On the 23rd of May, in a small church in Bethnal Green a thousand people of various left-wing persuasions met up to debate and discuss the future of the radical left.
It was a cold, rainy, and overcast day as I walked to St Peter’s Church in Bethnal Green. I had been invited by a group called Brick Lane Debates (a coalition of activists who are committed to discussion and set up the project as a fusion between political discussion and culture)
It is important to note, however, this was not a Brick Lane Debate – the event was called by a group provisionally titled the ‘Radical Left General Assembly’. They had previously gathered on Thursday the 14th of May, which is where the second assembly and itinerary were agreed upon. The discussion ran from 1pm to 5:30pm.
The primary organisers were those involved in the Brick Lane Debates – who had facilitated the day, and began by giving an overview of the discussion and debate. Prior to the wider discussion beginning – there were a few speakers from different sections of the left. Involved in different struggles, they spoke of the necessity of solidarity in achieving each other’s objectives.
After this, the organisers introduced a framework to follow the speakers who had been introduced.
One of the first tasks was to discuss with the person(s) sat beside you, what ‘solidarity’ means to you. At this point it was around 1:45pm. Our small group discussed the general meaning and opposition to it; in essence, that solidarity is about supporting people in situations and causes which don’t directly benefit yourself. A collective responsibility over self-interest. However, one member of the group was keen to assert that solidarity is not charity; it is support, not pity.
The groups ranged in size between three to six. The second task was ‘how do we use the resources we have to get the power we need to make the change we want.’ By this point the group had reshuffled. The question was found to be multifaceted and broad in scope.
The first discussion focused on what is power is and how widely its meaning was intended to be understood. Beyond that we discussed skill shares, books and smartphones – utilising the already existing human capital and tangible resources in our reach. I was in attendance with my colleagues from the GMB, who brought their own experience of the trade union and its structures to the debate.
After the first discussion of the word ‘solidarity’, each group was broadly in agreement in its application and usage. The same could not be said for the second question and its implications. One gentleman spoke up and when asked to provide feedback from his group began to just rant about inequality and then stated we should support a revolution; this was not well received by his newly formed group, with one woman offering a riposte and stating that she didn’t recognise his recollection of their discussion.
The hall applauded in agreement. Clearly, by that turn of events, the primary attraction to the assembly was that it centred on no single prism or perspective. This is especially true of the historic left. Each group agreed upon a representative to sum up their discussion and answers to the topics posted, and the feedback was interesting. Some argued that voting reform was an important card to play, others were interested in local responses. Our group suggested that it was not the people in attendance whom we had to convince, but rather our political opposites.
At around 3pm, a break was called after much engaged discussion. The food and drink was provided in part by kind donations. It also served as useful way to get to know people beyond their activism, their day-to-day lives. The range of views was not the only thing to behold in the church that afternoon, the fashion sense of attendees was just as diverse.
One major difference to the proposed itinerary was that call outs (demonstrations, activist reading groups, housing etc.) from various groups was to occur in the middle and not at the end. This was highlighted as mark of respect and solidarity as it was important to organise events and demonstrations which coincided with each other to achieve maximum impact.
The Final Group
After the break our groups reformed, and mine was an interesting mix. It included activists involved in immigration and deportation struggles, to a writer for the radical magazine Red Pepper, to a Spanish migrant. We were asked by the organiser to consider what the aims of the radical assembly should be.
The answers came thick and fast: the writer suggested we clarify long-term objectives, and short term aims. The Spanish migrant explained we should adopt a model of organising used in Spain, to establish groups around each self-organising theme or topic.
I suggested we look at frameworks which allow for micro-objectives to be achieved, others in the group disagreed and suggested we focus on long-term goals as they already compartmentalise such objectives in their day-to-day roles as activists.
We then built upon the earlier discussion of the aims and suggested a website around our intention of facilitating activism and encompassing other groups.
The radical assembly serves as an important antidote to the established political consensus of austerity and its consequences. The thousand activists whom attended were from across London, a mixture of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.
For Greens – we have an opportunity to engage alongside grassroots activists. There was much discussion over the politics of voting – who did, who didn’t and why we should. There was also debate around alternative structures. Our policies on media and monetary reform (think of the financial crisis and phone hacking), alongside a living wage and balancing work with well-being means we can offer something tangible for a society which has to emerge.
By providing a physical space for activists, the assembly sought to ferment change by way of exchanging ideas and values. The future, after all, is unwritten.
This post was written by Huseyin Kishi (Enfield). The next Assembly will take place on the 14th of June in Peckham