4,000 Delegates Attend People’s Assembly Against Austerity in London
The huge anger at the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government attacks on the right to housing, welfare benefits, the NHS (National Health Service) and education, led to one of the largest meetings against the imposition of the cuts held in Britain in recent years on June 22. The Methodist Central Hall situated just 100 yards from Parliament Square was packed with 4,000 delegates, many who had travelled by coach for several hours from other regions, and workshops of several hundred people on issues such as preventing evictions under the Tory “Bedroom Tax,” which had to be declared full on safety grounds.
The anger at the severity of attacks had led to a swelling of support in weeks leading to the Assembly—with local Assemblies in other cities attracting large crowds including over 500 in Nottingham and 700 in Sheffield.
The Assembly was a new initiative supported by some key trade unions such as UNITE (Britain’s biggest union with two million members in every type of workplace,) PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union,) NUT (National Union of Teachers,) RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) and others and with nearly all the various socialist groups represented.
The size of the conference inevitably inhibited detailed discussion but it was notable that the TUC (Trades Union Congress) General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, felt it necessary to attend and make a keynote speech. Strong on the rhetoric of solidarity and weak on action proposals, O’Grady set the tone for many of the trade union leaders who followed. There were exceptions and in the packed Defend the NHS workshop, Gill George, leading for UNITE, called for a general strike to defend the NHS from Tory measures to privatize the service and close health provisions. George received overwhelming applause but no follow up debate was possible.
The Assembly adopted, without any debate being allowed, a broad declaration of support for existing defensive strikes and mobilization for more demonstrations. Whilst welcome, the declaration specifically excluded any demands for the TUC to organize a general strike or for co-ordination of strike action against the government attacks. Given that Labor Party leader, Ed Miliband, had declared two days before the Assembly that any future Labor government elected in 2015 would stick to Tory austerity budgets, there was notable silence from the top table on this betrayal of working people being proposed.
On a more positive note more regional People’s Assemblies are being coordinated and will enable many areas where resistance to austerity has been weaker, to combine activity within a unified framework. Several speakers drew attention to the renaming of hated Tory chancellor, George Osborne, as Jeffrey Osborne, by Barack Obama at the recent G8 in the north of Ireland.
The People’s Assembly needs to step up direct action and unified strike action to really hurt Osborne and to demand that the TUC build a general strike to force the government out.
Graham Durham is UNITE and London Labor Representation Committee Organizer
—Via E-mail, June 23, 2013