Miliband's offer of austerity in a red rosette is failing voters

If austerity is wrong and counter-productive when the Tories do it, it will be wrong and counter-productive whoever does it.

On Saturday, days before the wildly out-of-touch George Osborne stands up in parliament to deliver another message of gloom and despair, thousands gathered in London for the People’s Assembly. We came together knowing we are facing a huge crisis in the UK today – both an economic and a human crisis – and there was passion and anger. There is a lot to be angry about.

We are angry that this government is inflicting the longest and deepest economic slump since the 1870s; angry that more than £50bn has been cut from workers' wages every year since the start of the recession in 2008; that almost £30bn is being slashed from social security for the poorest and most vulnerable; and that half a million of our friends and neighbours are having to rely on food banks to get by.

We are angry that as executive pay continues to soar and millionaires enjoy even more disposable income thanks to a tax cut from their friendly millionaire Chancellor, many others face the threat of losing their homes as a result of the bedroom tax. And we are angry because we recognise that, in doing all this, the Tories and Lib Dems are attempting to privatise even more of our public services and roll back decades of gains we have made in terms of our welfare state, and in education and health.

Anger is inevitable and entirely justified under these circumstances. But as Owen Jones noted in his opening address, anger is meaningless if we do not believe we can do anything about it. So the People's Assembly is a necessary attempt to provide hope and inspiration, with some real alternatives to these vicious policies.

Because there is also a political crisis. The sickening demonisation of people who are having to rely on benefits continues, with one odious commentator suggesting at the weekend that the government should publish the names and addresses of all benefits claimants in a bid to deter them from claiming what they are legally entitled to claim.

The political space being created on the right by these so called "think" tank ideologues, and a right-wing press all too eager to print their bile, is being exploited by the Tories to drive through policies many of them could only ever have dreamed of in the past. That there has been far too little pressure from the left to counter this onslaught is the tragedy of our age. The joint pensions strike on 30 November 2011 – more than 18 months ago – was the high water mark that we have so far failed to regain. And Labour, well. The party appears to be in a state of complete confusion.

As we gathered on Saturday, people were talking – in less than polite terms – about Ed Miliband's statement that morning that a future Labour government would stick to Tory spending limits. By Sunday, Ed Balls was calling for Osborne to inject more money into the economy. Labour spokespeople still wearily trot out the "too far, too fast" mantra. But the party's core message is that there is simply less money around and we all need to get used to it.

This is not only economically stupid, it is politically inept. If austerity is wrong and counter-productive when the Tories do it, it will be wrong and counter-productive whoever does it. Austerity in a red rosette is no less brutal and damaging than in a blue one. In failing to articulate a clear economic alternative, or to challenge the pernicious myths about our social security system, Labour is not only failing to offer hope and inspiration, it is failing to offer voters a choice.

This is why harnessing the unity and sense of purpose at the People's Assembly is so important. The assembly brought together dissatisfied Labour party members with trades unionists and campaigners from a broad spectrum of political and community groups, as well as members of the public fed up with being told there is nothing that can be done. How we organise ourselves now is crucial.

Since March, not a week has gone by without some members of my union being on strike in a determined attempt to defend their pay and conditions. Working people have no more powerful weapon than the withdrawal of their labour. And the more of us there are taking co-ordinated strike action together the stronger we become and the more pressure we can exert. But union members also need to make alliances with others who are bearing the brunt of austerity.

On Saturday, we agreed to build for a day of resistance on 5 November, of civil disobedience where all of us – students, workers, the unemployed, disabled people, families, pensioners – unite to cause as much disruption as possible through marches, protests and direct action. And then we need to set the date for the next, and the next after that.

We met out of necessity to provide hope where, at the moment, there is only anger. We cannot afford to let this opportunity slip, we need to build a movement that will hound this government from office and send the clearest message there is to Miliband and Balls that they are mistaken if they think they can just waltz into Downing Street and pick up where the Tories left off.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the PCS

Ed Miliband has pledged to stick to George Osborne's spending limits for 2015-16. Photograph: Getty Images.
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“Rhodes must fall,” chants the crowd. But bringing down an imperialist’s statue won’t change the past

“Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” says Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh.

