The Tories have fashioned a Britain of destitution and booming social injustice. We need to mobilise to force a general election, writes William Hendy
As France’s gilets jaunes continue their revolt, unabated by the festive period, this Saturday it will be the turn of the anti-austerity movement on this side of the channel to don a yellow vest and protest against the damage caused by 8 years of Tory rule.
Here’s why the January 12 ‘Britain is Broken’ demonstration, called by the People's Assembly, is so important.
Perhaps it’s the fact that a primary school has recently felt compelled to set up a food bank within their walls, because their pupils are “too hungry to learn” that should make us most angry. Maybe it’s the UN Envoy’s findings that the UK government is in a state of denial about their levels of poverty that should spur us to action. Or is it the absolute shambles that is the current state of Brexit negotiations, and May’s willingness to sacrifice the country to maintain political power that should drive us to find an avenue to remove her?
There are now so many reasons to say yes, Britain is broken, It’s the Tories that have created this mess and now it’s time for them to go.
12 ways in which Britain is broken
Despite the fact that the UK is one of the world’s largest economies, this government is simply failing to meet the most basic of needs of far too many people. This year a report stated that 3.6 million households in the UK now hold a wealth of over £1 million and the UK is also now home to more billionaires than ever before. And while the very richest in the country continue to enjoy year on year increases to their wealth, the poorest are experiencing the exact opposite.
2Poverty, and the damning UN report
The fact that a UN Envoy has reported a fifth of the population as living in poverty is a major cause for alarm. The damning report that is due to be presented to the UN this year has revealed that 14 million live in poverty; 1.5 million were destitute at some point in 2017; it predicted that child poverty will continue to rise up to 40% by 2022; and crucially concluded that poverty is caused by political choice, not economic necessity.
Child poverty has become a particular mark of shame for this ruling order. Of the 14 million now living in poverty, 4.5 million are children. One school has the task of educating children so deprived that they’ve had to open up a food bank. The cuts to child benefit, including the two-child limit introduced in 2017 are factors that lead the UN envoy to predict increasing child poverty in the future.
4Lack of housing
The ruling classes have become obsessed with increasing property value as metric for a healthy economy. In reality it denotes a broken housing system in which there aren’t enough homes made available for people to live in. The real reason the government aren’t building enough homes is that it might cause property value to stagnate or fall. This is the source of the scandal in which many people can never hope to own their own home or even hold the basic right of the stable home that council housing used to provide. All this is of course a major factor in the homelessness crisis.
Homelessness has reached record-breaking levels, increasing by 169% since 2010. There are now over 4,500 people sleeping rough on Britain’s streets on any given night. And while this goes on, policy that ensures increasing house value while allowing speculators (many living abroad) to freely buy up homes means that there are thousands of homes across the UK that stand empty, accruing pure interest for millionaire and billionaires. Last winter there were 600 deaths on the street, up 24% from the previous year. Those figures are expected to rise again this winter.
6Food Bank Britain
Reliance on food banks has increased dramatically since 2010. The Trussell Trust has reported giving out 650,000 3-day emergency food parcels in just 6 months this year. That’s an increase of 13% on 6 months of 2017. It’s also a huge increase from the 41,000 given out for the whole year of 2009/11. The Tory response to increased food banks in the UK? “Uplifting”. Some Tory MPs have used this crisis as a festive photo opportunity, gleefully posing alongside the damage they have caused.
This major benefit reform was supposed to make it simpler to make claims, it was supposed to streamline the whole system. In reality it has streamlined the government’s ability to reduce payments, sanction claimants and to take people off benefits. This is a major reason for increasing poverty and misery in the UK. The Trussell Trust has cited payment delay as the reason for a fifth of referrals to the charity. And the stress caused by the new system has caused some claimants to consider suicide.
Year on year the NHS winter crises has grown in severity, and this year could be even worse. So far the number of people waiting in A&E for more than 12 hours has doubled for November. NHS workers face an awful prospect of huge burnout rates and stress due to the worst staffing and funding crisis on record. All This means that NHS patients may not be safe this winter, and senior doctors are accusing the government of deliberately underfunding the NHS to push through privatisation.
