Laurie Penny: Why I'm marching today for anti-austerity

Like thousands of others, I'll be demonstrating in London because we need to fight for our principles.

The backlash is on. With counter-propaganda pouring in about today's demonstration, I''m crouched on the bed cramming water bottles, wet wipes and a spare hoodie into my backpack, testing my riot boots, getting ready to march.

From senior police officers to stuffed-shirt commentators to single mothers on the protest coach from Aberdeen to the anarchists currently putting the finishing touches to their trojan horse in Kennington, pretty much everyone seems to be convinced there's going to be an epic kick-off. There is trepidation and excitement on both sides. Many tens of thousands of protesters and police would rather we all went on a nice civilised saunter to Hyde Park to hear some speeches, but many others are getting their armour ready, digging out their face masks, shining up their riot shields for a rumble in London.

Whatever happens, the eyes of the world will be on this city today. The ancient streets are going to shake with the stoppered rage of the public, as they have done so many times before. Seven hundred years ago, Wat Tyler led thousands in a march against feudalism and entitlement, against wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of a few rich families who owned everything and were answerable to noone. Seven hundred years later, we're still marching, because it's still happening.

The business elites have been allowed to vampirise the future, and instead of being made to pay for their mistakes, they brazenly demand more tribute. Our barely-elected representatives cheerfully force us into lines to pay the tithe, breaking the heads of children in parliament square if they refuse to comply. As we get ready to march, a government with little mandate is turning our country into a smooth-running cartel to serve the petulant demands of global finance. In his budget speech, George Osborne declared that the world should take note of the fact that "Britain is open for business". Having previously announced the decimation of welfare, education, culture, healthcare, public services and the arts, the City of London-financed Conservative party has ensured that Britain is open for little else, and is swinging shut in the faces of the unprofitable.

Present political expediency offers no way out, and a thousand reasons to march. This week, many people have told me their reasons. Elderly, disabled and mentally ill people and carers who cannot do without the welfare benefits that the government is about to sell off to finance a cut to corporation tax. School pupils who want to be able to afford university without taking on a lifetime's worth of debt; students at glasgow and UCL universities who have been assaulted by police and victimised by management for daring to speak out against that encroaching debt, and for standing in solidarity with striking staff and lecturers. Career anarchists and concerned liberals on their first protest in three decades. Trades unionists unfurling the banners and getting ready to demand the sort of basic human dignity that became unfashionable in the mid-1980s. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, people already too sick or exhausted or impoverished to come to the protests in person, and the strangers who offered to show solidarity by marching in their stead. A man with terminal cancer and five weeks to live, whose incapacity benefits had been delayed by the latest welfare reforms. A woman set to lose her NHS job who can no longer afford childcare.

So many reasons, so many voices, so much anger that one simple political alternative could never be broad enough to satisfy them all. So many voices, and if I had twenty years I could sit and write down every one and make them loud enough for all London to hear. At times like this, words on a screen aren't enough. At times like this, we have to go to the streets.

There will be enough time for stories today; stories of indignation and suffering and small triumphs bitten back from the jaws of spiteful austerity. But right now I'm going to do something I do very seldom. I'm going to tell you why I'm marching.

I'm marching because I'm afraid. I'm afraid that everything precious about modernity might be destroyed by a cabal of financiers and aristocrats who own everything and answer to noone. I'm afraid that the civil humanity of welfare, healthcare, public education, art, science and protection for minorities and the dispossessed that so many hundreds of people fought and died for over three long centuries of struggle, I'm afraid that that might all be taken away because some millionaires have decided they're not being paid enough.

I'm afraid that the governments of Europe and America and the Middle East will continue to listen to those millionaires and only to those millionaires whilst their people cry out for relief. I'm afraid that they'll carry on taking the best ideals of human decency and twisting them into tortured pastiches of principle. I'm afraid that in thirty years the word "freedom" will mean only only military imperialism, the word "democracy" only the bloody enforcement of western corporate hegemony, the word "liberty" only the blithe self-interest of the few, the word "fairness" only the moral imposition of austerity by governments soaked in oil-money, in blood-money, in money summarily appropriated from struggling taxpayers to fund the debts of the rich.

I'm afraid that if we don't turn and fight for those principles, they will cease to exist, at least in the way we understand them.

This is not about party politics. I care not one jot about whether the current Conservative-led administration is openly continuing New Labour's project of decimating welfare, privatising education, holding down wages and sucking the shrivelled morals of the City. I'm just afraid that the bastards are going to get away with it. I'm marching today with hundreds of thousands of others because I don't want to be afraid anymore. This is just the beginning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.