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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.