People's Question Time An absolutely packed People's Question Time - organised by the People's Assembly Against Austerity. Photograph: Clare Solomon

Chris Nineham on why we need to lead the fight against inequality and for democracy

Ukip’s recent advances have strengthened the view that the right is on a roll. We have recently had the launch of a new war in Iraq, calls for an English Parliament, loud assaults on civil liberties, a new round of attacks on Muslims and promises to step up austerity. Troublingly, there has been little response in the mainstream, and Labour’s poll position has not improved.

But does this mark a surge to the right in society? Not so fast. Despite the media hype about historic shifts, Ukip’s success so far is best seen as a realignment on the right and a protest against the political status quo. Continued Ukip success threatens to drag politics to the right, but so far most studies suggest little shift from Labour to Ukip.

Whatever the commentariat claim, Labour’s failure to make headway is not explained by hostility to ‘old-fashioned tax and spend,’ or as a product of ‘only trying to appeal to core voters’. Its problem in fact is the opposite – failing to excite its potential supporters, the millions who have suffered under the current regime. 

Labour’s unquestioning attachment to business-as-usual was most obvious when it helped save the Union from the Scottish Yes campaign’s democratic insurgency. But launching the Labour Conference with Ed Balls’ promise to cap child benefit was just as misguided and did almost as much damage. On the other hand the idea that a pitiful hike in the minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020 is enough to make Labour ‘people friendly’ is just another sign of how alarmingly adrift from the people they really are. 

Planet Westminster

But paralysis in the polls, a dismal conference season and the dire projection of election turnouts shows there is little enthusiasm for any of the parties. Combine this loss of engagement with Ukip’s rise and the massive enthusiasm for Scottish Independence and it is clear we are witnessing a crisis for all the main parties and the beginnings of the breakdown of the post-war political settlement.

The truth is that the anti-establishment mood that was mobilised in Scotland exists in towns and cities across Britain. On most issues most people are well to the left of Labour. Over 60% support rail and utility renationalisaton, for example. And most people think dealing with inequality is more important than generating more wealth. As pollster Yougov comments “The issue of inequality is now a major political battlefield, with the focus not so much on the top 10% versus the bottom 10% but on the gap between the majority and the increasingly super-rich.’

What drives disenchantment with mainstream politics is not just a sense of being left behind socially but of being actively screwed by a a Westminster clique that represents only itself and this tiny elite.

This feeling is entirely correct. The rise and rise of the 1% is not just a social wrong in itself, it is a project that depends on punishing the poor. The coalition government plans both a further cut in the top rate of tax and another round of benefit cuts. The Office for Budget Responsibility is shamelessly honest about how this will pan out. Between now and 2016 it expects massive income rises for the top 1%, modest rises for the top 20%, and big cuts for everyone else. 

Who believes inequality, dispossession and democracy are really the right’s issues? They are the central concerns of any serious socialist politics. Ukip can bluster against EU bureaucracy, they can demonise HIV-positive foreigners, but economically they are as neoliberal as any of the other bloodsuckers in Westminster. They are just as hostile to more public funding for the NHS as the Tories. And they are no friends of democracy. They will try and smother calls for strengthened local democracy and accountability as strongly as they opposed Scottish Independence.

The view from the ground

If the picture in parliament is dispiriting, at the grassroots things are very different. This summer saw the biggest cycle of mass demonstrations for decades. Many tens of thousands marched against austerity, for the Palestinians, in support of the NHS and against climate chaos. The summer cycle of resistance was capped off by the democratic revolt in Scotland. Since then we have seen the crucial first protests against the third Iraq War, and the resistance continues with the TUC’s massive demonstration for a wage rise. From the Focus E15 Mothers to the Doncaster care workers, local campaigns are getting huge popular support despite being completely ignored by official politicians. The FBU’s campaign tour to raise awareness over fire cuts and strikes in local government and health are part of the broad picture of resistance.

All this points to what the left has to do. Apart from some renewed interest in the Greens there is little prospect of any major electoral challenge to Labour before next year’s election. We need to build movements of resistance so that they have an organising presence in each locality. Everywhere there are people looking to get involved. They will only find us if we are on the streets week in and week out. We have to build the movement against the war in Iraq and campaign against the assault on Muslims. And we need to try and draw all the strands of resistance together to develop our strategy. 

This is what the People’s Assembly is for. The euphoria at the 1,200-strong People’s Question Time in Bethnal Green recently reflected the deep desire for unity against austerity, but also for serious discussion about how best to take the fight forward. Over the coming months we will have to find ways to push plans for popular democratic change. The abolition of the House of Lords would be a good first step, as would demanding recallable MPs, and winning back local democracy stolen by the Tories under Thatcher.  

The cancellation of strikes in schools and the tubes recently was a missed opportunity. But we can still take the initiative. We need to organise our own insurgent movement with massive town hall rallies, demonstrations and protests. We need to make it clear that we are the ones who are going to lead the fight against inequality and for democracy and that it will be us that will take down the elites.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.