“People can see the system is failing: it’s our responsibility to offer radical change.”John McDonnell MP
By Ben Hayes, Islignton North CLP & Arise Festival Volunteer
Over a thousand joined MPs, trade unionists and campaigners at the Labour Assembly Against Austerity’s online rally: ‘Workers Can’t Wait- Urgent Action to Tackle the Cost of Living Crisis Now!”. You can read the report-back below or watch the meeting in full.
Matthew Willgress, Labour Assembly Against Austerity, opened by reflecting on the offensive faced by workers in Britain – an attack on “health, rights, jobs and livelihoods”. Slamming the Tory government that has offered “no answers” to the pandemic or climate crisis, he called for a programme that “puts people before greed”.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, MP for Salford and Eccles, outlined the “Dickensian” nature of ‘Fire and Rehire’ tactics employed by numerous employers, and the shocking numbers of workers in poverty – with those in employment now a majority of people living below the poverty line and 75% of children growing up in poverty being raised in a household with at least one member in work.
The cost of living crisis, Long-Bailey stated, is only going to intensify, with energy price rises of 50% and increases in food prices and inflation meaning the ‘benefits uplift’ is a real term cut. She argued that an “unprecedented crisis requires an unprecedented response”, calling for measures including a Windfall Tax on oil and gas companies, a programme of retrofitting homes for insulation (as committed to in Labour’s last election manifesto), a real living wage, strengthening workers’ rights and public ownership of utilities – and for the movement supporting this platform to be built.
Kate Osborne, MP for Jarrow, reflected on the 8th anniversary of the passing of Tony Benn and Bob Crow and the relevance of their work today, with real wages down by 1.5% – the worst fall for 8 years. She emphasised that the cost of living crisis is rooted in the ideology of the Tory Party, with private greed consistently put ahead of the public good.
She noted how weak Britain’s response has been compared even to governments such as France, Norway and Sweden, who have all introduced measures to offset the impact of rising energy prices. Osborne outlined the contents of her letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak ahead of his Spring Statement – calling for a cut in VAT on energy bills, an extension of the Warm Home Discount Scheme, an increase in the Minimum Wage and an 8% rise in pensions and benefits.
She also condemned Boris Johnson’s visit to Saudi Arabia amid reports of even closer British ties, citing the strong feeling of the local Yemeni community in her constituency and pointing out that these deals have done nothing to help communities in Britain either. Calling for Labour members to keep the anti-austerity of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership alive, she quoted Bob Crow’s famous saying: “If you fight, you won’t always win. If you don’t fight, you will always lose.”
Labour peer John Hendy QC discussed the lack of legal protection for workers in Britain- with even laws that do exist often not enforced in practice, as seen in so many cases throughout the pandemic. Now the government is telling employers it’s up to them to decide which COVID safety measures (if any) they wish to take, and tactics such as ‘Fire and Rehire’ leaving all too many workers vulnerable. Increasing numbers are not even categorised as employees, with 3 million officially legally self-employed and another two million in a similar position: leaving them unprotected from unfair dismissal and without rights such as minimum notice periods. Hendy also reflected on the current state of pay- with the median wage currently around £500 a week and real wages effectively stagnant since 2008- a situation which will only be worsened with rising inflation.
He pointed out that between 1945-1980 proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining was around 85%, compared to the current figure of around 25%. This, he argued, illustrates the link between declining living standards and a long term project of various British governments from Thatcher onwards to smash the power of the trade union movement- and why its role is vital.
Nabeela Mowlana, one of the student representatives on Young Labour’s national committee and a candidate for Chair in the upcoming elections, outlined how even before entering full-time work young people are already facing looming student debt and the impact of the housing crisis. She argued that there is an increasing awareness that these are not inevitable natural phenomena but the product of policies which put the market first – with growing renters’ unions and the climate strike movement illustrating that young people are prepared to fight back.
Mowlana made the case that the current crises show the importance of defending policies of the last two Labour manifestos, such as the Green New Deal – “a socialist future will be one where young people don’t have to fight to survive but can thrive”.
Caitlin Adams, Open University UCU Branch President, spoke on the state of the education sector – with pay in further education having fallen by 35% in real terms, workplace stress soaring, increasing workloads, and a gender pay gap of 15.1% (up to 26 in some Russell Group universities, with similar rates for black and disabled workers). These issues are at the heart of the UCU’s ongoing ‘Four Fights’ campaign, with the union calling for national frameworks and action plans to tackle them.
Adams also discussed the attacks on pensions in the USS dispute, with a cut of around 35% expected next month. She praised the solidarity offered by the National Union of Students, and appealed for solidarity from across the labour movement for “the fight of our lives”. UCU General Secretary Jo Grady also sent a message of support to the meeting, stating that unions must ensure working people do not pay the cost of the crisis.
Sarah Woolley, Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union General Secretary, raised the case of workers at the Dawnfresh Seafoods factory in Uddingston, where staff working overtime were sent home and told they would not be paid after administrators took over – with some left relying on foodbanks amidst uncertainty about if or when they would receive their wages.
She use this disgraceful situation as an example of how quickly those who kept providing essential goods and services during the outbreak of the pandemic have been forgotten, whilst the owner of the company enjoys a multibillionaire lifestyle. Wooley called for workers to recognise and build upon their collective power, and to take inspiration from ongoing struggles wherever they are found.
