We Need Unity to Defeat Austerity

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Reblogged from Sheffield People’s Assembly Against Austerity

Unity against austerity is at the heart of the People’s Assembly. It’s about bringing everyone who opposes austerity together and creating something beyond the sum of the parts. That means sharing the experiences of everyone involved in the campaigns and protest groups that have bloomed in response to the Tory-led government’s austerity agenda; sharing those experiences and – crucially – explaining the interconnectedness of all those political struggles to create a coherent alternative to the cuts.

The dividing line is simple: do you agree with the government’s austerity policies, or do you think they’ve wreaked havoc, making the majority pay for a crisis they didn’t cause? For the People’s Assembly, the answer is resoundingly the latter. But we have yet to win a majority in society to that view.

One of the places in which the debate rages over whether to accept Tory cuts as simply a matter of economic reality is within the Labour Party. On the one hand, Labour politicians talk of “fiscal responsibility” – code for more cuts – and continuing pay freezes for public sector workers. On the other hand, there are clearly many in the Labour Party who are opposed to cuts.

Importantly, the opposition to austerity reaches beyond the usual left-wing MPs to the political centre-ground of the Party. Peter Hain MP has attacked the coalition’s austerity agenda, and the 40 Labour MPs who rebelled against welfare sanctions for unemployment benefit claimants demonstrate that within the Parliamentary Labour Party there is resistance to slash and burn cuts.

Most promising is a recent initiative called the ‘Labour Assembly Against Austerity’. The event gathered over 200 MPs, trade unionist and ordinary members to talk about the economic alternatives to austerity. Clearly these activists need to be involved in the People’s Assembly too. The fact that local Labour councillors have attended organising meetings of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire People’s Assembly is a great step forward for the campaign.

By building the strongest and broadest possible coalition against austerity – a coalition that includes those who oppose austerity within the Labour Party – we make it easier to marginalise those Labour politicians who, after the likely Labour victory in the 2015 general election, will support the continuation of austerity.

This means we should be under no confusion about who the real enemy is now. It may be tempting to hammer the Sheffield Labour Party for implementing cuts to local budgets. But the money allocated from central government to Sheffield City Council has been reduced by 30% since 2010. The cut comes from the Tories and Lib Dems in Whitehall, not the Labour Party in Sheffield Town Hall. By 2016, it is estimated that it will be reduced by 50%. Unlike central government, local governments can’t go into debt. The pot of money has shrunk.

Parties and individuals may have disagreements over the priorities in the smaller local budget, but to attack the Labour Party for them is to confuse a symptom with the cause of the problem. The decisive issue is the cuts to council funding from central government; cuts that are wholly unnecessary. As the People’s Assembly, this is what we should be loudly railing against.

At the same time as we do this, we should be calling on Labour Party representatives and grassroots members to join us in condemning these cuts and seeking guarantees that this would not be the policy of a future Labour government.

Attacking local Labour councillors for issues that are largely out of their control will only help to isolate those within the Party who oppose the cuts, and thereby weaken the resistance to austerity as a whole. We need to unite with Labour Party members who oppose austerity, not turn them out of the movement.

In any broad campaign there will be differences of opinion, but unity on the central principle of opposing the government’s austerity agenda is key. Austerity is about inflicting a historic defeat on working people; about increasing profits for private shareholders and shrinking the welfare state. The stakes are high. It’s only by uniting everyone who opposes austerity that we can win.