AWL on left unity and the ‘People’s Assembly’

March 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm (AWL, capitalist crisis, Cuts, John Rees, Respect, socialism, solidarity, SWP, unions, welfare, workers)

From the AWL website and Solidarity newspaper:

peoples assembly fb pic

Left Unity

Unity must be linked to real action

The crises and splits in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Respect have spurred more talk about left unity. The left needs systematic unity in action where we agree, and honest dialogue where we differ, in order to reinstate socialist ideas as an option in the working class.

On 26 March the Coalition of Resistance (within which the key force is the SWP splinter Counterfire) held a press conference to promote a “People’s Assembly Against Austerity” for 22 June (previously announced in a letter to the Guardian on 5 February). Workers’ Liberty supports all such gatherings; but, worryingly, the press release described the event as a “rally” rather than a conference.

There is a back-story. In late 2010 and early 2011, as anti-cuts campaigns flourished in the first angry response to the Tory/ Lib-Dem government, a number of left groups called conferences to try to make themselves the hub of the anti-cuts movement. The SWP called one (Right to Work, since morphed into Unite the Resistance), and the SP called one (National Shop Stewards’ Network). Counterfire’s effort, the Coalition of Resistance, was the biggest.

More than 1,000 people attended the Coalition of Resistance conference on 27 November 2010. Listening to many platform speeches from celebrities calling for militancy against the cuts, including from Unite leader Len McCluskey (who also backs the June event), some of those thousand must have felt they were in on the start of a real new movement.

But not much came of it. CoR has run an informative website, and some useful stunts; but for local anti-cuts committees usually the best contribution that CoR has been able to make is to refrain from organising CoR local groups as rivals to the main committees (and CoR has not always refrained).

The CoR conference was dominated by top-table speakers, 20-odd of them in the opening and closing plenaries. Little came of most workshops. At the workshop billed as dealing with political representation, speakers were a Green Party councillor; Liz Davies, who declared herself a critical supporter of the Green Party; Billy Bragg, whose speech was a straight plea to vote yes in the May 2011 referendum on AV; and Guardian contributor Laurie Penny. It was chaired by a Green Party member and allowed little debate.

The conference applauded a call from the platform for a week of action from 14 February 2011, but there was little action that week. CoR faded.

There is also a back-story to the “People’s Assembly” trope with which Counterfire hopes to revive CoR. They did it first on 12 March 2007, as a People’s Assembly Against War, when the people who now run Counterfire were in the leadership of the SWP. That event drew a good crowd, too — 1,000 or more — but its contribution to unity in action or to serious dialogue on differences was smaller than the attendance. There were almost 40 celebrities speaking from the top table.

On 25 March, film-maker Ken Loach and writer Gilbert Achcar co-signed a letter to the Guardian promoting the “Left Unity” initiative started in December 2012 by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson after they had quit George Galloway’s Respect movement. The initiative’s website claims that 3000 people have signed up on the web to back Ken Loach on this. No conference has been announced, but the website reports on local groups.

If those local groups can act as left forums, bringing the left together in joint action where we agree and honest debate where we disagree, then they will make a contribution.

Again, there is a back-story. Burgin had previously been active in Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party as well as Respect; Hudson, in the Communist Party of Britain before she joined Respect. Loach was close to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, and then in Respect.

There have been quite a few other unity initiatives in recent years. A weary shrug (“not another one!”) would be wrong; but so would the idea that we need not think about and learn from why they didn’t work.

In 2009, both AWL and SWP made proposals for left unity (only, it turned out that the SWP’s idea of left unity didn’t include talking with AWL…) The Convention of the Left, launched in September 2008 by John Nicholson (previously Labour deputy leader of Manchester City Council, and then in the Socialist Alliance) won wider endorsement than any of the current efforts — Morning Star, Red Pepper, LRC, Respect, Labour Briefing and Socialist Worker, as well as Workers’ Liberty. It agreed to set up local left forums. Trouble is, the forums never really got going, and the “convention” turned into a series of conferences, of diminishing vitality.

