“The growing workers’ struggles we are seeing offer the seeds of building a better future society. One that puts an end to the 40-year domination of neoliberalism, marketisation, deregulation and privatisation.”Richard Burgon MP
By Richard Burgon MP
International Workers’ Day is a day of celebration of our struggles as a class: the struggles for justice by the 99% who make the wealth in our society.
It is a celebration of the movements we have built to help create a better world and of the victories we have achieved in building that better world. Victories from securing the right to vote to the abolition of slavery, from the 8-hour day to the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.
It is a day when we remember those struggles and the giants of the movement who stood before us. But it’s also a day when we recommit to deepening our struggles to change this society for the better. For, as the great slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglas once said “If there is no struggle, there is no progress… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
This May Day we can take great hope from one of the biggest shifts we have seen in recent years: the working class is back. Working people have taken a stand through strike action against attempts by the rich and powerful to make them pay for another economic crisis that they did not create.
I have stood on picket lines with nurses and health workers, with teachers, with railway workers and dockers, with cleaners and civil service workers, with lecturers and postal workers and with so many others over the last year. I go to show my solidarity for their fights for justice – but they also give me hope. These workers are clear that they won’t accept paying the price any more. And why should they?
I’m sick of the rich and powerful claiming that workers should accept pay cuts to tackle inflation – when it’s the “Greedflation” of the big corporations that’s helping to drive the higher prices we all face.
And I’m sick of the rich and powerful – like the Bank of England’s chief economist did this week – telling people to just accept that they’re going to be poorer, while corporate profits are soaring and billionaires are raking it in.
The rich in our society are getting richer and richer precisely because workers are getting less and less. As the author Victor Hugo once wrote, “The paradise of the rich is made out of the hell of the poor.”
Wages now are not only lower than they were 15 years ago. If wages had continued to grow over the last 15 years at the rate they did in the 15 years before that then each worker would be paid £11,000 more per year.
But that hasn’t happened, so where has all that wealth gone? Into lining the profits of the corporations, into funding the luxury lifestyles of the billionaire class and into the offshore bank accounts of the tax dodgers.
We must point that out every time the rich and powerful claim say wage rises are not affordable or claim there’s no money to invest in our public services. The truth is that there’s plenty of profits that we could redistribute to give workers a pay rise. And there’s plenty of wealth that we could tax to invest in a better society.
So this May Day, let’s commit to stepping up the fight for wealth taxes, for Windfall Taxes on all those companies driving up prices to exploit this crisis for their own gain, and for public ownership of the rip-off privatised industries, like the rail companies that make millions in profits while the service crumbles before our eyes.
Let’s step up the fight for redistribution and for a more equal society to be a key part of our solution to this crisis.
And let’s step up our campaign to defend the freedoms and democratic rights our movement won over many decades which are now under attack from this Tory Government.
As the Tories become increasingly unpopular, as their failures become clearer to the vast majority of people and as they are faced with a growing clamour for change, they have responded with an authoritarian turn. One that aims to close off many of the avenues that ordinary people have to challenge the Tories’ reactionary agenda.
The Tories have clamped down on the right to protest, the right to strike and even the ability to vote through the imposition of Voter ID. However they spin it, this is a clear voter suppression strategy targeting working class communities and in particular young and ethnic minority voters.
This attack on core freedoms is a key part of the Tories’ political response to the mounting opposition they face. So too is their attempt to scapegoat and sow division by whipping up hostility against the most vulnerable – such as asylum seekers fleeing war and violence or trans people in so-called culture wars. All this is done by the Tories to distract from their own failings.
Our response to that message of division must be to build unity. Unity of the 99% – of the working class in all its diversity.
Our response must be about building solidarity and our response must be about offering hope, not fear.
For May Day in 1894, Walter Crane, a prolific figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, created the image The Workers’ Maypole. Its messages then still resonate today. It calls for ‘solidarity’ and ‘humanity’ and for ‘no starving children’, for “leisure for all” and for the “abolition of privilege”. And it declares “The cause of labour is the hope of the world.”
Let that message of hope be the one we take into May Day this year. The growing workers’ struggles we are seeing offer the seeds of building a better future society. One that puts an end to the 40-year domination of neoliberalism, marketisation, deregulation and privatisation.
Our job is to build on those workers’ struggles. People want this Government out. They want change. The polls show people want a more inclusive, fairer, society. Let’s recommit today to building the movements that can ensure the progressive political change we need to see.
- This is an edit of a speech given by Richard Burgon MP at the Arise – A Festival of Left Ideas & Tribune May Day Rally.
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- Richard Burgon is the MP for Leeds East and the Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.