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