The Left Unity Liaison Committee, set up by activists from the Socialist Alliance, brought together different groups to discuss, but also petered out (in the end, AWL was the only one of the activist groups attending regularly). According to the Socialist Party, their electoral vehicle, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, is the best hope for left unity. AWL was able to get a loose alliance with the SP and the Alliance for Green Socialism — the Socialist Green Unity Coalition —up to 2008-9, but the SP and AGS then pulled out in favour of No2EU and what became TUSC.

The Anti-Capitalist Initiative, in which the main force is splinters from the Workers’ Power group, also promotes itself as the way to left unity.

None of these, not even CoR which was perhaps the best effort, has had enough substance of agreed united action or of real open debate.

Paradoxically, it often happens that the smaller and more splintered the group which proposes itself as the hub for left unity, the better the initial response it gets. But it’s not necessarily easy sailing from there on!

If an activist group with a known record of political activity makes a call for unity, then people judge it partly according to their opinion of that record. If a splinter of a split of a splinter (just two people initially, as with Burgin and Hudson, or a few dozen, as with Counterfire) makes an appeal, and puts it in the vaguest terms — Burgin and Hudson suggest no more political definition than “rejects austerity and war, advocates a greater democratisation of our society and institutions, and poses a new way of organising everyday life” — then everyone can read into it what they want.

Everyone who wants to build a socialist organisation, but is unsure about how to do it, and so holds back from joining any of the existing groups, can believe they have found a short cut. Just a click on a website, or a “like” on Facebook, and they’re already part of the big movement they want!

Burgin and Hudson cite Syriza in Greece and Die Linke in Germany as their models. But neither of those dropped from the sky in response to a few activists writing a letter to the Guardian, or doing a press conference. Syriza builds on a long political tradition — that of the Greek Communist Party, since the 1920s the main force in the Greek workers’ movement – and on sharp political battles which separated Syriza’s core both from the old Stalinists and from the soft reformists now in Greece’s Democratic Left. Die Linke rests on having been able to take over a chunk of what was the old ruling party in East Germany.

Also, neither of them is adequate. If Syriza did not have organised left groupings like DEA and Kokkino battling within it against its mainstream leadership, then there would be no hope for it doing anything other than collapsing into reformist adaptation. Die Linke is more Keynesian than socialist, and has supported cuts where it is in provincial coalition governments.

Unity is good. But talk about unity will be just a way of floating yet another left splinter unless it is translated into specific unity in action and specific dialogue about differences.

To the credit of Burgin and Hudson, they have posted on their website a thoughtful contribution from SWPer (or ex-SWPer?) Keith Flett. “However, and however frustrating some may find it, there is no way of by-passing the weight of Labour and perhaps in particular Labour activists in the unions and localities in all this…. The electoral support of Labour and its impact can’t be ignored.

“It may be argued that membership is hardly what it was in the 1950s but that is true of all political parties. It may also be argued that the hold of Labour’s approach to political change is less, but it is an argument not an historical fact.

“Even if we accept time scales change with context, historically it has taken time to build left parties.

Not just time, but effort, argument, education. And politics! Talk of unity is good, but only if it leads to specific united action and specific dialogue. Not if it becomes only a way to float yet another left splinter making its claim as being the one which is really for unity…

AWL will work with the Left Unity forums, and the People’s Assembly, on that basis.

Burgin/Hudson initiative

People’s Assembly

AWL leaflet to first Coalition of Resistance conference

Coatsey’s rather more enthusiastic view of the Assembly Against Austerity


  1. Andrew Coates said,

    Good, I knew Burgin is ex-WRP but his speech at the recent SERTUC Conference on austerity was open-minded. His main wish seemed to be that we concentrate on the People’s Assembly, something which most of the left seems to accept,.

    I agree with the above AWL conclusions.

