A unified call for change – the left mobilises ahead of the TUC’s “We Demand Better” demo


“This crisis is the product of political choices – it’s time to fight back and say enough is enough”

Ian Byrne MP urges activists to join the #DemandBetter demo on June 18th!

By Ben Hayes, Arise Festival volunteer

Ahead of the TUC’s national demonstration this Saturday, thousands of activists joined MPs, trade unionists and social movement campaigners at the ‘Enough Is Enough – Time To Demand Better’ online rally. Mobilising activist ahead of the urgent cost-of-living demo, the left came together for a unified call for change – read the report back or watch it in full below:

WATCH: Enough is enough – time to demand better! Held online on June 8th, 2022.

Chairing the event, Arise Festival organiser Matthew Willgress noted the positive development of a broad and determined alliance coming together to oppose “communities being made to pay for a crisis they didn’t create.” In particular, he highlighted the upcoming march as a clear chance to build the movement against austerity and “support for a programme of real change”. 

Dave Ward, General Secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, explained that he couldn’t remember a time where so many challenges were emerging on so many fronts – arguing that the current crisis is “the product of an imbalance of power and wealth over decades”. Ward called for June 18th to be “the birth of a new social movement” linking trade unions, community campaigns and left MPs, and for the use of a range of creative methods to advance an agenda based on “collective action to ensure we have collective bargaining.”

MP for Liverpool Riverside Kim Johnson described the current period as “class war”, with the left “under attack from the establishment and within the party”. Arguing that “behind the cost of living crisis is a corporate greed crisis”, with supermarkets announced record profits of more than £4 billion this year whilst people across the country feel the impact of rising food prices. Johnson called for a platform based on policies such the introduction of a wealth tax, a minimum wage of £15 an hour and an end to fire and rehire – and encouraged attendees to build support within their communities for Saturday’s demonstration as well as marching themselves.

Ian Byrne, MP for Liverpool West Derby argued that the current economic system is “utterly broken”, highlighting that a third of people in Liverpool live with food insecurity: “hunger is a political choice, and the only way it will change is if we demand it”. Emphasising that MPs can only be at their most effective when speaking up for a mass movement, the demonstration is important not only in terms of opposing the economic agenda of the Tories but also resisting their push to clamp down on the right to protest.

Byrne argued that this was not the time for “tinkering around the edges”, and applauded the support offered by trade unions for the Right to Food campaign as an example of the solidarity needed to build a movement which can “back workers in struggle and reach out to the unorganised”.

MP for Coventry South Zarah Sultana reflected on the 5th anniversary of the 2017 general election, arguing that Labour’s rise in vote share and seats “showed that our politics can win mass support” whilst revelations about the tactics used to try and undermine the party’s prospects illustrated the barriers the left faces. Whilst contending that “Boris Johnson’s time is up”, she warned that “no Tory will resolve the cost of living crisis”. Pointing out that Britain now has 177 billionaires and that bankers’ bonuses are at their highest since the financial crash of 2008, Sultana rejecting the idea that is a natural phenomenon: “this crisis is the product of political choices- it’s time to fight back and say enough is enough.”

Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, explained that “Boris Johnson’s failings are reflective of the class he represents”, with the Conservative Party operating in the interests of those “determined” to pursue attacks on living standards. He urged the labour movement to ensure revelations of parties at Downing Street not to become a distraction from the government’s handling of the pandemic (such as the awarding of ‘crony contracts’ and the high numbers of avoidable deaths in Britain), but rather to highlight how the last two years have shown “who exploits and who contributes”.

Reflecting on the levels of demoralisation currently seen in the fire service, Wrack called for “a movement which can force a change of direction and put power where it should be: in the hands of working people”.

General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka, outlined a series of reasons for members to join the march – including government proposals to cut 91,000 civil service jobs, reduce redundancy payments by 33% and offer a real terms pay cut of 9%. He also discussed the legal action the union is taking against the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, and the “appalling treatment” faced by PCS members working at Downing Street during the parties held in defiance of COVID safety measures.

Serwotka encouraged all those marching on Saturday to join and get active in their union if they aren’t already, calling for “coordination and unity”: “there has never been a more important time to win”.

Nasrin Warsame from Migrants Organise linked attacks on living standards with a wider offensive against rights in general, arguing that the government is seeking to further marginalise migrants and asylum seekers in order to “distract from their own failings”. Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the ‘hostile environment’ policy, she pointed out how “disposable” it showed migrants were viewed as- but also took encouragement from “growing resistance”, such as the activism against immigration raids. Warsame called for “links in struggle” to be established, promoting the week of action against the hostile environment and the migrants’ rights bloc on the TUC demonstration.

