Mon 17 Oct 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/
Activists and unions are mobilising. They don’t want Tory austerity, or the opposition’s bland managerial alternative
During the Tory leadership contest, a recording that captured Liz Truss complaining that British workers lacked “skill and application” and needed “more graft” was leaked. This is the same Liz Truss who, just one month into her premiership, plunged the pound to an all-time low, forced the Bank of England into a £65bn intervention, and pushed the UK to the brink of a recession.
According to Truss, it was the performance of Kwasi Kwarteng, her then chancellor – and him alone – that was found wanting. She sacked him for implementing her own leadership pledges. Time will tell whether this is enough to save her career, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an example of someone making a worse start to a new job and passing their probation.
Following their first U-turn, reversing plans to abolish the 45p tax rate for top earners, Truss and Kwarteng hoped we would mistake humiliation for humility: “We get it. We have listened.” If that were true, they would have heeded the warnings of those who told them from the very beginning that their experiment would fail. They wouldn’t have gambled with people’s livelihoods in the first place.Liz Truss apologises for going ‘too far and too fast’ with economic changes – as it happenedRead more
And they would have extended their U-turn to the swath of fiscal commitments that survived. It’s bad enough that they waited more than a week to reverse the cuts to corporation tax. It’s even worse that they still refuse to reverse their plans to uncap the bankers’ bonus, freeze benefits and slash public spending.
In my 39 years in parliament, I cannot remember a fiscal plan so reckless, arrogant and out-of-touch. More than one in five people – and one in three children – are in poverty in the UK. A quarter of a million people in England are homeless. This October, millions of people will struggle to heat their homes or feed their children. But will nobody think of the bankers?
It doesn’t matter which remnants of neoliberal economics this government tries to rescue from the rubble. Nor does it matter how many chancellors they use to try to resuscitate them. The Tories will never be able to fix the economy until they reckon with the fact that they’ve spent the past 12 years destroying it.
By preparing for another wave of austerity, the new chancellor is not just in denial about the scale and severity of the cost-of-living crisis. He is in denial about the very economic policy that engendered it. The last round of cuts to public services – which has been linked to 330,000 excess deaths by a recent report – did not just plunge millions into poverty. It stole resources from the poorest people in society and transferred them to the richest: as child poverty was heading towards its highest levels since 2007, Britain’s billionaires more than doubled their wealth. Far from rectifying this act of social robbery, the government is intent on helping the 1% steal even more.
It didn’t have to be like this. It is fitting that the leaked audio of Truss demonising British workers is thought to have been recorded in 2017. While the future PM was finding scapegoats for a rigged economic system, we were proposing a template to transform it, grounded in a promise to end austerity, raise taxes on the highest earners and increase the minimum wage. Two years later, more than 10 million people voted for the kinds of “radical” policies that would have stopped water companies from pumping raw sewage into our rivers and seas – policies such as bringing key industries into democratic public ownership.
Almost three years since our defeat, it is still a source of immense regret that we were unable to convert our mass movement into an electoral majority for change. However, those who treat our defeat as a rejection of transformative change wilfully ignore the scale of discontent on the ground. As wages fall while profits soar, tens of thousands of workers – postal workers, railway workers, refuse collectors, barristers, civil servants, dockworkers, university staff – have downed their tools in a wave of industrial action unprecedented in recent decades.
Ambulance drivers, civil servants, nurses and teachers might be next. Standing alongside them are trade unions, climate activists, tenants’ unions, anti-racist campaigners, community organisations and social justice groups who are growing in confidence and starting to work together. Their unifying demand is unashamedly redistributive: tax the rich to raise the standard of living for the 99%. That means a £15 an hour minimum wage, a public sector pay increase, and an inflation-busting upsurge in pensions and benefits.
It means a legally enshrined “right to food”, providing the foundations for universal free school meals and community kitchens (a publicly owned space that can produce, store and distribute food to the most vulnerable in society). It means a charter for renters’ rights and a decent supply of insulated public housing. And it means finding a solution to the cost of living crisis that doesn’t involve a multi-billion bailout for fossil-fuel giants. Instead, we must focus on civilisation’s greatest challenge: climate breakdown.
There will be no just transition to a net zero economy until we put energy companies back where they belong: in public hands.
These campaigns are gathering momentum because they are capturing the scale of public anger toward an economic system robbing them of their future. And, as those taking strike action have demonstrated, they didn’t need permission from political parties to take it back.
I hope Truss and her party have got the message: you cannot treat Britain as a laboratory for your economic dogma. Campaigners and organisers have a message for those in opposition, too: you cannot treat Britain as a focus group for your bland managerialism. Waiting for economic collapse in order to waltz into office provides no assurance to those who are trapped in precarious work, locked out of the housing market, or terrified of impending climate collapse.
As the Tories plunge themselves into electoral oblivion, those in opposition have a precious opportunity: to redistribute wealth, ownership and economic power. To end insecurity, exploitation, poverty and homelessness. To build a society grounded in compassion, creativity and care.
This government’s obstinacy has given new demographics an appetite for something different. Starve it at your peril. We have wasted too much time already delaying transformative change. We cannot afford to waste any more.