Andreas Bieler: Why we need local People's Assemblies

The public sector in the UK is under attack across the board. Tuition fees and marketisation in Higher Education, the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance in Further Education, moves towards privatising parts of the NHS, the transformation of schools into academies, cuts in disability benefits, the list could go on. Since 1 April this year, a second round of draconian cuts have been implemented damaging especially the weakest members of society (for an overview, see BBC News, 15 April 2013). And yet, resistance is fragmented and weak. A coherent, united movement against austerity has not emerged in the UK. On 18 May 2013, a People’s Assembly Against Austerity will be held in Nottingham. In this post, I will discuss the importance of local People’s Assemblies for the revival of resistance to austerity in the UK. In particular, I will highlight four reasons: (1) the collapse of resistance at the national level; (2) the importance of a broad space to bring together the diverse groups and people opposed to austerity; (3) the fact that the impact of cuts is felt at the local level; and (4) the need to unite various existing local movements of resistance.

The public sector wide strike on 30 November 2011 was a major success. Thirty trade unions had co-ordinated strike action and brought the country to a standstill. Nevertheless, it was not followed up with further joint activities (see also November 30 – what next?). Shortly afterwards, some unions negotiated separate deals with the government, others continued to strike, others hesitated over which line to take. The 30 November turned out to be a one-off event without consequences. TUC members have demanded for some time a call for a general strike, but this has not been acted upon by trade union leaders. In a way, it is almost as if trade unions at the national level have given up the struggle against austerity. They certainly do not provide the kind of leadership, which would be necessary for a successful campaign. Instead, the hope and focus now seems to be on the return of Labour to power in 2015 and this, although many of the current cuts and changes have been initiated by previous Labour governments (see also October 20 – British trade unions and the struggle against austerity). It is in this situation, that local and regional People’s Assemblies are of high importance to ensure a revival of resistance and overcome the lethargy at the national level.
Second, opposition to austerity is highly fragmented. Often it is only disagreement with the current government, which brings various groups together. At the same time, there are regular tensions over whether to accept Labour Party members within the broader resistance movement. After all, have previous New Labour governments not laid the ground for many initiatives of restructuring, implemented now by the coalition government? While there may be some truth in such sentiments, it would be foolish at the same time to reject any forces willing to oppose austerity. People’s Assemblies can provide the space where different movements, different people can come together and despite the tensions between them over the Labour Party’s record in government work together in resisting the attack on the welfare state.
Moreover, it is the local level, where cuts are felt. The closure of a hospital or a public library, the transformation of local schools into academies, the restructuring of GP surgeries, these are all changes affecting people directly in their day to day lives. Unsurprisingly, it is also the local level, where people are most likely prepared to become involved in activities of resistance. People’s Assemblies can provide the vehicle to energise these people.
Finally, local and regional People’s Assemblies can provide the forum for the co-ordination of the already existing movements against austerity. Importantly, local initiatives to defend the NHS, against the introduction of academies or against cuts to disability allowances already exist in many parts of the country. Frequently, however, they are single issue initiatives. This plays into the hands of government, which attacks one individual sector after the other. Local People’s Assemblies can provide the space for these individual initiatives to compare their analyses and to prepare joint activities. After all, austerity, restructuring and privatization are behind the attacks on all the various areas of the public sector, and while individual government policies may differ significantly, the underlying rationale is the same. Ever larger parts of the public sector are restructured and opened up to private capital. Local People’s Assemblies provide the opportunity to bring these individual initiatives together into one more coherent voice of opposition, able to contest austerity successfully.
Of course, local People’s Assemblies in themselves will not solve the problem. National co-ordination is required to fight back at the level of government. Local People’s Assemblies can, however, provide the necessary pressure on national trade union leaders and other movements to spring into action and provide the leadership against austerity this country and its people deserve. 

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