“The pandemic has brought out the best of our communities and the worst of the Tories. Their ruling class politics have become clearer and clearer throughout the crisis.”
By Ben Hayes, Islington North CLP and Arise Festival Volunteer.
Over 2,000 joined the Arise Festival rally ‘Johnson Out – Resist The Tory Offensive’, with speakers including progressive parliamentarians, trade unionists and front-line campaigners discussing the nature of the government’s agenda in the period ahead and how the labour movement can challenge it. Read the report-back or watch the event in full below:
Chairing the event, Christine Blower reflected on just how inadequate Tory policy has been shown to be on countless fronts, and the importance of supportive initiatives like the ‘Workers Can’t Wait’ campaign – a petition urging Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to address the cost of living crisis.
The first session, ‘Organising To Resist The Tories In Our Communities, Workplaces And Beyond’, was opened by a contribution from former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. He stated that the growing public backlash against Boris Johnson was reflective of a deeper phenomenon – despite a Leader of the Opposition who has spent much of his energy opposing his predecessor, there is growing opposition to the government’s policies in British society. This can be seen in the movements against prominent pieces of reactionary legislation, numerous significant industrial fightbacks, and campaigns addressing growing poverty levels (such as the Right To Food initiative being championed by socialist MP for Liverpool West Derby Ian Bryne).
General Secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) Sarah Wooley emphasised that the cost of living crisis facing millions is a result of political decisions, not a natural phenomenon. She called for the trade union movement to face outwards and support workers fighting back, wherever that struggle takes place.
Helen O’Connor from the People’s Assembly Against Austerity outlined how working people were simultaneously facing attacks on their pay at the same time as cuts to the ‘social wage’ of public services, with the pandemic intensifying crises built into the current economic system – she called for support for individual campaigns wherever they occur, whilst also building a wider alliance to defend living standards and strengthen class politics.
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PSC Union, warned that Johnson will resort to yet more “right-wing red meat policies” to try and save himself, and outled the work PCS is doing both to challenge the Tory offensive industrially and legally. The union has issued a national ballot of public sector members of pay and pensions; taken the government to court with Care4Calais over Priti Patel’s ‘Pushback’ policy for migrant boats on the Channel; and are exploring the possibility of launching a legal challenge against further draconian policies towards Universal Credit claimants. Urging the left not to “keep our heads down”, he called on support for socialist MPs and all those challenging anti-worker policies across the country.
In the “Kill The Bill – Defend Our Right To Resist” session, Marvina Newton from the Kill The Bill Coalition showed that the attempts from the government to divide and rule with the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill has brought together a wide coalition including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Black Lives Matter activists, trade unionists and environmental campaigners. She empathised the importance of building unity and solidarity between those involved in all the important struggles currently taking place.
Christ Peace of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign slammed the government’s refusal to launch a new enquiry into the police’s treatment of striking miners and the resulting cover up. Highlighting the relevance of the case today, she argued that Orgreave was never simply about the police force itself, but its links with the state and corporate media. Peace emphasised the need to reject fear and build a mass campaign to defend our rights.
Opening the session on “Defending workers’ rights, public services and social security”, Labour peer John Handy raised the link between low pay and the decline of trade union rights/membership, noting that 3 quarters of workers are not covered by collective bargaining agreements. He also discussed his Status of Workers Bill seeking to clamp down on insecure employment, which will now be discussed in the House of Commons, and stressed the importance of building collective confidence within the labour movement.
Dr Sonia Adesara from Keep Our NHS Public began her contribution by noting that Britain now has the highest childhood asthma rate in Europe, linking this both to social factors such as poverty and poor housing conditions and the way patients are being let down by the ‘deliberate failure’ of the NHS, a policies that have weakened and fragmented the health service in order to diminish public support. She called on the left to match the levels of ambition that were needed to establish the NHS in the first place, and to understand the scale of the challenges ahead.
National Education Union (NEU) Officer Louise Regan outlined the growth NEU membership since the outbreak of the pandemic and how this is also strengthening their campaigns over issues such as school academisation, workload and pensions. She called for a culture of mutual support in the labour movement, using the slogan of “an injury to one is an injury to all” as a maxim for unity.
Kirsty Turkington from Care and Support Workers Organise argued that the last two years have shown clearly that it is the working class who keep the world turning, contrasting the sacrifices made by many care workers (being left using bin bags for PPE, moving into residential homes etc) with the revelations about events in Downing Street. She also outlined the work being done with unions to fight for a £15-an-hour wage for care workers, making it clear that they will not accept the continuation of the pre-pandemic “normal”.
