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Merseyside People's Assembly - A lost opportunity
Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool 47 and TUSC Liverpool mayoral candidate in 2012
The scene at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool. An anti-austerity attendance of 800-plus. An atmosphere of expectation for a fighting programme of action to defeat the Con-Dems.
The adoption of a socialist alternative to the policies of the three main parties who all agree on maintaining austerity?
The reality was that the event failed to rise to the occasion. A line-up of speakers attacked the Con-Dems without, with one or two muted exceptions, taking up the position of the TUC leadership or the Labour Party.
It was astonishing that neither the speaker from Unite the Union, Steve Turner, nor left Labour commentator Owen Jones, made any reference to the events in Falkirk or to the attacks which Miliband made on Unite. 'Malpractice, bad practice or even corrupt practice' were the scandalous words used by Miliband to attack Unite, and this was not deemed worthy of comment by these speakers.
They shuffled off any responsibility of the trade union leadership to organise industrial action to stop the Con-Dems and instead called for civil disobedience and community action to stop austerity. Civil disobedience and community action is to be welcomed and developed, but must be viewed as an important auxiliary to the potential power of the organised working class taking industrial action.
The bulletin of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has reported on important trade union victories for Unite, the RMT, the PCS, and locally the binmen in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago, demonstrating that workers, responding to firm leadership, can stop the attacks from employers in their tracks. But these facts were completely lost on the majority of speakers.
Mark Steel gave a humorous speech ironically articulating the brazen policy of the Con-Dems who are making the poor pay for the crisis caused by the rich.
His criticism of Labour was muted, and even suggested that Labour could be 'changed'. He referred to two events for which he admired Liverpool's history of struggle: the dockers' struggle and the Hillsborough 96; for him the struggle of the 47 councillors is a closed book.
At 8.30 there was an exodus of speakers who had trains to catch to return to London.
Disabled People Against Cuts comedian Laurence Clark gave a humorous performance in which he graphically portrayed the plight of the disabled under the Con-Dems.
In a speech markedly different to the others Martin Kelsey, PCS regional chair, told the meeting of the struggles of the PCS and praised the action of the 47 who had taken on the Tories and won.
He urged people to attend the 47 exhibition which is on display at Unite HQ in Liverpool. He also attacked Mayor Anderson for his programme of cuts and congratulated, to applause, the decision of the GMB to slash its Labour Party funding.
The absence of a programme of action resulted in the initial enthusiasm draining out of the assembly.
In the dying minutes of the event rebel Warrington councillor Kevin Bennett reported on events which culminated in his suspension by Labour and declared his determination to continue to oppose and campaign against cuts. This was greeted with loud applause from a by then diminished audience.
Trades Council secretary Mark Hoskins, at the fag end of the meeting called for support for a 24-hour general strike, this was greeted with applause from the remaining rump of the meeting.
This event was a lost opportunity to raise the whole issue of an alternative programme to austerity, and to mobilise support to pressurise the TUC to enact the policy agreed at its last congress, and to link that to the need for a political challenge to the three capitalist parties.
No speaker from TUSC or the Socialist Party was called on, so any concrete proposal for action was absent.
The theme from keynote speakers was 'unity', which translated into a subliminal 'don't attack Labour or Labour councillors'. Nye Bevan famously described this as the 'unity of the graveyard'.
It remains to be seen whether the People's Assembly will develop into another weapon in the armoury of the working class.
TUSC and the Socialist Party have indicated their willingness to work with the People's Assembly in the interests of unifying all anti-austerity forces.
What is certain if this meeting represents the outlook of the leadership of the PA, it is unlikely to act as a rallying point for those sections of the working class who are moving into action, or those millions who will make their mark in the next stage of the struggle.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 6 September 2013 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.