Labour peer John Hendy QC slammed the role of a “cartel of oil and gas companies” in recent price hikes, arguing that the cost of living crisis should be seen as part of “an ongoing transfer of wealth from labour to capital”. He pointed out that as well as currently falling in real value, wages for many in Britain still haven’t risen since 2008- attributing this to the result of a long term project of weaking collective bargaining and trade union organisation.

Emphasising that “employment rights are worth almost nothing without the mechanisms to enforce them”, Hendy called for a strengthening of unions as part of the response to the current period: “only a strong labour movement can defend the working class”.

John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, warned that “right-wing demagogues look for an enemy to attack to distract from their failings”- and predicted that the Johnson government will increasingly try and do this in relation to the RMT union. He argued that this made it all the more important for Saturday’s march to be “a show of strength and unity for the labour movement. McDonnell emphasised the importance of ensuring as big a demonstration as possible- arguing activists have “a collective responsibility to maximise turnout and use it as a launchpad” for a wider response to the attempt to drive down living standards.

MP for Cynon Valley Beth Winter criticised the “woefully inadequate” response on offer from the government, citing a local survey of over 600 constituents which found 90% said they were worse off than a year ago, 75% said they had been forced to cut down on their heating, and 33% had started skipping meals. Warning that “poverty is becoming normalised”, she argued “we should call this what it is: class war”.

Winter called for a strengthened trade union movement as a necessary prerequisite to “changing the balance of power”, emphasising the importance of standing with workers in struggle and launching a wave of organising across the country in the aftermath of Saturday’s demonstration, citing a local rally planned for July 9th as an example.

Streatham MP Bell Riberio-Addy highlighted some shocking statistics reflecting how catastrophically government policy has failed millions – firstly that the country’s COVID death toll is now almost 3 times as high as the number of British civilian casualties in the Second World War, and that Britain now has more food banks than it does branches of McDonalds. Linking the offensive against living standards with plans to restrict the right to protest, Riberio-Addy argued that a strong mobilisation for the TUC demonstration can help bolster the movement against both. 

Chair of North West Young Labour Mohammad Suhail, who is running for the International Officer position for the organisation nationally, argued that the struggle against austerity in Britain should be viewed as “part of a global fightback led by movements for justice”, raising the case of former Brazilian President Lula, who was released from prison after an international solidarity campaign (including being made Young Labour’s Honorary President) and currently enjoys a significant polling lead over far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro ahead of elections later this year.

Suhail encouraged the labour movement to both take inspiration from advances across the world and provide it by organising for a better future here.

Sakina Sheikh, Labour member of the London Assembly, noted that there had been an “intensification” of anti-trade union narratives in the media recently, and predicted further similar attempts to “pit workers against each other”. Citing the work done by Unite to strengthen organisation in the hospitality industry as an example of the initiatives which should be taken, Sheikh emphasised the importance of the labour movement offering a “clear alternative vision based on abundance not scarcity” in order to counteract a drive from right-wing politicians and media outlets to frame the period ahead as being about competing groups of workers battling for ever decreasing resources.

MP for Brent North Barry Gardiner discussed the testimony heard at a Parliamentary select committee of a woman who could only afford to put £1.36 into her prepayment meter- describing this as “the real energy crisis”. He then outlined various examples of how Britain’s current model is spreading insecurity for millions- with soaring rents and a lack of genuinely affordable homes blighting the housing sector and the Tories’ Health and Care Bill risking further damage to the health service. Gardiner also slammed an economic system which involves “subsidising companies paying poverty wages” and 60% of land in Britain being owned by less than 6,000 people.

He called for an alternative based on such as a wealth tax, the land reform measure outlined in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, scrapping anti-union laws and enshrining a right to food- praising campaigning done by Ian Byrne on the issue as “keeping my faith in the labour movement going”. His contribution closed with a call for the Labour Party to unite with trade unions to “stand up to those who want to keep us in our place”.

Labour NEC member Mish Rahman outlined the scale of the cost of living crisis in communities across Britain, with price hikes hitting hard and the Resolution Foundation estimating that well over a million people will fall into absolute poverty over the next year (with over half a million being children). Warning that “this is no time for caution”, he called for Labour to back an agenda of “welfare not warfare”- demanding increases in wages, social security and pensions in line with inflation “at a minimum” and public ownership of energy.

Rahman hoped that the Demand Better march would be the start of building support for a “dynamic alternative vision” which would challenge the current distribution of power and wealth. 

Zita Holborne from Black Activists Rising Against Cuts detailed how black communities have faced over a decade of austerity measures (which they have been disproportionately impacted by) alongside various reactionary immigration policies- warning that the current economic situation also risks creating conditions which can strengthen far-right forces. Citing recent findings from the Royal College of Nursing regarding discrimination faced by staff in the NHS, she emphasised that black workers “can least afford to bear the brunt” of the cost of living crisis.

