I wasn't well when I attended the inaugural meeting of Birmingham Peoples' Assembly on Thurday night, and can't really do justice to it. With great daring and a small revolver, I feloniously kidnapped one of Adam Yosef's pics to illustrate the meeting; I'm sitting in the front row, in the green coat, and the Birmingham Clarion Singers are playing.
I went with nightmare visions of nobody turning up, but when I arrived an hour before it was due to start, I found there was already a buzz, and I was soon sitting at the door registering people. In the event, we got around 250, which isn't bad for Birmingham, as it lacks a radical Left tradition.
We had a notable array of speakers, including Paul Nowak, TUC Assistant General Secretary, Salma Yaqoob, Doug Morgan of the NUT, and Lee Baron, CWU Regional Secretary. If I heard right, there are now nineteen Peoples' Assemblies round the country, some in Tory constituencies. It seems we've started something, and there's no knowing where we're going to end up. That's no bad thing; if we set out with a fixed agenda, we'd be in danger of becoming nothing more than another Left splinter group. As it is, we've got space to grow organically, and develop new ideas for the new situations which have developed over the last generation.
I think we've started something vital, but we can't stop there. We need regular gatherings where we can talk about issues in detail, in a democratic, inclusive way where everyone can bring constructive points. We can't afford to fall into the old Left model of having shouting matches over each others' visions of some imaginary socialist paradise, or different strategies to bring it about. From now on the only witches we hunt need to be on the political right. We have to reach a new, much wider audience or we're going nowhere.
One of the root problems which have led to our current democratic deficit, and the apathy it breeds, has been the lack of grassroots discussion forums for political issues. The media have been virtually taken over by the Right, the parties have abolished whatever democratic structures they once possessed, and the elite, whatever label they wear, effectively rule by fiat, with nothing between them but nuance. Andy Burnham promises to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, but says nothing about undoing the damage the Tories will already have done by then, or reversing that which 'New Labour' did before them. Nothing to say that the stealth privatisation of the NHS won't continue by a thousand cuts. Nothing changes but the style; gentle euthanasia rather than Cameron's bull in a china shop, and it's not good enough. A witches' bonfire would be too good for the lying bastards.
The Peoples' Assembly needs to become the forum we lack, and it has the potential for this. The idea has a grand pedigree, all the way back to the First Secession of the Plebs in 495 BC. The plebeians, or working people, of Rome left the city, and met together outside it. Effectively, it was a general strike - something we badly need if the unions ever have the bottle to call one - and changes resulted. Of course, the patricians remained in charge, like Old Etonians today, and those changes were only incremental. We need something more fundamental. We need to sweep away the rotten institutions of the old order before they bring the planet down about our ears. To do that, we need to replace them with better, and that's where we need these open conversations, lots of them. We have to pick up every last issue, pick it over thoroughly, and find a solution which is going to work, not just for a few wealthy individuals for the little time they have on this earth, but for everyone, and for the planet, for many lifetimes to come.
The centre which used to seem so secure has come apart; the falcon is wintering in Africa. Slow-thighed beasts, their hour come round at last, are slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. We'd better make sure we're the midwives, and it's our beast that gets born, or the future could be unspeakable. All the dystopian SF I used to read is waiting to return as reality.