Shabbir Lakha explains why the People's Assembly protested Jacob Rees-Mogg and takes on some of the myths around austerity
A week ago I confronted Jacob Rees-Mogg with other protesters at a public meeting in Manchester, as part of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity’s week of action against the Tories. He is an up-and-coming figure in the Conservative party with support to be the next leader, so I am proud that I was able to convey directly to him the message of 50,000 people who had marched through Manchester the day before.
It is not just the hypocrisy of a man who is opposed to abortion yet profits from his investment firm’s sale of abortion pills; Rees-Mogg is despicable for defending austerity with washed-up myths and straight-up lies. That is why, when he attempted to engage in a debate with me – and particularly in view of the lack of coverage given to the mass opposition to austerity – it was important that I showed him the reality of that opposition.
Rees-Mogg was praised by some sections of the media for “politely taking on” protesters. But let’s be absolutely clear: this isn’t a gentleman’s debate: it is a material fight against a ruling class waging economic and political violence on working-class people. As nervous as I was, I knew that I had to voice the opposition to his views.
At a time when more than 8 million people are living in some form of food poverty, Rees-Mogg thinks that the exponential increase in people dependent on food banks is “uplifting”. Because that’s how out of touch he and his party are with the mass suffering they are inflicting. That is the sense that I got of him up close when he tried to claim that Tory policies of austerity had actually “lifted people out of poverty”.
The line that he used to justify austerity was that employment is at its highest levels since the 1970s, and the best route out of poverty. But the point I made (and which he ignored) is that the UK is the only advanced economy with stagnating wages. Seven years of the public-sector pay cap, the increase in zero-hours contracts and precarious employment, and the Tories’ clampdown – through the Trade Union Act – on the ability of workers to challenge unscrupulous employers (via the rise in tribunal fees and increased threshold for strike action) have meant that a huge proportion of people living in poverty are actually in work.
According to data from the Trussell Trust, which runs half the food banks around the country, only 0.03% of people used food banks for the primary reason of being unemployed; 26% reported low income as their primary reason, and 43% pointed to delays or changes to their benefits.
If that isn’t a scathing indictment of austerity in itself – and, for the likes of Rees-Mogg, 4 million children living in poverty, or homelessness doubling since 2010, isn’t either – then what about the United Nations report that found the actions of the Tory government to be in violation of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, as well as UK legislation? Or the study by the IMF – the architects of austerity – admitting that austerity does more harm than good?
There are those, such as the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley, who simply believe austerity entails collateral damage). That’s why it’s so important that the People’s Assembly shows the real damage being done, and the real opposition to the Tories, in a week that otherwise would have just been the Theresa and Boris show.
And that’s why it’s so important that we continue to challenge the Tories on the streets; continue to support public-sector workers, postal workers and fast-food workers taking industrial action; and continue to do everything possible to push the Tories out of office.
We need to avoid the “polite”, rhetoric-filled debates devoid of facts that Rees-Mogg would rather engage in, and communicate the widely felt outrage that there are millions of people suffering at the hands of the Tories, and fighting them head on.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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