You’ve got to look quite hard to spot it: a statue four feet high, rather attractive and informal, way above street level, on the façade of Oriel College on the High Street in Oxford. The only way you would know that it was Cecil John Rhodes, apart from the Latin inscription beneath the figure, is that he is wearing a three-piece suit and holding his familiar slouch hat in his right hand. Around this manikin a row of surprising proportions has arisen.

It is a by-blow of the much greater and far more serious dispute in South Africa, in the course of which Rhodes’s statue at the university he helped found in Cape Town has been hustled out of sight after being smeared with paint and excrement and surrounded time and again by angry, chanting students. Now the slogan “Rhodes must fall” has been picked up in the quieter atmosphere of Oxford. Oriel, which Rhodes briefly attended, is the centre of the fuss because it commemorates him with the statue in question. All this has given rise to an air of nervousness among some elements of the university hierarchy. But is it justified?

In the street outside the college, as many as 300 people gathered in the intermittent rain one recent Friday to listen to speeches, be taught some of the old liberation chants from Southern Africa and watch a bit of toyi-toying – of the kind we used to see in the days of the anti-apartheid demonstrations. A second-year history student told the crowd, “There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures.” Although most of us need to have the statue pointed out to us, that was greeted by applause. People often rather like the idea that they’re the victims of violence when there are no other signs of it.

Rhodes was an extraordinary man: a country clergyman’s sickly fifth son from Bishop’s Stortford who by sheer drive became one of the richest people on Earth, the founder of De Beers, the prime minister of the Cape Colony and the carver-out of two territories that eventually became Zambia and Zimbabwe. He also created one of the most effective and beneficial educational exchanges in the modern world – the Rhodes scholarships – and all this before his death at the age of 48.

He wasn’t a nice man, even by the standards of the time. Outspokenly racist and imperialist, he could sometimes sound Hitlerian: “Just fancy those parts [of Africa] that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings – what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence!” One of his personal secretaries turned against him when he talked with apparent relish about slaughtering black people. Still, Rhodes was complex: almost certainly gay, a supporter of Irish home rule and a Liberal. Although he helped to provoke the Boer War, he was a friend to the Cape Afrikaners and supported their language and culture.

The leading figure behind the “Rhodes must fall” campaign in Oxford is Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a South African doctoral student of philosophy whose teachers regard him with affection and respect. There is nothing about him of the menace of some of the protesters in Cape Town, who have chanted “One settler, one bullet” and, it is alleged, “Kill the whites” at demonstrations.

Mpofu-Walsh’s father is the national chairman of Julius Malema’s fiery Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa but Sizwe follows a more sophisticated brand of protest, better adapted to the atmosphere of Oxford. “Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” he says. He maintains that the curriculum at Oxford concentrates on Europe and the US rather than on the wider world, though that may be news to all those Rhodes scholars from Africa who have studied at Oxford and returned home to enrich the medical, philosophical and political lives of their countries. But Mpofu-Walsh touches a genuinely sensitive point when he points out that the university accepted only 24 black British undergraduates last year. “We want Oxford to improve its representation of black voices.”

You might think that Nelson Mandela’s decision to allow his name to be associated with that of Rhodes in South Africa, in forming the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, would give some protection to the old white supremacist. Not so. One of the more melancholy things that have happened in South Africa in recent years has been that Mandela, by taking his stand for reconciliation, has increasingly been seen as an Uncle Tom by many black people there – and the link with Rhodes hasn’t helped.

The desire to cleanse history of its unattractive sides isn’t restricted to Southern Africa. But the past is the past; it can’t be changed. Charles Conn, Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford, who oversees the Rhodes scholarships, says: “We should interrogate history, of course, and learn its lessons. Nearly all historical figures held views at odds with our perspectives today. Rhodes, Jowett, Jefferson, even Gandhi, had beliefs that we find out of touch and even abhorrent. But we don’t serve the pursuit of knowledge if we agree to airbrush or bulldoze history.”

Will Rhodes’s statue in Oxford be taken down, like the one outside Cape Town University? Surely not, if only for the prosaic reason that the Oriel building it stands on is listed and it will take a lot more than the shouted slogans of a few hundred students to get rid of it. For many, attacking the symbols that some minority happens to dislike smacks a bit too much of Islamic State blasting away the incomparable reliefs of Nimrud. But the demonstrators have a point. Oxford University ought to try to be less white, less Eurocentric, less everything that Cecil Rhodes once wanted it to be.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror