People’s Assemblies Must Become People’s Action

The John McDonnell Column

JohnMcD2What has struck me over the last 18 months has been the narrow confines of the political debate in this country. Watching the primetime political shows on television or even just listening to the news programmes, you come to realise just how limiting much of the supposed mainstream discussion of political, economic and social concerns has become. I cringe at the answers from most of the panel members on Question Time and now have difficulty watching it or even listening to Any Questions. All the main political programmes and most of the political slots on the news programmes are the same.

The narrow circuit from which the guests/talking heads is drawn for these shows means that every received wisdom handed down within a small metropolitan dinner party circuit is nauseatingly trotted out. Just how many more smug, boring bastards can the BBC find in the British beltway?

And yet we are living through a period of immense economic and social trauma in which our society is being remodelled to enable capital to reassert itself and savagely exploit us with renewed vigour and power. People are suffering. They are being beaten into guilt-ridden submission by a combination of government policies and media abuse and they are being ripped off by virtually every commercial body supposed to be providing them with the necessities of life, whether it’s serving them adulterated foodstuffs or selling them price rigged energy.

Every institution within the system is still being caught out in its continuing corruption. MPs and Lords are still up for sale. Banks and financial institutions are still fiddling the figures and paying out hefty disguised obscene bonuses at our expense. Despite all the negative publicity on tax avoidance, large corporations are still treating taxation as a voluntary contribution and the Government continues to proclaim the introduction of tax reforms which they know will have little, if any, effect in securing real tax justice.

As it emerged in 2007/8 the economic crisis exposed the latest stage of the evolution of the capitalist system in all its corrupt and incompetent detail.

What opened up then was a window of opportunity to move from exposure and understanding of the corrupt system to challenging it. The Occupy Movement and individual campaigns like UK Uncut at least made an attempt to open up a discussion of the iniquities of the system and what alternatives there might be. However despite valiant attempts from those such as the Coalition of Resistance and Unite the Resistance, plus the co-ordinated action of a number of progressive trade unions, no effective agency came into being to mount either an ideological or physical/operational challenge to the system.

This revealed what Slavoj Zizek described so well as “our ideological misery”, in that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Mark Fisher describes in his book Capitalist Realism how even though we are hamstrung by our current inability to imagine any alternative to capitalism, nevertheless “even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction, which marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”


The Peoples’ Assembly has been launched to bring people together to discuss how we can create a vehicle to challenge the austerity agenda of this Government and its permeation of all the main political parties. This could be the vehicle that tears that hole in the curtain of reaction that opens up much wider possibilities. The possibilities that I want to see opened up are direct challenges to every part of our system so that it is not just an end to austerity that we call for, but an end to the brutish domination of all our lives by greed and profiteering.

In practice it means that the People’s Assembly becomes a vehicle for planning the direct actions that bring parts of our current system to a grinding halt and the space is opened up to demonstrate alternatives to how it can operate. To symbolise this, there should be no meeting of the People’s Assembly that doesn’t also engage in direct action. I give this one small example. There has been an increasing acknowledgement of the need for the Living Wage but limited progress in achieving it except where direct action linked to trade union recruitment and action has taken place. The IWGB campaign at the Barbican has been a great example of what can be done.

One sector where low pay and zero hours contract exploitation is pervasive is the fast food sector. Wherever the People’s Assembly meets we now could plan to target the fast food outlets in that area with direct action to recruit to unions, demand an end to exploitative contracts and the introduction of the Living Wage.

John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.

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One Response to People’s Assemblies Must Become People’s Action

  1. Dave Farrar says:

    I agree. Unionise the low paid and picket the low payers. That is the way to energise the movement!

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