“The Conservative politicians in charge won’t contemplate taking the necessary steps to tackle the cost-of-living crisis in any meaningful way because to do so would be to step on the toes of the wealthy and the powerful they are determined to protect and serve at all costs.”
By Laura Smith
This was yet another week in which it is clear that politics in this country is circling the plughole. The gulf is widening between the stage-set of Westminster – where all eyes were on the ridiculous pantomime of partygate and beergate or the flummery of the Queen’s Speech – while out in the real world more and more people are struggling to make ends meet as they are fed into the meatgrinder of a growing cost-of-living crisis the likes of which most of us have never seen.
The Queen’s Speech took place with all the customary pomp and ceremony that just seems more and more absurd each time it takes place. The warm fuzzy feelings the monarch herself seems to instil in some seemed to evaporate with the much less popular figure of Prince Charles sitting in the golden throne of the House of Lords, while the elephant in the room was the contrast between our ruling elites and those over whom they rule. ‘Cost-of-living crisis?’ the scene practically screamed, ‘Not for this lot, there’s not!’
The ability to take any of this seriously becomes harder by the day. The parlour games of Parliament exhaust people, making them feel helpless and alienated. More often than not, they conclude ‘They’re all the same, why bother?’ And who can disagree? The nonsense of beergate and goodness knows what next is all having the desired impact, a confected distraction from what’s actually going on in this country. As I overheard two strangers on the train discuss with one another this week: “I don’t watch the news any more, it makes me too angry. It seems like they are laughing at us.”
It’s easy to see why. As more and more people tune out – how low was the turnout at the local elections? – as a means of protecting their mental wellbeing, our politicians appear more and more like bad actors on the stage, a series of gargoyles and grotesques.
Whether it’s Michael Gove’s bizarre cringe-worthy antics on the BBC, or Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to Boris Johnson, revealing that the Prime Minister personally negotiated ‘direct bungs’ to newspapers in the form of Covid payments, or indeed Lee Anderson, former Labour councillor turned right-wing Tory MP for Ashfield, spouting nonsense that people are using foodbanks because they can’t cook or budget properly, it really does seem as if politicians are just taking the mick. Little wonder that, sullen and dispirited, the general public are turning away out of disgust at the overall state of things.
In ordinary times it might be possible to get away with this; but not now. UK households are currently experiencing the biggest fall in living standards since records began. Inflation is soaring – expected to exceed ten percent in the autumn – with the price of food, energy, and other basic necessities rising significantly faster than wages and social security payments. In the school playground at end of day pick-up, and in local WhatsApp groups of which I am a member, friends and neighbours are now worrying about how they will get by. I hear numerous instances of families ‘cutting back’ dramatically – something that will of course have a negative impact on the local and national economy.
As people stop using small businesses for things like haircuts, beauty treatments, meals, nights out or clubs and sport – all the little things that make life pleasurable – the financial insecurity and economic contraction will spread.
Amid all the pomp and political jockeying at Westminster there seems to be little serious recognition of what this will mean. As one out-of-touch senior government official ludicrously briefed, “there’s been enough pain relief. It’s time for the surgery the economy needs.” The agony, of course, is always for others to bear.
It’s abundantly clear who will be suffering the cost-of-living crisis and paying for Covid – and it won’t be the pompous privileged parasites sitting at the top, currently gifted with the job of making our laws. Nor will telling people to tighten their belts help the economy in any way shape or form, not to mention bring about the rapid decarbonisation and green transition the planet so urgently needs.
The paucity of vision was summed up by Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation, whose verdict on the Queen’s Speech and Opposition response was that ‘British politics is out of ideas’. The Conservative politicians in charge won’t contemplate taking the necessary steps to tackle the cost-of-living crisis in any meaningful way because to do so would be to step on the toes of the wealthy and the powerful they are determined to protect and serve at all costs.
But it would be a mistake to think that our rulers are simply doing nothing. Unwilling to tackle the causes of the cost-of-living crunch, they are instead preparing for its consequences. Whilst people are squeezed and more and more face poverty, the Queen’s Speech has one overarching theme: to increase the power of the British state over its citizens, particularly when it comes to policing and restricting the democratic rights to protest and political engagement. Because let’s face it, even the Tories aren’t that stupid! They know that what is coming will cause a backlash from the public, and that protest and civil unrest is becoming ever more likely.
