The Peoples Assembly - Flexing Our Muscles
by Thabo Miller
Wed 9th Apr 2014
The People’s Assembly was established to fight the austerity programme being implemented by the Con Dem coalition (1). This article will look at the reasons why an electoral strategy should be an important part of this, consider the potential problems this would present and examine potential solutions.
Most supporters of the People’s Assembly, whether “established left” (2) or “new recruits” (2), realise that “doing politics” actually involves marching, lobbying, campaigning etc. They know that voting in elections every four or five years is only a minor part of their role. However, the majority of the general public feel that voting IS politics, as evidenced by the Electoral Commission’s advertising campaign in 2012 (3). Therefore, if we ignore local, national and European elections, we miss a prime opportunity to engage the general public when they are in a frame of mind ready to discuss “politics”. For that reason, it is important that the People’s Assembly does pay attention to elections and seizes such opportunities to get the message across.
We could interact with elections in a negative way, crying “a pox on both their houses”. However, we should be fighting for the politics of hope, rather than that of despair, and should engage in a way where we argue FOR policies, rather than AGAINST them. By that logic, we should put across our perspective and say “Vote for X”, rather than “Vote against X”
However, this raises the question of whom should we support and forces us to confront the elephant in the room: The Labour Party and its leadership.
The People’s Assembly is a broad, yet still new and fragile, coalition with supporters drawn from a range of parties and the unaligned. I have heard some argue that the People’s Assembly should found “The New Left Party”, supplant Labour as the party of the working class and condemn every Labour party member as a bourgeoisie war criminal with the blood of Iraqi and Yugoslav children on their hands.
I have heard others argue that the only hope to end austerity is to fight for a Labour government, tolerate no criticism of any Labour party member and assert that an Ed Milliband government will wave a magic wand and give us socialism. Both positions are ridiculous, and would split the still fragile People’s Assembly if either was adopted as policy. Therefore, at the risk of sounding like a Blairite, “we need a middle way”.
What I propose is that the People’s Assembly does have an electoral strategy, on the basis of individuals not parties. If there is a candidate who has been a friend to the victims of austerity and will commit themselves to an anti – austerity platform then we, as the People’s Assembly, should be supporting them.
For example, I would expect that the People’s Assembly in Hayes and Hartlington would decide to support John McDonnell, the Labour candidate. Equally, in Islington North, supporters of the People’s Assembly should be backing Jeremy Corbyn. However, in places like Rochdale or Dulwich and West Norwood, it would be difficult to defend your position, as a supporter of the People’s Assembly, if you supported the election of people like Simon Danczuk or Tessa Jowell, either by actively campaigning for them or failing to condemn them as right wing Blairites. In these areas we should be highlighting and criticising Labour candidates who support austerity, and throwing our support behind other candidates who will act in our interests.
This may be a candidate from another party, or an independent who commits to an anti – austerity programme. However, there may not be an existing candidate who would reliably push an anti – austerity line. In this situation opponents of austerity, including the People’s Assembly locally, should consider encouraging one of their own members to stand as an independent; allowing the local People’s Assembly to engage in the electoral process. This is not to say they should be “The People’s Assembly candidate” or that they must follow a single People’s Assembly party line, as I am arguing against the People’s Assembly forming a party. Instead, they should act as their own conscience guides them, whether they are unaligned or committed to a another party of the left.
Although this strategy is meant as a middle way between founding a new party and becoming the extra – parliamentary arm of the Labour Party, it is possible that there are those who will still find it unpalatable to actively campaign against a Labour Party candidate. Indeed, when I discussed this idea with comrades in my local area, the issue was raised that, if we adopted this idea, there are some people who would suddenly disappear from the local group. This is a shame, as it is never good to lose supporters. However, at some point everyone must make a choice; is their primary loyalty to their class, or to their party. I believe this time is rapidly approaching.
The loss of members would hopefully be reduced if decisions are made locally on whom to support and how to engage with elections, and not dictated from on high. Therefore, although I have argued strongly that I feel we should recommend candidates wherever we can, it may also be that the local conditions are not right to support a candidate; if the bonds between comrades are not yet strong enough to tolerate such a controversial issue. However, it is still possible to participate in the electoral process without directly endorsing a candidate. One Teesside comrade who I discussed this idea with is making plans for the local PA to host hustings; putting all the candidates on the spot and making them defend their position on austerity. Others have said that they feel the best tactic in their area is to promote increased voter registration and facilitate a high turn out among demographics who are likely to support an anti – austerity message. Local groups should be driving this process based on conditions on the ground. However, they should still answer in part to the People’s Assembly nationally by feeding back the local decisions on whom to support, or why they could not reach a decision. They should also share best practice of how they are engaging in the electoral process.
Throughout this article I have referred to the “candidate whom to support”, as a singular thing. I feel this is important. For far too long ballot papers have had a CPB candidate, a CPGB candidate, a Socialist Party candidate, a SWP Candidate, a Judean People’s Front candidate and a People’s Front of Judea candidate, all running against each other. This is foolish. Although there may be fundamental disagreements on what our future society should look like, we are not yet building that world. At this stage of the class struggle our short term aims should be to oppose austerity and so it is ridiculous to have 5 or 6 anti – austerity candidates running against each other; splitting the vote, duplicating the work load and promoting the idea that the Left is sectarian and divided. Therefore, in areas where it is possible to directly endorse a candidate, we should be endorsing just one candidate, and encouraging other anti – austerity organisations and parties that we might be members of to not run candidates in opposition.
Many may say it is naive to think that we can influence the electoral process by simply endorsing or condemning candidates, and we need to put up our own candidates wherever we can. However, abhorrent as it may sound, we can learn from observing the Right across the pond. In the USA, the gun lobby (4) and the Christian Right (5) do not put up their own candidates but very clearly mobilise their supporters to endorse or oppose various candidates, and so modify the behaviour of those candidates. Although they have the advantage of many more members, and much more financial clout, than the People's Assembly; adopting a similar approach allows us to attempt to flex our muscles in the electoral arena.
5. Democrats & Republicans In their Own Words: National Party Platforms on Specific Bible Issues. Justice at the Gate; 2000