motion didn’t get passed but did receive a good show of support. There seemed to be a genuine openness to where the participatory motion came from, from the person speaking to the main motion and the speech against it (from a Green Party and steering group member). The latter was almost apologetic, using the argument that now is not the time to change the structure and in a year it might be. I suspect it won’t be then though, I anticipate the argument will be put that it’s too close to a General Election to reorganise our structure. So while I felt sympathy for the ideals of the motion there was not the desire to take participatory democracy further within the PAAA. In other words the motion came up against an entrenched way of doing things.
The following debate on finance bore out the reason why I feel that participatory methods are more democratic and can ultimately foster deeper co-operation and understanding. They also demonstrated, I feel, the top down structure which is already in place.
The main finance motion focused on the flow and use of money raised within the central organisation, while the amendments spoke of the importance of both national and local groups, with one calling for a percentage of finances to be channeled to local groups. The main motion also called for a membership scheme with a sliding fee scale for individuals, groups and Unions.
The debate on the proposed flow of funds caused friction between local PAAA groups and national committee. I felt that the ‘signatories’ came across as considering the central organization as more important than the local groups, and lacking an understanding of the challenges local assemblies face.
When it looked like the amendments were well supported & would pass, someone from the top table, rather grumpily, stated that this would mean the main motion would need to be rewritten. This caused someone to shout from behind me from the floor ‘that’s democracy’ – which of course it was!
One amendment was rescinded by the proposer when a steering group member promised to take on board its sentiments, the other passed, meaning that there is currently no agreed financial structure in place.
Using participatory practices, workshopping these motions with interested people from assemblies across the UK, when drawing them up, could have fostered a deeper understanding of the needs and challenges at local and national level and perhaps preempted this friction. Yes it would have taken more time and effort to collaborate, but it could also have resulted in closer working relationships between central and regional People’s Assemblies.The People’s Assembly Against Austerity therefore, does not function how I understand a true assembly of the people would function, which would be to exercise participatory democracy. It’s structure feels like a traditional trade union or party model, a tried and tested structure – yes, but a mirror of the structure of government in this country which people feel so disenfranchised from and which has allowed the implementation of an austerity agenda which no one voted for and which so many oppose.
A People’s Assembly to me is a movement of individuals, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity is more a grouping of already existing organizations. It is vital that we bring new people into the political debate and into actions, to hear the voices of individuals who are not already within a union or campaign group. We need to create an open and welcoming space where everyone feels encouraged to contribute and where everyone feels their voice is heard. To do this we need to try more than replicating a structure that is letting us down.
I believe that a networked structure where the centre facilitates the development of connections, solutions and actions between the local assemblies, but does not dictate the agenda, is the way forward. What I feel makes a true People’s Assembly is that ideas and solutions come from the network to the centre, rather than visa versa. While the motions were submitted from the network of assemblies, they were compiled by the centre and elements given weight by the centre. The centre is also calling for actions, rather than the network, which has resulted in the next two National Actions being London based.
I left the conference feeling that, as local People’s Assemblies Against Austerity, we will need to work extra hard to ensure that our regional voices are heard – which is what we have always had to do to take part in the political process. I also can’t help feeling that an opportunity has been missed to break new ground in organizing democratically.
That said, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity is a much needed organization. There is a need for an umbrella to bring together all the groups campaigning against the austerity agenda and the damage it is causing to society and people. We need to work side-by-side, to share ideas, experiences and skills, and it was encouraging to see so many groups intent on doing so.
(I write this as an individual and not as a representative of any organization or movement.)