Jeremy Corbyn might have been re-elected as Labour leader, but he’ll still need a big movement behind him if we’re to bring about change.
The People’s Assembly has had an incredible year. Since June 20 2015 when a quarter of a million people attended our End Austerity Now demonstration, we have consistently held the largest mass demonstrations against austerity in Britain. We have mobilised hundreds of thousands over many other issues, from the NHS to the refugee crisis and much more. The word austerity is now firmly in the national consciousness. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have explicitly stated that the Labour Party is now an “anti-austerity party.” The Tories have softened their rhetoric since Theresa May became Prime Minister, if not their practice, and all the other mainstream political parties have at one time or another challenged the austerity hegemony. However, for a variety of reasons there seem to be some questions about the role of the People’s Assembly is in the current (Corbyn, post-Cameron) political climate. Some have asked: “Where is the People’s Assembly going now that austerity is no longer the official Tory line,” or “So now Jeremy is the leader of the Labour Party, do we still need a People’s Assembly?”. All this amounts to something of an existential crisis. This is caused in no small part by our own success. Austerity chancellor George Osborne is gone, and if you were to take at face value May’s speech on the steps of Downing Street where she proposed a Britain “not just for the privileged few,” you might believe that we have seen the end of austerity. It is also a crisis caused by the magnetic pull of the Labour leadership campaign, and the broader civil war within the Labour Party, of which this leadership contest is just the most recent battle. Should we not all down tools and wade into this conflict, bunker down in the CLP trenches and allow the People’s Assembly to wither away? In short, is the People’s Assembly redundant?
Well, the answer is categorically not. And here’s why.
For one, the Tories are not abandoning austerity. They may be rebranding and even softening their rhetoric around austerity, which we should be hailing as victory, but they will continue to do all the things we oppose — decimate public services, privatise the NHS and continue their ideological smash-and-grab policy of seizing wealth and concentrating it at the top.
Second, we have to make the case as to why broader social movements are still absolutely vital. The People’s Assembly is non-party political, and our relationship with the left of the Labour Party but also the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and a whole range of other left parties, including the Communist Party and others, are a very important part of our campaigning toolkit. It is clearly the case that maintaining and supporting Corbyn is vital for each and every one of us on the left at the moment. However, while it is obviously positive that so many people are joining the Labour Party and hopefully changing the party for the better, that is a huge process and there is no clear end in sight. The PLP rebels are not going to disappear and mass deselection is unlikely, however appealing it might seem. Even though Corbyn has won this election, what is less certain is what sort of win he will secure. Before too long the PLP could come at him again. Therefore internal Labour Party politics is going to continue to be a major energy drain on the movement as a whole unless organisations like the People’s Assembly are maintained. This really matters because the opposition the Labour left is able to mount is drastically limited in particular by this recent leadership election and in general by the manoeuvring of the right of the party. The People’s Assembly, however, can continue its opposition to the Tories and by doing so embolden and encourage Corbyn and the leadership at the same time.
Corbyn is not able to fix society on his own. He is an honest man of principle and his policies offer a real alternative to the vicious politics of greed of the Tories and the Labour right. He’s also a very nice man. However, if and when Corbyn runs for prime minister, the tidal wave of fury that would be unleashed by the Establishment would be a tsunami compared to the gentle splashing which he is subject to at the moment. We must remember that for left-wing ideas to survive such an onslaught, we need independent social and protest movements that can shape the debate in the most radical direction and offer support to Corbyn and his allies from outside Parliament. Of course there may be a split in the Labour Party before a general election happens. While that could be positive in the longer term, it could likely be disastrous electorally speaking in the shorter term. Another reason why, we should not put all our eggs in the parliamentary political party basket.
Corbyn comes from the movement. He was the chair of the Stop the War Coalition. He is one of the founding signatories of the People’s Assembly, he announced his leadership challenge from the stage of our demo on June 20 2015, his first act as elected Labour leader was to speak at the huge Refugees Welcome demo. This is where he comes from. And it isn’t wrongheaded or arrogant to say the People’s Assembly has played a huge part in creating the landscape in which he has done so well. It is madness to think that a movement that is capable of giving such a leg up to someone like Corbyn is no longer needed. This is not just about him but the ideas that he represents. There must be many more like Jeremy Corbyn before we are able to change the world and they are only going to come from the movement.
Protest movements work. We are told all the time that they don’t. But they do. They may not do so in isolation, nor do the leaders of even the most liberal Western democracy wake up the next morning, read the papers full of accurate coverage of our demonstrations and have an instant change of heart. We would be naive if we thought that is the case. But protest movements over time exert incredible pressure on governments and have a huge impact on the political landscape of society.
Chartism, Suffragism, US civil rights, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the mass mobilisations of Stop the War, are examples of how mass movements have shaped history. You could argue that more than your average career politician or civil servant, it is movement people like you and me who really change the world.
In conclusion, we have to have a radical, independent, non-party political protest movement that is not going to have its energy sapped by a civil war in the Labour Party, one that is dynamic and principled and able to call out the Tories on the lies and hypocrisy of their so-called austerity slowdown. We need to be on the pickets with the junior doctors in October, support the firefighters under attack in Manchester and elsewhere and we need to be on the streets in Birmingham mounting opposition to the Tories in ways which no-one else can.
See you on the streets.
Tom Griffiths (People's Assembly Organiser)