    This is very important,though reservations about the public role given to John Rees remain

  2. Jim Denham said,

    Some interesting stuff here, especially concerning Rees and the people who went on to form Counterfart. But some of it reads to me like rather petty self-justification and bleating about how unappreciated she was, etc. What do people think?

    • Fillip said,

      `rather petty self-justification…what to people think?’

      I think you are an arse. Madam Miaow was treated appalingly by the SWP and John Rees in particular.

  3. Modernity's Ghost said,

    Lets hope that the SWPs role is lessened too.

    They were very rough against feminists and other yesterday in Scotland, a clip which doesnt capture the full extent of things

    People took exception to Dave Sherrys role in clearing Comrade Delta of everything.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Dave Osler, on Facebook, Sunday night:

    “I’ve been active on the left for over three decades. The atmosphere has never been so poisonous, and looks like being so for several years to come. I’m sorry, but it needs to be said that one sect must take most of the blame for that.”

    • Modernity's Ghost said,

      Dave’s in denial.

      There is a wider problem and it came out of the 1968 form of politics, combined with vulgar Leninism, a desire for power and middle class attitudes.

      I wish he would look deeper into this issue.

  5. duvinrouge said,

    The focus shouldn’t just be on a ‘Party’ & electoral politics. Vast numbers of people instinctively know that so-called ‘representative’ democracy is nothing of the sort, but most, understandably, can’t see any alternative. They know the system screws them every which way. Hence the danger of over-focusing on electoral politics is you come across as another group of wanna-be’s wanting power. In this pursuit of votes the temptation will be to moderate the message because of a hostile media. Falling into the Syriza trap of looking to be a credible government presiding over a less harsh form of capitalism – a bit of nationalisation here & there, a bit of redistribution, but still capitalism.
    What is needed is to present an alternative system rather than an alternative party. That means building an alternative system now. Not vote for us who believe in an alternative system & when we get power, then we’ll give it to you. Building an alternative system now is like the Occupy movement, or the structure of the IOPS website. It is direct democracy now. Giving people an equal say in decision-making now. Not another group of politicians, however well intentioned, separated from the people.
    We can do this through Facebook. Already The Commune have local commune groups, not just in Britain but also in places like Cairo. These can be opened up to all who want the common ownership of the means of production rather than the private ownership. The embryonic 21st century on-line Soviets, or councils, or assemblies, or whatever people want to call them. We’ve gone for the name communes after the Paris Commune of 1871. The hope is that as they attract enough people they meet regularly & become a parallel system of power eventually challenging & supplanting the capitalist political institutions. Being Facebook this can be done internationally & can take on its own momentum.
    For a list of the communes currently in existence, see The Commune website. Just contact me or the Commune directly for a new one to be set up, or just set one up yourself & invite your contacts in that locality along. Isn’t this worth a go?

  6. Modernity's Ghost said,


    It would have been far better to engage with the article rather than pasting in a comment you’ve made before advertising your own group.

    A group which seems to make many of the same mistakes as the last century’s Left made, going on about Bolshevism as some prime example, etc etc

    Plus, why did the Commune publish this utter nonsense from João Bernardo, ?

    • duvinrouge said,

      I am trying to engage with the article as it’s all about the strategy the left should be taking. I’m not against people pursuing the electoral route if they so wish & maybe something good will come out of it. I’m arguing that we should also try & build an alternative system. Whether this is through local facebook communes or IOPS or Occupy, or whatever else I quite open to. Members of the local Communes don’t have to be members of The Commune. The point is let’s not just create an alternative party but an alternative system.

  7. Modernity's Ghost said,


    On the contrary, you merely posted a generic statement you’ve used before.

    Which shows a certain laziness and an inability to think in any original way.

    No one is interested in your pet project or the questionable politics behind it, simply saying “join us not them” is not exactly novel.

