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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.