People’s Assembly: a review

A marquee with a mostly seated audience facing the camera. Susan Archibald, a white woman wearing a black jumper and trousers in an electric mobility scooter, is speaking.Yesterday the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, which has been holding “rallies” (I’d call them meetings, rather than rallies which I always thought were held in the street or at least in the open) around the country, including one in Brighton which I went to on 30th May, featuring Owen Jones, Mark Steel and local MP Caroline Lucas (there was a London one the same day, but it was in a pub and the ‘star’ speakers were Ken Livingstone and Lindsey German), held its big event at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. The Brighton one was somewhat disappointing as, taking place two weeks after Woolwich, the speakers (and workshop sessions) focussed entirely on economic matters and barely acknowledged (it was mentioned about three times) that the EDL were on the march again and racism and, particularly, Islamophobia were a major issue again. This time, though, there were sessions on the anti-war movement and combating the far right, of which I attended the latter (they were on at the same time). I’ve published a set of pictures of the parts of the event I attended on Flickr.

Less impressive was the lack of thought given to accommodating disabled attendees. The accessibility issue raised its head when someone mentioned on Twitter that there was no indication as to whether the venue for the North London event on 30th May was accessible. I called them and was told that everything was “on a level” and that there was a disabled toilet, which I reported back to the person who asked. This time, the building is old and makes some attempt at accessibility, but the wheelchair entrance was through a side door which leads to a tight turn in an area which was being used to sell food; there are two lifts, but they’re small and so it would take some time for all the people in wheelchairs to get from the Great Hall (on the third floor) to the ground floor. Worse, the welfare meeting was the one that many of the disabled people attended, and it was in a marquee in a cobbled street outside. Obviously, they did not anticipate that the 21st June would be cold and rainy, but getting from the stage end of the marquee to the hall entrance was difficult because of obstructions. The session featured speakers from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the PCS union and the War on Welfare (WOW) Petition, as well as a number of audience speakers, mostly from the disability contingent including Susan Archibald, a well-known campaigner from Scotland, and a number of members of DPAC.

Mohammed Kozber of the British Muslim Initiative and Finsbury Park mosqueThe highlight of the day for me was the midday session titled “Immigration is not to blame — countering racism, Islamophobia and the Far Right”, which featured Diane Abbott, Mohammed Kozber from the British Muslim Initiative and Guy Taylor from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. The last made the observation that immigration laws are finally affecting white middle-class people as they are finding that they cannot bring spouses from outside the EU unless they earn £18K a year, making it obvious that immigration control is about class — the country is willing to accept rich foreigners, but not others. Diane Abbott observed that the most hostile to recent immigrants are often the second most recent immigrants, and attacked the myths that immigrants claim welfare and contribute nothing by saying that immigrants work, pay taxes and have contributed a fair number of doctors and nurses to the NHS over the years. Mohammed Kozber talked about the difficulties Muslims, in particular women, had been facing since the Woolwich murder, with many of them afraid to go out, and the wave of attacks on mosques (he did not mention the crucial fact that many of those buildings had no extremist links).

A number of the audience speakers talked of their efforts and successes in combating the EDL, in particular Jo Cardwell who had helped organise against the EDL in Waltham Forest, east London. Gerry Gable, the former editor of Searchlight, reaffirmed his commitment to the “no platform” policy (perhaps in the light of some anti-fascists’ claims that it is outdated) and paid tribute to Duncan Robertson, who had been active in the Far Right for years while passing intelligence to Searchlight. I found that too much emphasis was placed on economics as the cause of racism: plenty of my friends are facing benefit cuts and are unable to work, but don’t resort to racism; the false grievances cultivated by the Press (as well as the pre-existing football hooligan networks, in the EDL’s case) are, in my view, a more significant cause. (To be fair, someone did warn against letting white working-class people off the hook for racism; I can’t quite remember who.) Someone made the same claim during the Welfare session, and I tweeted in response:

I missed most of the opening session, which featured speeches from the celebrities (Owen Jones, Mark Steel), but I did catch Steel’s speech and it was pretty much the same patter he had delivered in Brighton, about how the government have identified the poor as the best source of money to pay for the crisis caused by the rich bankers (you can see it here and, for comparison, the Brighton version can be found here). I spoke to one of my friends later, and she told me that both he and Owen Jones had delivered the same speech dozens of times at events up and down the country. The final “plenary session” is meant to have reports back from the various “parallel” sessions, but in fact there were none: it was just closing speeches from the major organisations that sponsored the conference (such as trade unions), including Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Len McCluskey of Unite, as well as “celebrity” speakers like Francesca Martinez and Tony Benn. I got the feeling that the main sessions were meant as rousing entertainment rather than discussion; some positive points were made in the parallel sessions, but they were not “workshops” but simply fringe meetings, as the points made by the audience members were never responded to. You can read an interview with Owen Jones in Red Pepper magazine, in which he says “we can’t just have an event modelled on platform speakers lecturing you” — but that’s more or less what yesterday’s event was. There was a session on building local People’s Assemblies, and perhaps they will have a bit more discussion. There wasn’t much of that here.

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