The idea of organising independently of the state in order to challenge the established political order, which we put forward in the shape of People’s Assemblies, is not new or foreign to British social history.
From the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 17th century, to the Chartists of the 19th century, through to the trade unions in the period following World War One, ordinary people have combined to confront the state.
The Levellers were the left-wing of the New Model Army established by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War with Charles I over who ruled England – the absolute monarch or Parliament. Regiments elected representatives or “agitators” to the Army Council and these were recognised by the commanders. Levellers took many of these positions.
In the famous Putney Debates held in October 1647, the Levellers challenged Cromwell with a draft Agreement of the People, which gave everyone the vote and insisted that Parliament should pass no laws “evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people”.
The Chartists, who campaigned for the vote for working men, held various Conventions during their struggle which began in the late 1830s when an estimated 300,000 people assembled at Kersal Moor near Manchester. Typical slogans on the day were “For Children and Wife we’ll War to the Knife” and “Bread and Revolution”.
In 1839, the Convention of the Industrious Classes met first in London and then Birmingham. It considered what to do in the event that Parliament rejected the Chartist petition signed by 1.2 million people. Delegates adopted the formula of “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must”. A manifesto of “ulterior measures” included a month’s general strike, a resort to arms and a trade boycott.
In 1848, galvanised by a revolution in France, the Chartist movement made a final attempt to achieve its demands through a petition backed by a demonstration of over 200,000 at Kennington. The government feared a revolution and blocked the bridges across the Thames.
The Chartists then convened a National Assembly for May 1 as a would-be rival seat of power to Parliament. Its aim was to continue sitting until the Charter was law. The Assembly took on policies way beyond the Charter, including the severing of the connection between church and state, the repeal of the union between Britain and Ireland, the employment of poor on public works and even a recommendation of arming the people. An insurrection launched in August 1848 was defeated.
After the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which overthrew the Tsar, the idea of Soviets or Workers’ Councils, which had spearheaded the movement against autocracy, spread through Europe. The Labour and Socialist Convention held at Leeds on 3 June 1917 was held expressly “to follow Russia”.
The conference attended by 1,600 delegates adopted a resolution that called on the labour movement to establish councils of workers and soldiers' delegates to work for, among other things, the complete political and economic emancipation of international labour. During the brief General Strike of 1926, workers’ council were established in some towns and became the effective power in the area.
Now that the right to vote has been neutered by an undemocratic Parliamentary system in serious decay, the conditions are emerging to reassert more fundamental rights to do with power and control over our lives. That is why we not only say “Hang on to your vote” at the election but also urge the building of People’s Assemblies as a possible mechanism for carrying through revolutionary change in the traditions of the Levellers, Chartists and trade unionists of earlier eras.