After decades of neoliberalism and austerity, and with Covid and now the cost-of-living crunch, the country is increasingly like a powder keg. Any spark might blow the lid off, with unpredictable consequences. And so, unwilling to act to improve people’s material circumstances, the government want to make sure we are limited in what we can do. This is a direct attack on our freedoms and rights – we are being tied up and gagged whilst they continually rob us blind.
The priorities for the government, as set out in one of the most regressive legislative programmes we have ever seen, is increasing jail terms for climate protesters and growing police powers, including stop-and-search despite the overwhelming evidence that these are deployed in a racist way. Authoritarian legislation attacking human rights and eroding democratic participation is the new norm. All whilst an estimated 1.3 million people, including half a million children, are set to fall into absolute poverty in the coming year.
By contrast, there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech on the long-awaited Employment Bill or on increasing protections for workers. In fact, what we are seeing is exactly what I predicted back when I was an MP desperately trying to make the case for a worker-friendly Brexit under a radical Labour Government and not the catastrophe of a ‘People’s Vote.’ The government want to accelerate the process of diminishing workers’ rights, stripping people’s power to organise and collectively bargain for higher wages and improved working conditions. Low wages, economic insecurity, and deepening inequalities of wealth and power have always been part of the Tories’ ideology. They work in the interests of capital at all costs.
We desperately need Labour to be pushing policies to repeal anti-trade union laws and rebalance power if they are truly to build a stronger economy. It’s not rocket science that people with money in their pockets will spend in their communities—and be more willing to back laws that rebuild the public sphere and protect the environment. Do you know who won’t do any of that? Wealthy shareholders and billionaires squirreling away money in offshore bank accounts.
Of course, the Tories’ Brexit was always going to be a vehicle to attack ordinary people and to benefit their class interests whilst fuelling a culture war. That’s why it is so unforgivable that for many supposedly on the ‘left’ and in the ‘centre,’ the political priority was stopping a radical and transformative Corbyn Labour government even at the cost of allowing a known racist and lying misogynist and disaster capitalist to take control of the reins. Rather than listen to the cries of protest from those who have been worst hit over decades of decline and were desperate for a break from the status quo, they wrecked the only viable alternative and left them to the rhetoric of the far right. If Labour ever wants to win again then they will need to get serious about what is wrong and what needs to change to fix it, just as we did in 2017.
This isn’t about going backwards. It’s not hard to find powerful examples of progressive thinking within the party; it’s happening in Wales and parts of Scotland, as well as in towns and cities like Preston and through projects being taken forward by Labour mayors in the North. What is very clear from the last decade is that the status quo is not working for most people and that they want to see change – which they don’t think of as ‘left’ or ‘right’ but are willing to judge on its own terms. Let’s not allow that desperation for change to be captured by far right racist rhetoric designed to set those who should recognise their similarities against one another in a messed up culture war. Class war is what we are facing – and we need to start fighting and winning.
The government is massively vulnerable on the cost-of-living crisis. They can be forced into reversals by popular actions and demands. Crucially, the Labour movement should be calling for actual solutions that get at the underlying causes, demanding the nationalisation of energy companies and boldly making the case as to how and why privatisation has failed workers and customers alike.
Never has there been a time in living memory when it was more necessary for the Labour and trade union movement to rally together and stand firm. Only through building our power and standing together shoulder to shoulder against an assault on our rights and living standards and the widespread imposition of social pain will we win. And win we must – because the alternative is frankly too terrifying to comprehend. There is only so far that you can push people before there is a backlash, and in the absence of a left alternative that backlash can all too easily swing far, far to the right – as can be seen in many countries around the world.
I will be travelling to the TUC march in London on the 18th June to demand better. I hope as many of you as can do so will also be joining. But if you can’t get to London, join the fightback, look at what you can do in your own community right now. If you are not in one then join a trade union, and link in with the People’s Assembly. Remember that if it all seems frightening and overwhelming you are not alone in how you feel – and that those whose interests are driving the present crisis profit from you feeling that way.
We must pull our strength together in collective action. It is going to be a tough time ahead, so people get ready.
- Laura Smith is a trade unionist, councillor in Cheshire East and former MP for Crewe & Nantwich. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.
- You can read Labour Outlook‘s round-up of the left’s response to the Queen’s Speech; and watch our exclusive interview analysis with Rebecca Long-Bailey here.