Alternative solutions to the #costofliving crisis – A discussion with the Labour Assembly Against Austerity

“Whilst the key causes of the crisis were not new, their material impact is beginning to hit harder than ever – with real pay for many still lower than in 2007.”

By Ben Hayes, Islington North CLP & Arise Festival Volunteer

This week, hundreds of Labour and trade union movement activists joined the Labour Assembly Against Austerity for an in depth discussion: “The Cost of Living Crisis Deepens – What is the Economic Alternative?” The online forum heard a range of perspectives on the key tasks for the left in the current period and the policies it needs to promote.

You can read the report-back or watch the event in full:

WATCH: #CostofLivingCrisis deepens – What is the economic alternative?

Chairing the event, Labour NEC member Gemma Bolton opened the meeting, stating that it was clear Boris Johnson needs to leave Downing Street – and a movement to defeat the wider Tory offensive on health, jobs, livelihoods and rights needs to follow his departure. Bolton called for the left to support the various campaigns developing against the government’s agenda, and unify them around a bold alternative.

MP for Hemsworth Jon Trickett linked the current crisis to “a failure of economic orthodoxy going back decades,” arguing that “the underlying structures of British capitalism make it an increasingly difficult place to live”. Emphasising that “palliative measures” will not be sufficient to address the scale of the problems faced by millions, he called for a long term strategy to create a “new kind of economy” based on policies such as increased taxes on wealth, greater public ownership, and an end to the approach of austerity. Trickett concluded his contribution with a case for the left to “offer solidarity and support to those to those fighting back and connect their struggles with a set of ideas about the future”, arguing that the Tory proposals for further anti-protest laws illustrate that they are preparing for the wave of opposition their policies will be met met with- and that the left needs to be ready for it too. 

Özlem Onaran, Professor of Economics at the University of Greenwich, argued that whilst the key causes of the crisis were not new, their material impact is beginning to hit harder than ever – with real pay for many still lower than in 2007. Arguing that “it doesn’t have to be like this”, she criticised the approach of the Bank of England, calling for a response which “targets profit margins instead of wages” as opposed to increasing interest rates. Onaran also encouraged attendees to join a trade union and back the campaign for a £15 minimum wage. As well as these immediate measures, she proposed rent caps, the creation of public investment banks, and a “Red-Purple-Green New Deal” to invest in green infrastructure, care services, social housing and public transport- stating that “we have have the answers- let’s organise to deliver them”. 

Young Labour’s National Student Representative Nabeela Mowlana highlighted that at the same time as people across the country face soaring energy bills and are told to consider declining a pay rise by the Governor of the Bank of England, numerous suppliers have recorded record profits and the Governor receives a salary of over half a million pounds. She made the case for the relevance of policies from Labour’s last two general election manifestos when it comes to addressing the current economic situation, arguing that policies such a Green New Deal, a Wealth Tax and the establishment of a National Education Service “should not become forgotten pledges”. Echoing calls for viewers to become active in trade unions and community campaigns, Mowlana affirmed Young Labour’s commitment to defending socialist policy- and “working to raise consciousness to raise living standards”. 

Laura Pidcock, National Secretary of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, argued that the notion the cost of living crisis is a natural phenomenon needs to be rejected- describing it instead as the product of “over a decade of austerity and an even longer attack on organised labour”. Noting that “everything has gone up but incomes”, she cited figures from the Resolution Foundation estimating another 1.3 million people in Britain are set to fall into absolute poverty – over 500,000 of which will be children.

Pidcock criticised the failure of Labour Party leadership to provide a clear alternative to the government’s agenda, emphasising that the situation for working class communities “will only worsen without agitation against more and more power and wealth going into the hands of fewer and fewer people”. Calling for the left to assert itself and build movements directing the blame for the crisis squarely at those in power, she encouraged activists to join and help build the People’s Assembly.

Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell outlined the scale of deprivation facing huge numbers of people in Britain today, with the Food Foundation finding that over 7 million adults are regularly skipping meals. He warned that “this is just the start of the crisis”, with huge energy price increases and “out of control” rents set to inflict yet more misery.

Slamming the government’s response as “worse than pathetically useless”, he highlighted that Rishi Sunak boasted of giving tax relief to big business at the same time as cutting Universal Credit payments. McDonnell put forward an alternative response based on policies including “inflation-proofing” the value of wages, benefits and pensions, controls on rent, energy and food prices, and a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ at a time when the City continues to boom. Calling on the left to “mobilise the demand for change”, he praised successful recent industrial disputes as offering the beginning of a “new model of trade unionism” and called for an alliance between unions and social movements to organise in defence of living standards. 

Questions raised by online participants covered topics including public sector pay, the extent to which tax credits have been used to prop up low pay, and how the left can shift the media debate. There were also contributions from those taking part in initiatives such as setting up a community kitchen and organising stalls to promote the upcoming TUC national demonstration.

Özlem Onaran discussed low levels of pay and high workloads in higher education causing large numbers of young lecturers to leave the sector, but also described the sense of “empowerment” felt by those who had taken part in industrial action, and emphasised building a “critical mass” to demand change. In response to the question of challenging the narrative of much of the media, Nabeela Mowlana argued that whilst the majority of the press will ultimately be on board with an austerity-based strategy, “what we have is numbers and organisation.” She called for popular campaigns to help make sure the voice of the majority cannot be drowned out, adding that eventually “objective reality will intrude” for the government. John McDonnell said that the left needed to be able to channel growing mass anger and relate to new emerging movements in order to utilise the potential of the period ahead.

Concluding the event, Gemma Bolton thanked all panellists and attendees and called for support for initiatives such as Labour Outlook, Labour Assemblys Workers Can’t Wait campaign, and the upcoming We Demand Better national demonstration called by the TUC on Saturday 18th June.

  • You can watch the online forum: “The #CostofLivingCrisis deepens – What is the economic alternative?” on the Arise Festival YouTube here.
  • You can follow the Labour Assembly Against Austerity on Facebook and twitter.
Featured image: protesters marched from Parliament Square along Whitehall towards Downing Street on the 12 February 2022. Photo credit: Alisdare Hickson, Flickr, licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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