Sometimes it seems as though British politics is one grand cartel, or a gentleman’s agreement, if you like. Certain questions will not be asked; opposition often amounts to quibbling over the finer details or nuances of a policy, or the competence of its delivery.
Austerity is a given, though its speed and scale may be queried; all agree on selling chunks of our public services to private sector vultures, though the extent may be challenged; the fact our workers have some of the worst rights in the Western world, that large corporations sitting on a cash pile worth £750bn are expected to pay less and less, that our banks are bailed out with the public’s dosh but are not under our control – none of this is seriously questioned.
If this cartel is ever disrupted, it is from the right. Ukip has surged in part because of a widespread sense that the political establishment are all in it together, to coin a phrase. Hard-right pressure groups like the Taxpayers Alliance out-flank the Conservatives, and in doing so drive the nation’s political conversation ever rightwards.
With the help of supposed newspaper reporters – in reality, often thinly veiled Government propagandists – the Tories have ruthlessly redirected growing anger at ever-tumbling living standards towards our neighbours: people thrown out of work, people who still have intact pensions, disabled people suspected of inventing their conditions for benefits, and so on. The latest target are immigrants. New arrivals will be barred from joining council housing waiting lists – which most are stuck on for years as it is – for up to five years. We have a scandalous shortage of council housing. Up to five million people languish on waiting lists. But the fault lies squarely with both the Tories and New Labour for selling off stock and failing to replace it. Convenient, then, to conjure up the spectre of the scrounging foreigner instead.
Well, the great British political cartel now faces a new challenge. On Tuesday, I’ll be helping to launch the People’s Assembly with Green MP Caroline Lucas, my fellow Independent columnist Mark Steel, disability rights campaigner Francesca Martinez, Labour MP Katy Clark, and leading trade unionists. The aim of the Assembly is to unite all opponents of the horror show being inflicted on this country. On 22 June, there will be a 3,500-strong meeting at Westminster Central Hall, but in the meantime, I and others will be touring the country, encouraging local groups to be set up in every town and city.
Here’s the rationale for the Assembly. It is unacceptable that – five years on from the near-collapse of the global financial system – there is no broad anti-austerity movement. In a week’s time, the British poor will face the biggest organised mugging in generations, with the bedroom tax, cuts to working people’s tax credits, council tax benefit, housing benefit, and so on. Each year, the average Briton is poorer than the last. “Now is the period when the cost is being paid,” said Mervyn King, and that was two years ago. “I’m surprised the real anger hasn’t been greater than it has.”
There’s actually plenty of anger out there, but there’s something else missing. It was the US politician Harvey Milk who said: “I know that you cannot live on hope alone but, without it, life is not worth living.” Anger without hope tends to amount to despair, frustration and resignation – and that is what has to change.
Hope for change
Inevitably, such an initiative will have to plough through a fair amount of cynicism from both left and right. Put “left” into a sentence including “piss-up” and “brewery”, and few would disagree. But this isn’t going to fall into the trap of being a recruitment exercise for some obscure sect with newspapers to flog. It’s being driven by a formidable coalition of unions such as Unite, Unison and PCS, representing millions of workers in both the private and public sector; Labour activists and the Green Party; campaigners for disabled people, tax justice, women, BME people; and people frankly who are just stranded and without a political home. It’s not the 867th attempt to set up yet another doomed left-wing party, but a movement that will nonetheless fill a chasm in British politics.
This has implications for the Labour leadership, of course. It’s not as if there haven’t been any other determined attempts to challenge austerity: like huge strikes by teachers, health workers, bin collectors and other public-sector workers; two huge TUC-organised demonstrations against austerity; and the efforts of campaigners, such as tax avoidance crusaders UK Uncut. But there has been no sustained, permanent movement to take on the whole austerity consensus. Most pressure on Labour’s leaders comes from the right. But the appetite for a far more confident, courageous voice of opposition to the Tories’ ideological hijacking of the financial crisis exists. It will now be satisfied.
The Tories have counted on opposition being too fragmented to withstand their shock-and-awe offensive. But in doing so they have inadvertently created a potentially formidable coalition. There may be no end in sight for Britain’s depressing icy winter, but it’s springtime for opposition to the nightmare of austerity. The People’s Assembly offers the one thing missing from British politics: hope.