The Left is on the front foot - we can't let this moment pass
What a difference a demo makes. Just hours after around 100k of us took to the streets of London, the Tories started telling anyone who cared to listen that they recognised the public sector pay cap couldn’t go on indefinitely, that the pay review bodies dealing with police and teachers’ pay are meeting soon and that they will likely award amounts that bust the pay cap. This, in itself, is highly disingenuous since the government has previously instructed pay review bodies not to go above 1%. It also rips out another page of the manifesto from hell, which they launched less than two short months ago.
Who can doubt that this u-turn (and the likely one over school funding cuts) is down to political pressure? It’s finally sinking into the Tories that their policies are deeply unpopular and that they are likely to lose office soon, hence the desperate scrambling to throw policies, advisers and anything else that might help steady the boat overboard.
The demonstration was tremendously important. It was much bigger than many expected, incredibly diverse and angry about the Grenfell fire, the deal with the DUP and the selective access to the magic money tree. All of which have come to crystallise the hurt, bewilderment and anger at the fact that nearly a decade after the banks were bailed out at the cost of trillions worldwide, working people are seeing their schools and health services cut, the worst housing crisis since the Second World War, pay cuts and job insecurity. It was a magnificent turnout, diverse in every respect, and there was a sense that the left is on the offensive and that we can win. There were so many home-made placards as well as those printed from different organisations, and on the tube home I saw loads of people carrying placards home (usually a sign of new protesters).
The sense that the left is starting to win has its roots of course in the general election result, where Jeremy Corbyn gained seats and Theresa May lost them and lost her overall majority. That result was helped not just by Corbyn and his team in parliament, but by the campaigning done by many organisations outside Labour, including unions such as the NUT, doctors and nurses, and organisations I’m associated with such as the Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly, with its billboards and Captain Ska Liar Liar song.
The mood of defiance has been helped post-election by May’s daily signs of ineptitude and her deal with the DUP (just look at the polls only three weeks on), and also by the strong support from trade unions and from John McDonnell’s call for 1 million on the streets against austerity. In my speech on Saturday, I said that we can’t wait for an election, that we have to organise and mobilise now, that we have to build in workplaces, communities, schools, colleges, to get even bigger demonstrations and protests across the country. We also need to put the wheels in motion for strikes against the public sector pay cap. I would say from the other speeches, from the response of the crowd, and from the determination shown on the demo itself, that the vast majority of the Left is travelling in this direction.
A theme which ran right through the demo was Justice for Grenfell. There were placards about it, I think nearly every speaker mentioned it, and it evoked howls of rage from the audience at the inhumanity of the treatment meted out to its victims and to working class London more generally. It is easy to think that Kensington and Chelsea Tory councillors are heartless, pathologically incapable of relating to the feelings and concerns of ordinary people. Listening to Catherine Faulks on the radio before the demo it is hard to disagree. This Tory councillor just oozed contempt for the people around Grenfell, refused to accept that the council had done anything wrong, claimed protesters at the town hall were not local residents, and dismissed airily the accusation that rent for Grenfell was still being deducted.
But it isn’t just that these people are horrible. They are – and so horrible even some journalists who probably share their general political outlook are shocked. It’s about power, money and that word we’re not supposed to talk about anymore – class. Kensington and Chelsea has always been riven class-wise in quite an extreme way, but in the past two decades these extremes have widened and have become more obvious. And while improvements in housing were part of the post-war settlement during the long boom, that has now gone into reverse, with housing conditions for millions worsening as people pay more for overcrowded and often dangerous housing.
As the gap between rich and poor widens, so class contempt has grown – the sort of contempt that means working class families are treated like animals, forced to work harder and harder to keep up, or if they cannot, are demonised as scroungers and welfare cheats. Meanwhile, the real scroungers are sitting in private estates, using private hospitals and schools, driving in luxury cars and blocking out the sight and sound of those less ‘desirable’ who nonetheless prepare and serve their food, clean their streets, empty their bins and look after their children. It is this which allows Faulks and her sort to be so contemptuous. What terrifies the Tories is that class is now back in a big way, and working class people are trying to grab back a bigger share of the wealth they produce.
So they should. Grenfell highlights this. When the ruling class wants something to happen, it happens. When war is declared, millions are spent every day and very quickly to get results. The Olympics had a superhighway to transport the rich, despite London traffic. Office blocks and luxury apartments are built very quickly to serve the needs of the rich. Yet with poor people, it’s all different. We still don’t know the names of or numbers of people who died in Grenfell. Council chiefs only went after two weeks and after the most appallingly arrogant behaviour. No one has been prosecuted, and there is little sense of urgency about fixing the state of council housing in this country.
Getting any redress for Grenfell and the wider injustices highlighted by it means working people organising for themselves to bring about change.
Can Labour’s right sink much lower?
I was so annoyed about the Chuka Umunna amendment over the single market that I wrote to my MP, who was one of the supporters of it. It was clear that this was a marker by Labour’s right that it is going to try to organise across parties in order to ignore the referendum result and to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. That means allying with parties to the right of Corbyn’s Labour –including the nationalists, the Lib Dems, and – yes- also the Greens. This plan will have been hatched long before June 8th, and will have been based on the assumption that Corbyn would do badly in the election and so be forced out or possibly – if he stayed – that there would be a split in Labour. Despite ample helpings of humble pie, this lot are up to their old tricks again. Umunna, of course, wanted to get Tory Remainers on board but they’re too frightened to play ball, so it didn’t really succeed.
Corbyn was so right to sack those shadow ministers involved. Even though they are not on the right of the party they played a rotten role, made worse by lack of gratitude and/or understanding of the role he played in getting them increased majorities. They are cover for the right, which wants a centre party, Macron style, which can carry on the neoliberal project. It must be –even in these tumultuous political times – that such a creature will emerge in the next few years. No one on the Left should have anything to do with it.
How universal benefits actually work
The Tories are even talking about cuts in tuition fees. A response again to Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto (although a false conclusion about why so many young people voted for him – it was about so much more). But the argument keeps coming that free education is a subsidy to the middle class. The fallacy here is that this is true of every element of welfare/state spending. Countless studies have shown over decades that the middle classes do much better from the welfare state than the working class. They get better schools, better healthcare, better council services, better leisure services.
Are we to conclude from this that the middle class should be excluded from these areas? That they should have to pay for health, education, the use of parks, bin collections? No, the conclusion should be that standards are raised for everyone, not cut. There would be outcry if suddenly everyone in Tunbridge Wells had to pay for state schools, and quite rightly. So there should be no such argument about higher education. Education should be the right of everyone, at whatever level and whatever age. There is much evidence that fees are deterring children from working class backgrounds, as well as older workers who want to take degrees.
Indeed, it is arguable that fees, and the introduction of the market into higher education, have led to greater differentiation in class terms between different universities. The Russell Group and Oxbridge are the most aspirational and competitive, and much harder to get into for working class kids, including those from ethnic minorities and from comprehensive schools. I occasionally use the library at the LSE, where I was a student many years ago. The number of designer handbags probably is on a par with Bond Street. The present system already benefits the rich. I would like to see free tuition, grants, and some quotas to change the set-up of all this.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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