Holborne called for a strong anti-austerity movement that puts up tackling inequality and taking on scapegoating at its core.

Morning Star editor Ben Chacko argued that “any change in Prime Minister needs to be followed by a change in policy” and called for social movements to “fill the gap in opposition” often being left by the shadow frontbench. Describing recent revelations involving police conduct as making the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill “even more worrying”, he predicted plans to introduce further US-style “anti-voting” laws and attacks on trade union rights would soon be following. Chacko assessed this increasingly draconian agenda as being the product of “an establishment still spooked by the example of Jeremy Corbyn and the movement he represented”, claiming this fear was behind attempts to “sow division amongst the left and attack prominent labour movement figures” – all the more reason, he stated, to ensure the TUC march helps bring about a unified and determined response.

Ian Lavery, MP for Wansbeck, emphasised the importance of “a labour movement rooted in communities” in the current period, with “the need for strong workplace representation greater than ever”. Offering his support to RMT members in their ongoing dispute, he described their cause as ultimately being about “decency in the workplace” and deserving of solidarity from across the labour movement. Noting that many workers are on course to reach two decades of stagnant wages, Lavery argued that “win or lose, it is always better to fight than give in”- and only a strong response from organised labour can win real and meaningful positive change.

Tribune writer Grace Blakeley characterised recent developments as representing a “crisis of conservatism”, viewing the ongoing spats inside the Tory Party as not simply about Johnson’s scandals but reflecting deeper internal divisions- with many backbenchers believing he has been too reluctant to openly embrace austerity economics.

She predicted that these tensions would continue to flare up as the contradictions within the coalition the Conservative Party had successfully built around Brexit come to a head- with an economic crisis forecast to be worse than 2008 and the repercussions of the environmental crisis looming. Blakeley argued that the experience of the Johnson government has shown that genuine new approach to economy “is not just about the size of the state but its orientation”, and called on the left “to build grassroots pressure in every area” demanding a much needed alternative.

NEC member Gemma Bolton described the Tories as being “united in their support for a failed economic system”, regardless of whether or not they favour a change in figurehead. Emphasising that the Demand Better demonstration “must not be the peak but the beginning of resistance to their agenda”, she outlined a series of policies that Labour should be championing- backing the demands of the Labour Assembly Against Austerity’s ‘Workers Can’t Wait’ campaign, a public sector pay rise, reversing cuts to Universal Credit and enshrining a right to food. Bolton echoed the words of Tony Benn, affirming that the labour movement should not be interested in “tinkering around the edges” by simply managing capitalism but instead offer fundamental transformation- and called for mass presence on the streets to kickstart a renewed fightback.

Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East slammed Tory plans for an “American-style casualisation” and those within the labour movement telling workers in struggle to wait until the next election- noting that increasing numbers “cannot afford to wait” and that “more strikes, protests and mobilisations will be needed in the months ahead”. Describing the government as “a reliable friend of bad bosses”, he outlined how “some are having a very good crisis”- with an all-time high number of billionaires in Britain, bosses of FTSE 100 companies having their pay rise to an average of £3.6 million a year, bankers getting increases in their bonuses of up to 25%– and energy companies making such large profits that they would still be bigger than prior to the price hike even if the ‘windfall tax’ announced by Rishi Sunak had been twice as big.

This, Burgon argued, exposes the hypocrisy of calls for “wage restraint” for workers: “it’s time for profit restraint- you can’t wish away class but decide which side you are on”. He called for ‘inflation-proofing’ of wages, benefits and pensions, the restoration of the Universal Credit uplift, caps on rent, energy and food prices, and a one-off 10% on wealth above £100 million- raising £69 billion. Whilst acknowledging that the Tories have “absolutely no intention” of implementing such measures, he viewed as strong movement as being capable of forcing concessions – encouraging activists to build the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the Labour Assembly within it, using the TUC demonstration as a “spark for action across the country”. Citing the example of industrial action taken by RMT members, he claimed that “the public can be won with challenges to right-wing narratives”, with increasing numbers seeing through “those who are paid more than transport workers to read bile about them on the radio”.

Instead of these attempts at division, Burgon stated that a strong labour movement “can be the tide that lifts all boats”, asking: “if not now, when?”

Closing the event, Matthew Willgress thanked all speakers and attendees – and encouraged everyone to attend Saturday’s demonstration before joining the online Arise Festival later this month.

Featured image: People’s Assembly demonstration in London June 26th, 2021. Credit: Labour Outlook archive.

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