    And you didn’t address the question of João Bernardo’s offensive nonsense.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    Interesting, if typically verbose and pretentiously-worded piece from Lenny Seymour, over at his Tomb.
    It includes this:


    Shall I start the ball rolling? What mistakes did I personally make as an SWP member? Not making my objections to our hosting of the antisemitic crank Atzmon, and the preposterous rationale for doing so, explicit – particularly when it was made clear to me that the paper wouldn’t host a letter on the subject. Party members can attest that I and others took this up within the party, and that I trolled Atzmon’s talk at Bookmarks, but it really wasn’t enough. Next? Defending our stance on Sheridan uncritically, which meant defending Sheridan uncritically. I still think it was right to defend him against the state and News of the World, and wrong to cheer his being imprisoned. But surely by now we can admit it was wrong, whatever you think of the SSP leadership, to defend his right to bring this disastrous case in the first place? And then let him off the hook for lying his arse off, hanging Katrine Trolle out to dry, and contributing to fucking up the Scottish far left for years? Can we at least admit to an element of bad faith in taking such a stance, and then pretending to be strictly extraneous to the subsequent meltdown of the SSP? For my part, I was wrong to rationalise all this, wrong to defer facing up to it, wrong to cop out when the truth of the matter was obvious. What else? Defending the party uncritically during the Respect debacle on the basis of who I trusted, circulating unhelpful gossip, allowing myself to be a conduit for lies and misdirections coming from Rees’s office, and living in denial when the latter started circulating slimy rhetoric about Muslim ‘communalism’. Then only tentatively and gradually facing up to the truth once it dawned.

    That will do for now: ball = rolling = now in your court. Also, to mix this metaphor in a properly Cliffite fashion, that court = surrounded by a glass house. If you have never, as a socialist activist, found yourself defending a line you later regretted, kept quiet about something you shouldn’t have, rationalised away a feeling of unease, then you’re either still deluded or a fucking liar. I know that sounds harsh, but this is the terrain. And the point of facing up to this stuff now, is that you don’t want to repeat that situation.


    Grim though this analysis may seem, there are three possible causes for optimism in the next year. First, a horrible scandal is also the occasion of a form of radicalisation on the left, particularly the revolutionary left, in which many people are literally re-evaluating their root assumptions. This percolation is itself indicative that people are wrong to simply assume this is yet another stage in the ongoing mitosis of revolutionary groupuscules. There’s a feeling – don’t you share it? – that as nasty and depressing and shaming as this crisis has been, something has been unblocked by it, and new possibilities have been created. Second, is the People’s Assembly idea, which has achieved a lot of media coverage and has the support of sections of the Labour Left, the trade unions, celebrities, and obviously Counterfire. The People’s Assembly is attracting some criticism for the fact that its big ‘arrival’ is marked by a celeb-driven rally in a swish Westminster venue at a cost of £25000, rather than a democratic conference where actually existing campaigns participate in decision-making. But it would be churlish not to get involved and try to change it in a democratic direction. And third, is the Left Unity initiative for a new left party, which I think has achieved 6,000 signatures thus far. (I have signed and, for what it’s worth, I think you should too.) The fact is that if half of that many people joined a new party right now, you would have the basis of a reasonable sized radical left party. Clearly, there’s a lot still to work out. It’s still a nebulous initiative, and the basis for individual and group affiliation is not yet clear. Nonetheless, local Left Unity groups are springing up with plenty of support after just a couple of weeks or so. This suggests a degree of initiative and energy that hasn’t been seen on the Left for a while.

    There is your hope, if you like. It’s about as far from bland, upbeat can-do puffery as it’s possible to be, but it is hope.

  9. Modernity's Ghost said,

    “Not making my objections to our hosting of the antisemitic crank Atzmon, and the preposterous rationale for doing so, explicit “

    The problem with Seymour’s mea culpa is how it leaves out the politics.

    He doesn’t even asked the elementary political questions, why did the SWP host Atzmon for four years, FOUR YEARS?

    Why? What political impulse made that possible.

    What political elements made Atzmon acceptable to the SWP leadership and a large section of its membership?

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