The People's Assembly- Building an Alternative
by Thabo Miller
Mon 31st Mar 2014
The People’s Assembly has the potential to become the successor to the popular fronts of the 1930s in uniting the broad left. However, being a broad alliance of people with different experience and backgrounds, there are challenges to existing methods of organisation. In this article I will discuss the differences, and offer some potential solutions.
The People’s Assembly against Austerity is the fastest growing political movement in modern Britain (1); since the launch rally in June 2013, approximately 80 local and regional groups have been created all over the country. The right initially sneered at the idea of the People’s Assembly, claiming it was “just the same old people, handing out the same old leaflets for the same old causes” (2). However, they have been proven wrong, by an influx of people who previously would describe themselves as “not doing politics”; they have become concerned about the way in which the austerity agenda is impacting on society, and have seen those at the top becoming richer while the rest of us struggle. It is excellent that the People’s Assembly is attracting new people to the broad left as, if we could win socialism with the existing comrades alone, it would have happened by now. However, it does present new challenges regarding how we organise and conduct our business.
The spectrum of people within the movement is best understood by considering the ends of the spectrum as two broad groups. The first group consists of the “new recruits”, those people who have either no experience of political work, or some limited experience of single issue campaigns. These are the people who are becoming involved in the People’s Assembly because they either have direct experience of the cuts biting or, having seen the impact on those around them, wish to do something about it. The second group can be categorised as the “established left”. These are the comrades who have been part of every struggle since they were in pushchairs; have long experience of union and/or party activism; and who are relatively comfortable with concepts of “economic democracy”, “crisis of capitalism” and “vanguard party”.
An issue arises because the national, regional and local leading comrades within the People’s Assembly, almost by definition, are drawn from the established left. This is not a problem, in fact it is the way that it must be, as the established left are the ones who have the knowledge and experience required to organise and tackle austerity effectively. A leadership made of the new recruits would be doomed to constantly reinvent the wheel and repeat the same mistakes over and over. However, the established left are used to working within organisations made up of other members of the established left, and so approach meetings and organisation in the same way they always have done, which risks alienating and intimidating new recruits. We are taking a risk when those who come along because they want to do something about the fact they can’t afford to feed their children, are confronted by large meetings with analysis of the struggle between capital and labour, raising points of order and being expected to speak out in front of a group of strangers.
In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a Marxist analysis of intellectual development was formed. One of the components of this was the Zone of Proximal Development (3). This is something we must consider when considering how best to build the People’s Assembly
The fundamentals of the Zone of Proximal Development hypothesis are that all people have different levels of knowledge or ability in any given area. It then states that you can only learn things that are slightly beyond what you already know and that jumping from being a novice to learning about latest developments in the subject does not work. Education of an individual or group must therefore progress in small steps, gradually turning novices into experts.
I am not for one moment arguing that knowledge and skills pass solely from leading comrades to the masses. However, it would be foolish to imagine that there is not a large degree of indirect teaching and directing from relative experts to relative novices within the broad left. Therefore, it is useful to bear in mind the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development when considering how we organise as, based on this theory, plunging new recruits straight into an environment unconsciously targeted at established comrades is inappropriate and alienating.
I am not arguing that we should abandon the old ways of organising, as they are the established ways of organising precisely because they have stood the test of time. However, it would be wrong to unthinkingly assume that they are always the right approach. The question is, therefore, how do we organise in a way that welcomes in new recruits?
Last September, there was a regional launch event for the People’s Assembly in the North East of England. This was the biggest political event in Newcastle for a generation and took the form of an opening plenary, followed by two sessions of single issue workshops and a closing rally. One of the comrades involved was a former drama teacher, Joan Hewitt. Joan had recently become involved in the People’s Assembly after meeting comrades involved in the campaign to save the Turkish baths in Newcastle. Previously Joan had been an armchair member of the Labour party, and had a few local positions in campaigns such as CND. Therefore, although not a complete newcomer to politics, she is not somebody who has a long history of class based activism.
The workshop that Joan organised was titled “The Hardest Hit”, and consisted of people who had been affected by austerity coming, talking in small groups about their personal stories, reporting back to the main group the stories they had been told by other participants and then writing key words on a flip chart. As I have admitted to her since, my own gut reaction was to dispute the usefulness of this approach. “It’s just sitting around talking”, I thought “Where is the class analysis and “joining the dots” between struggles?”, “Where are the action points?”, “Where is the concluding statement?”. However, several of the comrades who attended this workshop have remained involved with the People’s Assembly, and are developing a class based analysis. Hearing everyone’s stories provided a vital step in giving new comrades a safe space to discover that they were not alone in their experiences and that their own problems did mean something. This process of talking in small groups, and then reporting back to the main meeting is a powerful tool widely used in education to develop confidence in speaking to large audiences (4), and one we would do well to adopt.
It is worth noting that it was Joan, as somebody new to class based politics, who proposed this workshop. Although it is not as widely practiced as it should be, it is known that people learn best from those only one or two stages ahead of them in a particular area of knowledge or skill. This is because they know what the learner needs to know to reach the next stage, where as an expert may forget all the steps they went through to reach their current position. This could be applied to many groups on the Left, not only the People’s Assembly, by encouraging the buddying and mentoring of brand new recruits with those who have been involved for a few months. The latter could also be supported by those who have been involved for a few years, and so on up to the National Chair and General Secretary preparing other members of the executive who may eventually take over the top roles.
Fundamentally, we need to recognise that the established left will always support things like the People’s Assembly, because they know that it is important. We should make more effort to consider how we structure meetings to be welcoming to those new recruits and maximise cadre development, to allow them to access the tried and tested methods of organising we have used before.
1. Greenshields B. We're not just here to resist. The People's Assembly can win. The Morning Star. 2014 15/03/2014.
2. Hodges D. blogs.telegraph.co.uk2013.
3. Vygotsky LS. Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes p 86: Harvard University Press; 1980.
4. Crosby J. Learning in small groups: An extended summary of AMEE Medical Education Guide No 8. Medical Teacher. 1996;18(3):189 - 202.