Zita Holbourne, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, outlined how over a decade of austerity has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, as seen in the disproportionately high levels of COVID deaths in black communities (with this trend also apparent in job losses and lower numbers of furloughed workers). This situation has left many unable to build up savings and in no position to take any further hit to their incomes.
Holbourne also warned that the cost of living crisis risks an increase in reactionary scapegoating, and emphasised that “poverty and racism can only be defeated together”. She called for united mobilisations to defend livelihoods, with no community being left behind- arguing that this is crucial both in the here and now and for future generations.
John Lister, SOS NHS, highlighted that the health service, having been understaffed and underfunded throughout the pandemic, now faces a backlog of cases to deal with in addition to it – and the staff who have worked tirelessly in immensely difficult circumstances are being offered a pay rise below the rate of inflation. In addition to this, Health Secretary Sajid Javid wants even more “reforms” than those proposed in the Health and Social Care Bill. In reality, he argued that this means patients will be told to go across the country for quicker treatment.
He also pointed out that the NHS has faced real term cuts in spending every year since 2010, and that 2020 saw a 26% increase in spending on private providers. This has been the impetus behind the launch of SOS NHS – a campaign calling for an investment of £20 billion in the NHS, a commitment to the future of public health services, and decent pay for staff. Lister urged attendees to back this “fight for the life of the NHS”.
The first was We Own It’s petition on energy – calling for a permanent windfall tax on gas and electricity companies, the return of the national grid and regional distribution companies to public ownership (saving £3.7 billion), and a new state-owned public energy supplier.
Secondly, she drew attention to the state of bus services – with fares across England having increased by 75% since 2005. Hobbs called for backing for the campaign to lift the ban on councils setting up their own bus companies, and noted the success of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham against a legal challenge to his proposals to bring buses back under public control.
Finally, she endorsed the demands of the SOS NHS campaign, using the billions wasted on the track and trace scheme as an example of the rip-off of privatisation in the health service.
Helen O’Connor, People’s Assembly Against Austerity, noted that “the ruling class never let a good crisis go to waste”, with Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng already claiming that the British public will be “prepared to suffer hardship” as a result of the war in Ukraine (despite the squeeze on living standards long predating it). Reflecting on divisions seen in the labour movement during the economic downturn of the 1970s, she warned against accepting the logic of “tightening our belts’ – arguing that this would both implicitly accept the notions that the current crisis is the responsibility of working people and that there is no alternative to austerity economics.
Lamenting Keir Starmer “missing an own goal” by going back on previous policy to take energy back into public ownership, O’Connor said it should not be too much to ask for workers to be able enjoy the fruits of their labour and receive investment to live in dignity. Emphasising that these will have to be fought for, she urged viewers to become active in their trade unions and local People’s Assembly groups.
Gemma Bolton, Labour NEC member’s representative, called for a programme of popular radical policies to address the crisis – including a £15 an hour minimum wage, a genuine pay rise for public sector workers, an increase in statutory sick pay, the reversal of the cut to Universal Credit, the establishment of a National Food Service and universal free school meals.
She pointed out that public ownership of water, Royal Mail and railways are democratically agreed existing Labour policy and popular with the general public – with polling showing strong support even among Conservative voters. Bolton also argued that “the time has come” for free universal broadband and a Green New Deal, urging activists to “keep fighting for socialist change”.
Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, predicted that millions of voters will be looking for answers as it becomes increasingly clear that the Tories do not have their interests at heart – and called on the labour movement to provide them. She argued that the present crisis has exposed two key Tory myths – by showing that a serious strategy to deal with COVID and economic economy have always gone hand in hand, and that cutting immigration does nothing to lift living standards.
Abbott linked an energy sector that is introducing huge price hikes whilst private companies make over a billion in profit to “the legacy of free market private monopolies”, and said the Labour Party should reject greater militarism- standing “for welfare not warfare”. She concluded by calling on activists to be confident in the analysis and answers of the left in this crucial period.
John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, outlined the scale of the impact of the crisis, with the New Economics Foundation estimating that more than 23 million people in Britain are living below the minimum income standard and the Resolution Foundation predicting that the hit on living standards caused by inflation will be “the defining economic event of 2022”. Far from intervening to address this, he argued, the government have exacerbated it through policies such as scrapping the pension triple lock, hiking rail fares and increasing National Insurance.
McDonnell linked the current situation to “the legacy of 40 years of neoliberalism… an economy built on finalisation and fossil fuels” and argued that “this is no time for half-hearted measures.. and no better time to win the debate on nationalisation”. He called for a programme including an inflation-proof pay rise for all workers, the restoration of the Universal Credit uplift, a profit cap on energy companies, rent freezes, investment in green jobs and the restoration of collective sectoral bargaining. Pledging support for ongoing and future industrial disputes, McDonnell concluded: “people can see the system is failing: it’s our responsibility to offer radical change”.
Closing the event, Willgress thanked all speakers and attendees – pledging that the Labour Assembly Against Austerity would continue to support all those fighting back against austerity “even when the frontbench don’t” and urged activists to carry on fighting inside the party and in wider movements.
- Ben Hayes is a volunteer for Arise: A Festival of Labour’s Left Ideas, and a member of Islington North CLP.
- “Workers Can’t Wait – Urgent action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis now!” took place on Wednesday, March 16th, 2022. You can watch it back here.