Assembling Against Austerity

Kirklees Green Party member Adrian Cruden reports from the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in London on Saturday 22nd June

Four thousand people from a wide range of progressive political parties, trade unions, community groups and individuals gathered at Methodist Central Hall in London on Saturday 21st June to launch the People’s Assembly Against Austerity – perhaps the largest gathering to discuss alternatives to the current neoliberal economics being pursued by the Coalition and, seemingly, endorsed by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Greens were in strong evidence as speakers, organisers and attendees, and Romayne Phoenix, former Green leadership candidate, chaired the opening session. Caroline Lucas, Natalie Bennett and Cllr Liz Wakefield spoke in breakout sessions on housing and green jobs.

The thrust of the day was the covert agenda of the Conservative-led government in pursuing austerity allegedly in the name of economic and fiscal prudence, but in truth as a means to a wider political end of slashing public welfare and transferring a whole slew of the public assets and services that remain into private hands – whether the profit-making parts of RBS, the Post office or the highly successful East Coast rail company, which brings in over £600 million a year to state coffers. Comedian Mark Steel launched the tone with the comment that when the country is bust, it is time to make the poor pay – ironically.

A number of speakers talked about how basic economic theory is being warped by George Osborne. James Meadway, Economist for the New Economics Foundation, chided the Chancellor for being “economically illiterate.” Taking money out of a contracting economy was like bleeding a patient with anaemia.

“There is no economic case for austerity. It does not exist.”

Ken Livingstone followed this up with a proposal to use the £350 billions created by the Bank of England but so far unused to create a million jobs in the construction industry, while one speaker asked simply,

“When I studied economics after the war, Keynesianism was normal. What happened to it? When did it stop being normal?”

The huge numbers attending meant several overspill tents and halls were in use, and scores of stalls pushed ideas from a multitude of leftwing and environmental groups. Left Unity, the group recently set up by Ken Loach as a nascent political party, was much in evidence, but highly critical of the Greens over the Brighton Council issue when I spoke to them – precisely where they are going remains to be seen, but the need for greater co-operation among the non-Labour left was a constant theme of the day, with union leader Mark Serwotka ending the day with a call for a new party to provide an alternative.

The next step is to create local People’s Assemblies before a reconvened meeting in the New Year. Greens will have some time to consider a response to this and related developments, but there are clearly some issues for us to consider – one is the nature of the economic alternatives being proposed; many speakers simply sought a return to pump-priming the economy, albeit with wealth redistribution and some renationalisation, but sustainability was not a major theme; second is the challenge to create a new party or electoral arrangement. We currently work in broad arrangements with some others at local level in many parts of the country, but calls to forge electoral arrangements with other parties who may not share some of our core views on the dangers facing our world may pose new challenges as well as possibilities.

Tony Benn, President of the Assembly, spoke towards the end – the venue had also been the scene of the very first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, a body founded on ideals of justice and progress – we can hope that, in this case, history may repeat itself.

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