9Fire Service cuts
Our Fire Service has been decimated by the Tory austerity agenda. Since 2010, 40 fire stations have closed and nearly 12,000 jobs cut and unsurprisingly there has been a consequent increase in fire related deaths.
The Tories have forced schools to make budget cuts of 8% per pupil since 2010, and 91% of schools are facing further cuts. Sickeningly, the largest cuts are being applied to the schools with the poorest students. Many of these children are living in poverty, and now their chances in life are further diminished due to inadequate learning environments.
11Public transport shambles
From buses to trains, the public transport system in this country is an embarrassment. It’s not just that punctuality is now the lowest it’s been for 13 years. Fares continue to rise above inflation and rail workers rights are being eroded, leading to strike action and cancelled services. It’s time we had a government that is dedicated to rail renationalisation and a fully integrated public transport system.
12Tax evasion by the unaccountable rich and corporations
Every year Theresa May has stood up and promised to make this a country that works for everyone. That she will challenge and close the tax loopholes that allow the wealthiest individuals, and the biggest most profitable companies to shirk their social responsibilities. Every year she fails to do anything at all about it. That’s because they are the party of the rich, they are funded by the corporations. Money literally goes to the Tories instead of the national coffers, and it’s the Tories that continue to let it happen. It’s not difficult to understand, it’s corruption, pure and simple.
Gilets Jaunes, a global movement: a nod to the French working class
It’s been a while since the yellow vest movement was first reported as response to a hike in fuel tax. It is now abundantly clear that the regressive tax hike was just the flame that lit the kindling of anger and led to the bonfire of rage against Macron’s neoliberal policies which have been the cause of much misery in France.
One Gilets Jaunes protester said “Macron’s first move in office was to slash the wealth tax for the mega-rich while cutting money from poor people’s housing benefits.”
This is not a story unique to France. Across Europe and around the world we find policies of austerity alongside tax breaks for business and the wealthy, and revolt growing. We see working conditions continue to deteriorate while living costs rise. Those at the top amass ever greater hordes of wealth while the numbers forced to sleep rough grow. For the rich it’s just a game to see how high they can climb, while the rest of us are finding it increasingly hard to afford the basics, even though it is us who generate their wealth. Wealth inequality is at the highest level the world has ever seen with the top 1% owning 45% of global wealth and the trends suggest it’s going to get even worse.
But it is the French who have captured the imagination of the global working class. They have been a defiant presence on the streets and roundabouts of major cities across France every weekend since November 17th. They have been out in impressive numbers, enjoying popular support while bravely battling against state violence, risking life and limb to make a stand, to say enough is enough.
It is no surprise then that the simple high-vis safety vest has become a global symbol of working-class solidarity. This is a movement that has spread, first to Belgium, then Holland, Germany and Ireland, with stirrings globally in Iraq and Taiwan. While these spin-off protests are small in number, they are large in spirit, and there are also tremors of yellow vest dissent in online groups gathering thousands of supporters in countries all over the world.
The demands voiced by the largely leaderless movement in France have been of a left-wing nature focusing on the interests of ordinary working people, challenging inequality and lack of democracy in society. We must make sure it is the left that truly claims the symbol of the yellow vest revolt in the UK, and sidelines attempts at phoney rebellion from the far right.
Time to organise
When the house of commons returns from recess on Monday, the Tories return in crisis. The divisions in their ranks are stark and the meaningful vote on May’s Brexit deal, set to take place just a week later, looms like a guillotine on the Place de la Concorde.
They are now the weakest they’ve been since the coalition took power in 2010, and a significant effort on the streets really could tip the balance and help force a general election. While the scale of harm caused by neoliberal politics in the UK is similar to that of France, there are some key differences in our current political situation.
Unlike the French we have a strong left led opposition that has the potential to smash the Tories in a General Election. And Jeremy Corbyn leads on a manifesto that is just about radical enough to help transform society, combined with the crucial pressure from below of our movements, in a way we would like to see; a way that would tackle head-on the issues described above. In this spirit we can make one loud and clear demand: General Election Now!