UNISON President Paul Holmes said that the present political crisis had let to an increasing sense of “us and them” in communities across Britain, and emphasised the need to provide hope to match this anger. He warned the current leadership of the Labour Party that it was not enough to claim to care about the cost of living crisis without policies which genuinely address it.
In the “Standing Up To Racist Divide And Rule – Opposing The Nationality And Borders Bill” session, Migrants Organise‘s Akram Salhab explained that there was a clear pattern of anti-migrant policies being used as “tests” for attacks on the working class as a whole, such as with NHS charges. He argued that growing opposition to the Nationality and Borders Bill indicated an increasing awareness of this, and that attempts to cause fragmentation need to be met with a drive for unity.
Sabby Dhalu from Stand Up To Racism said that the support for the Tory election campaign from far-right elements reflected an increasingly Powellite agenda from Boris Johnson’s government. She also highlighted the disproportionate impact COVID has had on black communities as the government lifts virtually all public health measures, and called for the widest possible support for the campaign against the Nationality and Borders Bill as well as the demonstration to mark UN Anti-Racism Day.
Murad Qureshi from the Stop the War Coalition began the session on “Opposing Johnson’s Reactionary Foreign Policy and International Agenda” by highlighting the government’s plan to increase Britain’s nuclear warheads by more than 40% – in clear violation of international law. He also warned of a an increased focus on jingoism as a distraction from domestic unpopularity.
Nathália Urban of the independent media outlet Brasil Wire pointed out Britain’s role in backing coups in Bolivia and Brazil. Highlighting the UK’s involvement in the removal of the Workers’ Party’s Dilma Rousseff, funding of right-wing NGOs and the meeting with current fascist President Jair Bolsonaro in the British Embassy before he had even confirmed his candidacy. She argued this was a telling example of who the Tories see as their natural allies.
In the closing session, “Next Steps In The Fightback”, MSP for North East Scotland Mercedes Villalba made the case for the labour movement to actively set the political agenda – pointing out that there is huge public support for many progressive policies. Using the example of bar staff in Dundee organising around a collective grievance and demanding union recognition, she empathised that collective action can win.
Beth Winter, MP for Cynon Valley, reflected on the ways socialists can use positions in Parliament (local examples have included helping to set up a Trades Council and holding community climate assemblies), whilst arguing that much of the most important work left MPs do, takes place outside it. She also mentioned the example set by Wales under Mark Drakeford’s leadership. Showing that alternative models are possible, with policies such as universal free primary school meals being proposed – turning “clear red water into clear red action”.
Holly Turner of NHS Workers Say No! described the fear and stress that frontline workers have experienced, with union research finding that 71% say have considered leaving. She also highlighted that 1 in 6 COVID deaths in Britain have been disabled people, who cannot be abandoned – expressing the need for unity between trade unions and campaigning organisations on these issues.
Fire Brigades Union (FBU) General Secretary Matt Wrack compared the government’s handling of COVID to the case of Grenfell Tower – with profits being prioritised above safety leading to criminal consequences. Criticising those seeking to make the Labour Party ‘a safe bet for the system’, he argued that a green transition must also be a red one, as only socialist policies can prioritise people and planet.
Daisy Carter, Young Labour National Committee, pointed to victories for the progressives internationally, such as the defeat of the coup in Bolivia, as a source of hope. Stating that trade unions and social movements need to fill the gap caused by a lack of opposition from the party leadership, she stated that there was a need to rebuild the left to rise to the occasion of the current period.
Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East and Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, rounded off the rally, arguing that the pandemic has brought out the best of our communities and the worst of the Tories. Their ruling class politics have become clearer and clearer throughout the crisis. He explained that the government are aware of the unpopularity of their hard-line agenda, and this drives the push for legislation attacking the rights to protest, strike, and vote. Burgon called for the opposition to Johnson to be channelled into the fight for a better society, with recent mass movements for climate justice, equality and women’s safety showing the appetite for this. He closed by mentioning the example of Honduras, where left candidate Xiomara Castro was inducted as President this week- ending more than a decade of a repressive right-wing coup regime.
The event was a positive example of the coalition needed to beat Johnson and the reactionary politics he represents at a time when those seeking real progressive change look to get on the front foot. Make sure to check out upcoming events from the Arise Festival team!
- “Johnson Out! Resist the Tory Offensive” was held online on January 29th – You can watch the event in full on the Arise Festival YouTube channel here.