Britain assembles against austerity

(Originally published by Equal Times)
Translations: Español | Francais

The People's Assembly hope to synchronise with movements around Europe
When Maria Brabiner describes herself as “ordinary”, few who meet her are inclined to agree.  The 47-year-old’s story is not dissimilar to those of thousands of others across the UK, though unlike theirs it hasn’t gone unheard. For months she has been campaigning against the government’s cuts to housing benefits, drawing on her personal experience as an unemployed woman to debate welfare policy alongside seasoned politicians and commentators on national television.

“I’ve worked all my life since I was 16. I gave up my job when I was nearly 40 to care for my mum because she had a stroke and I was her full-time carer for five years,” she explains. When her mother passed away in 2010, Brabiner was unable to find work and was advised to sign on for jobseekers’ allowance.

For two years she struggled to survive on savings after being told her Carer’s Allowance did not pay full National Insurance contributions. Then, last year, after finally qualifying for assistance, the government passed the Welfare Reform Act which included the slashing of housing benefits received by occupants of council houses with one or more spare bedrooms. “I was aware of the changes but I thought I was bound to get a job in the meantime before it came into effect,” she recalls. Yet as time wore on, work continued to prove elusive and two months ago Brabiner joined an estimated 660,000 households – many of them occupied by disabled tenants – that have fallen victim of the dreaded bedroom tax.   

The tax is just one of countless examples of public spending cuts primarily affecting the poor and the disabled in Britain. Despite repeated warnings from the IMF and woeful growth forecasts from the OECD, the coalition government remains determined to press ahead with its austerity programme. Meanwhile, opposition to austerity has been scattered and disorganised. The Labour party leadership has yet to offer a clear anti-austerity message, and the voices of those worst affected have been largely drowned out in the media by endless reports of benefit “scroungers” determined to bleed the country dry.

Now there are signs this may be about to change. Brabiner has joined forces with a growing movement, led by a coalition of left wing political parties, organisations, unions and journalists, in an effort to unite the country’s numerous dissident factions in opposition to austerity. They call themselves The People’s Assembly, and their aims are ambitious.

“What we want to create is a movement of millions of people that can put pressure on the government. A movement that’s so big and so broad it involves every single section of society”, says Sam Fairbairn, secretary of The People’s Assembly.

Plans for the movement were first announced in February with an open letter in the UK’s Guardian newspaper calling on millions of people to join the Assembly which would “provide a national forum for anti-austerity views which, while increasingly popular, are barely represented in parliament.” Its list of signatories included almost every noted voice on the British left – from veteran politician Tony Benn, to filmmaker Ken Loach. A month later they were joined by 60 economists who published another letter in the Guardian pledging their support.

Over the past month the Assembly has hosted rallies in cities across the country, and on June 22 it will stage a national meeting opposite the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Last month it attracted its biggest audience yet at an event in Manchester, where Brabiner shared a platform with newspaper columnist Owen Jones and comedian Mark Steel. Speaking in front of around 650 supporters Steel summed up the injustice felt by his comrades:

Comedian Mark Steel talking in Manchester
“The people at the top of society hate the idea of a health service that we all pay for collectively and that is then used by people according to need rather than how much they the same time the government says it can’t possibly introduce a mansion tax for people who have mansions. But we can have a bedroom tax for people who are on benefits and are disabled.”

All the panellists in Manchester received rapturous applause from a like-minded audience, but the wider success of the movement will depend largely on public opinion. A poll conducted by Opinium and the Observer found 58 per cent of voters believe the government’s austerity programme is harming the economy while only 20 per cent believe it is the correct policy.

Nevertheless, some sections of the media feel the government isn’t going far enough in cutting public spending and this sentiment appeared to be reflected in last month’s local elections, where the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) – who promise to cut deeper and faster if they are elected – averaged an impressive 26 per cent of the vote in council wards where they stood. Green MP Caroline Lucas, one of the Assembly’s key spokespeople, says the movement can help to counter pro-austerity voices in the right wing media.

It’s not surprising that a lot of people feel confused because the messages that they are receiving from the right are completely disingenuous. I think there’s a real opportunity, not only to mobilise people who would already oppose austerity, but to help with the strong arguments to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the pro austerity side. 

Sam Fairbairn agrees, highlighting public disillusionment with mainstream politics as a major factor in the success of right wing parties like UKIP. "I don't believe there's a big swing to the right in the UK at all," he argues. "I think people have lost faith in mainstream politics in alot of ways which is why you're seeing smaller right wing oganisations doing better in elections." 

Aimed at capitalising on this political disenchantment, the assembly in London on June 22 will last a full day and include workshops and discussions on a variety of issues related to austerity. The organisers will also propose a series of actions to follow the event, including a national demonstration in the autumn and a day of civil disobedience.

Delegates from movements across Europe have been invited to a special European conference the following day to discuss the possibility of synchronising mobilisations and industrial action. The Assembly is also working closely with the leaders of the Occupy movement whose success they seek to emulate. 

“The Occupy movement was very inspiring to millions of people, it got a lot of media attention,” says Fairbairn. “Obviously the tactics they’ve used and their success points are something that we’ll want to replicate in the future.”

Brabiner is equally optimistic. Ever since she began relating her story on television and radio she has frequently been approached in the street by strangers who congratulate her on her bravery and express solidarity with her cause. She hopes her personal ordeal will soon be over, but her desire to continue fighting on behalf of the most vulnerable victims of the cuts typifies that of the movement she is now a part of.

“The reason The People’s Assembly is attracting so many people is because of the sheer severity of the cuts,” she says. “I keep hoping that I’ll get out of this mess by getting a job soon, but that won’t stop me campaigning to help others.”