Frances O’Grady, head of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), set the tone in the opening session of the People's Assembly in London on June 22, declaring: “The Bullingdon boys are waging class war against ordinary people. We will retaliate, it is time to fight back against a government of millionaires.”
O'Grady's reference to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne by the exclusive upper-class Oxford University society they belonged reflects the anger at the Conservative-Liberal Democrats war on the poor.
More than 4000 anti-austerity campaigners packed Westminster Central Hall on June 22 to launch a national fight-back campaign.
The huge mass gathering was a joint initiative of unions, campaign organisations and left parties opposed to the coalition government's savage austerity, which is largely supported by the Labour opposition.
It was preceded by “people's assemblies” in cities across Britain, involving thousands of people.
The economic crisis in Britain has not reached the devastating scale it has in countries such as Spain and Greece, but it has bitten hard. One in four young people under 24 are unemployed and a recent survey showed that one in five families are borrowing money to buy food.
The Cameron government seized the opportunity provided by the crisis to launch spending cuts on a scale not seen since World War II. More than 600,000 jobs have been lost in the public sector since 2010. A series of “welfare reforms” have been rolled out in a make-the poor-pay response to the budget deficit.
The attacks include changes to disability support assessments that will result in as many as 600,000 disabled people losing on ￡2.62 billion ($4.35 million) of support over five years.
A particularly nasty attack, dubbed the “bedroom tax”, means a cut in rent assistance for anyone living in a house with an unused bedroom. The tax will force thousands of people, especially he elderly, to relocate. In many cases no alternative housing is available.
In the days leading up to the People's Assembly, the government an extra ￡11.5 billion in cuts. Police, nurses and teachers will lose pay rises and 145,000 more civil service jobs will be cut.
As part of the anti-austerity campaign, the assembly launched a national tour of two “People United” buses. Organised by key unions, the bus tour is part of an effort to extend the campaign into communities.
Green Party of England and Wales MP Caroline Lucas told Green Left Weekly: “We don't need the official opposition to be Tory-lite. We need it to show real opposition.
“But if they're not going to do it then there will be other parties, including the Greens, who will be in their showing that opposition.”
Film director and socialist activist Ken Loach used his workshop on defending the welfare state to tackle the dilemma faced by the movement heading to elections with Labour offering no alternative. He told the audience the question of an alternative electoral formation needs to be on the agenda.
Loach is part of a new initiative for a left party called Left Unity that was launched recently. It distributed a broadsheet at the assembly seeking further support.
General secretary Unite Len McCluskey was met with deafening applause in the closing session, when the leader of Britain's largest union said: “We must all work together to build the fighting spirit which creates the climate for mass industrial action.
“Let me make it clear to politicians of all parties ― if it is right to strike against austerity in Greece, in Spain, in France, then it is right to strike against austerity here.”
In an apparent response to criticisms of the lack of union strike action against the cuts so far, McCluskey said: “When Unite members are ready and willing to take that industrial action to make the politicians change course, then we will not let the anti-union laws get in our way.”
The assembly resolved to organise a mass national protest at the Conservative Party conference on September 29, a national day of civil disobedience on November 5 and a mass demonstration in London early next year.
Another meeting of the assembly is set for September.
As more than 4000 people slowly filed out of the hall, the strong impression was the assembly represented a potential turning point for a movement desperate for national cohesion.
[For more details and speeches, visit The Peoples Assembly website.]
Comedian Mark Steel speaking at the People's Assembly on the apparently dominant economic theory that the poor have all the money.