This weekend, the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster hosted the first ever meeting of the People's Assembly. According to the group's mission statement, the People's Assembly are a left-wing coalition of unions, politicians, activists and Tory-haters who will regularly gather in public places to talk angrily about government spending cuts.
I went down to the meeting on Saturday to listen to some members of that coalition – the writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali and politician Tony Benn among them – lament the austerity measures put in place by the coalition government. The participants clearly felt that those involved in mainstream politics were not doing enough to combat the cuts. Or, as the guy who handed me my complimentary copy of Workers' Vanguard said, "It's an attempt by the left to put some new breath into the old, shitty corpse of the Labour Party, which is now one of the pillars of British imperialism."
The day started with a rousing speech from Owen Jones, one of the loudest voices currently cheer-leading for the left in newspapers and on Twitter. I'm assuming the Twitter wall behind him wasn't monitored too heavily, as it seemed that any tweet with the hashtag "#pplsassembly" could be randomly selected and displayed. "Owen Jones licks goats #pplsassembly" popped up twice just before he took to the stage – a trick I traced back to this wit, a Socialist from Edinburgh who likes comics.
By now the room had filled with guests. There were celebrities everywhere, if you choose to recognise Caroline Lucas MP and socialist comedian Mark Steel as celebrities. What happened to all of the left-wing's celebrity fans, anyway? There don't seem to be as many as there were back in the heady days of New Labour. Weird.
The speeches got things off to a good start. Soundbites included stuff like, "The only booming industry in the country is food banks!" "Pay-your-taxes!" and, "We fight together, friends, we will win this together." Periodically, someone would yell, "ATOS!" [the benefits assessment firm], to which everyone would shake their heads while muttering, "Shame."
One speaker told the audience, confidently, that "25,000 elderly people freeze to death every year because they can't afford heating". I was pretty certain he meant that as hyperbole because that couldn't be a real statistic; surely even austerity Osborne isn't callous enough to allow thousands of pensioners to die every year because their houses are too cold? Well, turns out the numbers are (roughly) true, although in fairness the numbers were similar when New Labour were in charge.
Talking of Osborne, I heard a very mildly amusing joke while I was wandering around: "Why did George Osborne get booed by 80,000 people at the Olympic Games? Because they couldn't fit any more in." The Tory hatred was running deep, and, "All that the right-wing breed is hate, and we hate them for it," seemed to be the resounding message.
I also heard a lot of slightly differing accounts of the state the world is in; the amount of taxes that big business and the 1 percent aren't paying seemed to rise with every room I walked into, for instance. But before I could delve any deeper into this array of misjudged statistics, something happened: some fascists arrived.
The crowd surged at them, chanting, “Whose streets? Our Streets!” before the police pushed the leftists away and the elderly right-wing gentleman above began repeatedly telling everyone to "Fuck off." Which was a weird thing to say considering it was him and his cronies who had invaded the event.
People soon started shouting, "Who protects the Nazis? Police protect the Nazis!"
However, a police liaison officer I spoke to was keen to persuade me that this isn't the case, saying that three right-wingers had been arrested, as well as one of the People's Assembly lot. "They’re definitely not EDL," he told me. "Some right-wing group, but definitely not EDL."
An anti-fascist following the group threw hot coffee at them and a large amount of it landed on me and splashed all over my friend's camera. My hair was sodden and sticky for the rest of the day, and my white T-shirt nicely stained – a lovely memento of my fascist encounter.
I followed the group up to the war memorial outside Downing Street to take pictures of them being patriotic, then headed back to the assembly. Paranoia about the police was rife. "I heard [the right-wingers] were shaking hands with the police around the corner," I heard one girl say, before confronting a police officer about it. To the girl's surprise, the police officer confirmed everything she'd accused them of, before – bizarrely – the girl made a point of looking at the officer's badge and saying, "We'll follow this up, officer Cameron."
Apparently, once round the corner, some of the right-wingers had patted police on the backs, thanking them for what they were doing, and the police had been courteous back. Which might make your skin crawl, but given the way British police have been treating fascists for the last few years in this country, it doesn't seem like compelling evidence of some huge right-wing plot to me.
That said, no one came out of the confrontation particularly well. One leftist told me, "We should have just ignored them and let them walk through, instead we look as bad as them." Which was pretty accurate; it's hard to counter those breeding hate by actively hating them.
After all the commotion, I headed back to the assembly to watch members of Anonymous (a couple of whom were doing a terrible job at remaining anonymous) video-bomb a Sky News presenter.
This Anonymous member told me she just wanted everyone to get along. "There are Marxists and socialists here – lots of people – and we just want them to love each other," she said, providing me with the least helpful message of day.
Inside, I watched Tariq Ali speak in lyrical tones about the protests in Brazil. “You know what they’re saying there?” he asked the audience. “First World stadiums, Third World hospitals.” Unfortunately, I missed Ken Livingstone's talk while I was listening to Ali, but I managed to catch up with him outside.
"Do you think this event is just preaching to the converted?" I asked. "It’s about educating," Ken answered. "One of the real problems of the labour movement is that it’s filled with people who want to deal with human rights, health care and the environment, but they all hope some other bugger’s gonna deal with the economy. I had an economist come in two or three times a week to talk me through what was happening in Britain and the world, and after two years I felt I could make a speech that wouldn’t just be a load of platitudes. It’s the most difficult of all the topics to get on; it is actually a science.”
Ken then had a call from his wife (at least I think it was, he called her "lovely") and marched off through the adoring throng.
(That's Tony Benn at the back with the grey hair. I'm thinking of putting this photo forward for a photojournalism Pulitzer.)
The day ended with the closing plenary. Union leaders and significant supporters came to the stage, with Tony Benn kicking things off.
His whispered speech got the crowd and his fellow speakers pretty enthralled. His talk about the beginnings of the welfare state were only vaguely audible and, had it been anyone else, we would probably all have switched off. But this was Tony Benn. When he finished, the crowd stood up, the speakers stood up, the applause was deafening and photographers rushed around snapping pictures of this spontaneous display of unity. But when he sat down again, Benn looked pretty glum for the rest of the talks.
He kept his head down, his eyes closed and his hands together. A photographer beside me leant on the stage to get a picture of him and he stared straight down the lens of her camera. When she was done she mouthed a thank you and he nodded towards her. He stood for two standing ovations, though that seemed a struggle.
The whole thing left me pretty disheartened and disillusioned with the fractious left, who still seem totally divided, shouting at each other about what the world needs (the same stuff they've been shouting about for decades) and not doing much about it. "What we need is revolution!" said one guy, loudly, at my face – a sentiment echoed by Britain's left-wing armchair revolutionaries since forever (number of political revolutions in Britian in the last 362 years: 0).
Which isn't to say that people shouldn't call for revolution if they feel its just. But if there was any one thing I saw that summed up the day, it was the guy standing in the middle of the crowd, wearing a Fidel Castro T-shirt and repeating the same phrases over and over through a microphone. Now and then someone else would grab the mic and have a go, but it was mostly just the Castro fan harping on. Eventually, someone in the crowd yelled, "I think we've heard enough from you now," and I saw the flame of revolution die from his eyes.
Follow James on Twitter: @duckytennent
More times we've been to demonstrations recently:
Watch - The Battle of Taksim Square