Volunteers at a food bank Volunteers at a food bank. Photo: James / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

Poverty and inequality are political so the left must focus on building an effective political fight back, argues John Westmoreland

The impact of Tory cuts on our communities has led to a massive growth of charitable organisations and voluntary community projects.

There is little doubt that the people who give up their time and resources to help others are driven by compassion and a desire to alleviate the suffering that the Tories have caused.

Rapidly-growing inequality has unfortunately made food banks, clothes banks, housing charities and soup kitchens a staple of our society to provide some immediate relief for the poorest.

Yet as inflation soars and recession looms, charities are not going to be able to keep up with demands. Food banks and charities are already reporting that donations are decreasing, just as greater numbers are falling into food and fuel poverty.

This is a direct consequence of Tory policies, not an act of God. The assistance charities are providing are things that should be provided for by the state. That they aren’t is a political choice.

The Tories are still funnelling money into the pockets of billionaires as poor people face benefit and wage cuts. The war in Ukraine, generously supported with billions of pounds of military aid, not only diverts wealth from social need to war, it also boosts inflation that is hitting the poor the hardest.

Boris Johnson likes to think that he can unite the country behind his Churchillian efforts, and that workers will suffer their lot patriotically. The local election results put a dent in his image.

But Sunak and Johnson know that millions of people are reliant on foodbanks and rather than tackle poverty they have cynically incorporated food bank use into their austerity budget.

In this climate and out of the defeat of the Corbyn project, debate has opened up on the left about orientating towards focusing on charity and community work instead of movement building. However, our generosity and compassion is not going to be enough. The left has to respond to the causes of poverty.

Charity or rights?

Charity serves to simply ameliorate the worst features of capitalism while leaving the system intact. This is why the Tories are big on it.

Back in 2010 the then Prime Minister David Cameron launched his ‘Big Society’. As council workers across the country were being sacked and services slashed Cameron had the audacity to propose replacing them with charities would “empower communities.”

In the past, he said, the talents and initiative of people had been wasted, claiming that over-centralised government had turned public sector workers into the “weary, disillusioned puppets of government targets”.

So, for example, sacking library workers and engaging volunteers would be the way forward in tackling weariness and disillusionment.

Charity serves another purpose for the ruling class – it sustains their right to rule. Charity has always served to inspire gratitude from those receiving it rather than anger from those who know they are losing their rights.

As one eighteenth century Christian reformer put it: “Children fed by charity ought to be clothed in humility”. Charity is considered the greatest Christian virtue for a reason. The value of charity to the Tories is obvious – but shouldn’t Labour be different?

Winning votes or losing respect?

Starmer’s servility to the Tories while attacking the Corbynite left had an entirely underwhelming result in the local elections. However, the response of Labour councils to the cuts is a big part of the story too.

The defeat of the Labour left, especially for those who have chosen to remain in the party, has been responded to by a shift in emphasis to community work over prioritising fighting back against the Tories.

The over-emphasis on the possibility for transformational change coming from Labour during Corbyn’s leadership followed by the now-impossible prospect of the left regaining power in the Labour Party has led some to substitute political organisation for community work in the hopes that it might lead to more votes in the next election, and is an attempt to make the left more relevant.

Communal litter picks are now a mainstream Labour Party activity, as are foodbank deliveries and other community projects. Labour activists often talk the same language as Cameron used for launching his ‘Big Society’ – that communities are coming together and feeling a sense of empowerment.

The opposite is true. The fact that food banks are now a feature of society that Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg find ‘uplifting’, and that mutual aid groups in the early days of the pandemic, impressive and necessary as they were, provided no challenge to or demand for accountability from a government abandoning its basic role of protecting people, should make it clear that community work will not provide the solutions.

Contrary to the belief that charity work can be used as a conduit for building left politics, it is more often depoliticised, moralistic and plays right into the Tories’ hands. There is a huge amount of essential work being done by people who are among the best in society trying to help others, but focusing on doing this kind of work forces us to deal with coping rather than fighting back.

The left cannot become a replacement for the basic necessities that we should be insisting the government provides. Even if we wanted to, the Tories have the power to – and are ideologically determined to – create poverty and misery for working people far quicker than the left, with our limited resources and unlimited good will, could ever bandage up.

All out on 18 June

Workers don’t want charity, even if they are forced to take it. The demonstration called by the TUC and supported by the People’s Assembly on 18 June is an opportunity to demand a solution to the cost of living crisis.

We need to take our anger to London – to the seat of power. Every trade union member can get transport paid for by their union.

People who volunteer in our communities are especially welcome. Bring your anger and compassion, your friends and colleagues and let’s tell the Tories where to go.

Our anger can bring down the Tories down but that requires political organisation.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.