Whenever I fret about the left’s prospects in austerity Britain, I remind myself about my great uncle’s cause in the 1930s. A Methodist lay preacher with a passion for socialism, he lived in Liverpool, a city then riven with sectarian division between Catholics and Protestants. It was a grim time for people like him. Capitalism was in crisis, but fascism was devouring democracy and murdering socialists across Europe. Russian Bolshevism had degenerated into a Stalinist nightmare. In Britain, the Labour Party was nearly wiped out as a political force in 1931. Uncle John was on the football team of the leftist Independent Labour Party when it upped sticks and left in disgust at Labour’s betrayals and disappointments. Its membership imploded, and it receded into near-irrelevance.
I bet Uncle John had the occasional downer about all of that, so I usually tell myself to cheer up. That said, five years since the financial system belly-flopped into an empty pool, it’s not boom-time for the left.
It is easy to mock Ukip as a bunch of fruitcakes and racists, but fair play to them: they’ve done a far better job at tapping into a pandemic contempt for Britain’s crisis-ridden order. The unemployed; disabled benefit claimants; immigrants; public sector workers: all have come under far more sustained attack than those who plunged this country – and much of the world – into disaster. We’ve burned your house down, say the Tories: so it’s only fair we burn down your less deserving neighbour’s house, too. As for the Labour leadership’s confident, coherent alternative to Tory austerity – well, I’ll let you finish laughing before you read on.
And yet having spent the last two years zig-zagging across Britain, I know there’s no shortage of anger and fear out there. Anger, from the kids at a Sheffield sixth-form who simply could not understand why their futures were down-payments for a crisis they had nothing to do with. Fear, from the young woman with a little daughter in Hackney driven from her home by benefit cuts, forced to bring her up in sheltered accommodation. But there’s one thing missing – and this isn’t a throwaway platitude – and that’s hope.
It doesn’t matter how convulsed with anger and fear people get: without hope, they end up resigned. They know their children will be the first generation to be poorer than them, but it becomes almost a cruel fact of life, an unavoidable tragedy like the disappearance of the British summer.
This has to change, and it already is. A movement demanding an alternative to austerity – a project that has failed even on its own stated terms – is being born. Earlier this year, a potentially formidable coalition was formed, made of unions representing millions of private and public sector workers, the Green Party, Labour activists, students, those fighting for disabled people, elderly people, women, BME people – and, perhaps most importantly of all – those bereft of a political home.
The People’s Assembly has already packed meeting halls in cities across Britain, like Sheffield, Bristol, Brighton, Newcastle, Nottingham: in Manchester, for example, over 800 turned up. At each, there was the same energy: a sense of “thank God, we are finally getting our act together”. On 22 June, thousands will convene at a mass Assembly in Westminster Central Hall: it will not only be a show of force, but a launchpad for a missing force in British politics.
As we know, nature abhors a vacuum. It is not that champions of progressive politics do not already exist: it’s just they are hopelessly fragmented. There are the likes of UK Uncut, who have driven the injustice of tax avoidance on to the agenda. Occupy reminded us who caused the crisis, and who is being made to pay for it. Trade unions have mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers in strikes and demonstrations. The Greens – not least through their redoubtable MP Caroline Lucas – have linked the environmental crisis to the economic crisis. Progressive Labour activists and MPs have stood firm, demanding their leadership offers a genuine alternative. Disabled activists – on the streets, on social media – have roared back at cuts hammering the most vulnerable people in society.
None of this will be replaced by the People’s Assembly: it will just help bring them together with local groups in every town and city. Some will want a movement that puts pressure on Labour to do the job it was founded to do, fighting for working people; others think that’s about as productive as mating with a toaster. That doesn’t matter: it’s a broad movement, not a party, and there is a shared determination to give a platform to those hit by the Government’s austerity offensive, and to push an alternative that gives people hope. “We can’t afford to cock this up this time round,” as a young man put it to me in Nottingham.
It is a movement emerging in a Britain of thriving food banks, falling living standards, and housing insecurity; where the desperation for work is so intense that 645 people recently applied for an administrator job in Hull. It will come up against the sneers and venom of smug middle-aged pub bores (otherwise known as the “liberal commentariat”); Tories and Blairites, dismissive of anything not drenched in free-market dogma; and even left-wing sects, unable to explain why they have failed to grow five years into the biggest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression. It will have to prove them all wrong.
Letting councils build houses and controlling rents, rather than subsidising landlords; a living wage, instead of state-subsidised low wages; an industrial strategy to create hundreds of thousands of renewable jobs, instead of the misery of unemployment; an all-out war against tax avoidance worth £25bn a year; public control of the banks we bailed out: here are demands that have long been ignored. They won’t be ignored any more.
The Labour leadership will face a new reality, too. They’ve taken it as read that they are the sole national spokespeople for the left; the only standard-bearers of an alternative to Tory calamity. Because their main competitors have been on the right, the terms of debate have been kept on the terms of the wealthy and powerful. No longer. The fragmented strands of progressive Britain are coming together; the anti-austerity movement is making its belated appearance. Finally, the left is entering the ring.