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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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.