Owen Jones calls on the left to unite against austerity

Chavs author, Independent writer and Labour activist Owen Jones talked to Salman Shaheen about the People's Assembly and the prospects for resistance to austerity

Chavs author, Independent writer and Labour activist Owen Jones talked to Salman Shaheen about the People’s Assembly and the prospects for resistance to austerity

If the People’s Assembly could be summarised in a word, it would be optimism. From the opening speeches it crackled, infusing enthused activists with the idea that austerity – a failure both in terms of restoring growth to the economy and protecting society’s most vulnerable – could be defeated with united action from the left.

Those speaking in the opening Plenary – angry, passionate and full of hope despite all past attempts to bring the left together in the face of neoliberal consensus – might have overstated the case and underestimated the challenge they faced, but the day was about inspiring people.

When I caught up with Owen Jones after the first session, he was naturally ebullient.     

“It’s going incredibly well so far,” he said. “Over 4,000 people are here, it’s the biggest anti-austerity meeting since the crisis began, and I think the arguments that people want on the agenda about alternatives to the self-defeating nightmare of austerity are going to be on that agenda for the first time. It’s such a broad cross-section of the country. And it’s a launch pad for local groups and actions across the country as well.”

But the People’s Assembly had the misfortune of falling on the day that Ed Miliband announced Labour – for many the natural locus of opposition to austerity – would be sticking to Tory spending plans.

While Jones appears to be very much in the Labour camp, he is less enthusiastic about the decisions of its leadership.

“The message for the Labour leadership should be you can no longer expect to automatically be the leaders of the opposition to what the Tories are doing in this country,” Jones said. “You’ll now face competition from those who want a genuine alternative to austerity.”

Jones pointed out the Labour leadership is used to being yelled at from the right, but now it’ll be yelled at by people from a different direction.

“Those sorts of arguments used to support austerity, as it has been proven to fail even on its own terms, they’re no longer credible,” he said. “We will be putting huge amounts of pressure and we’ll be building a national campaign which will give a voice to all those who do want an alternative to austerity.”

Of course, many have now abandoned Labour entirely. Ken Loach, who was reportedly barred from speaking in the closing plenary and relegated to an afternoon slot in the marquee because he was too anti-Labour, has launched an appeal to found a new party to the left of Labour. It’s an initiative that I and almost 9,000 others have signed up to and I asked Jones what his stance on projects such as Left Unity is.

“At the end of the day, we will always have different strategies and tactics,” he said. “The most important thing is we all have unity where we can agree on an issue by issue basis.”

Jones stressed that the People’s Assembly is not a party, but a movement bringing together people from lots of different parties, initiatives, unions, and campaigning groups.

“I welcome anyone, whatever strategy they have, as long as we can work together on that common aim which is building a broad coalition against austerity,” Jones said.

The answer from Jones, then, is left unity in action, if not in name. While we disagree on the question of Labour, and while the People’s Assembly in its optimism may have underestimated the strength of consensus around austerity forged by the three main parties, Jones is certainly right that left unity against the cuts is our only hope.

37 Responses to “Owen Jones calls on the left to unite against austerity”

  1. Rob Byrne

    Cuts? Excuse me, but government spending and borrowing are rising, just as every government that has ever existed has increased expenditure. It’s just that different governments increase expenditure at different rates.
    What would Jones know about austerity? I bet he comes from a privileged background that most of us can only dream of.

  2. Salman Shaheen

    I find the whole champagne socialism charge a bit hollow. As if people who come from privileged backgrounds should be shot down for caring about what happens to those who don’t.

  3. Stephen Clay

    You don’t actually think Jones cares about cares about others, do you? I could understand such naïveté in a child, but an adult ought to know better. I learned long ago that champagne socialists are amongst the most selfish and cynical people going (and there’s plenty of competition), but what really sticks in the craw is their rank hypocrisy.

  4. Anna MacKintosh Phoenix

    Does this statement have any factual basis, Stephen? If so, what is it, please?

  5. GO

    The whole debate is getting hopelessly confused. For a start, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity don’t actually appear to be opposed to austerity at all: rather, they think that austerity measures (to close an acknowledged structural gap between pre-crash levels of spending and post-crash levels of tax revenue) should come wholly in the form of tax rises rather than in the form of spending cuts.

    From their draft statement: “We can defend education, health and welfare provision funded from general taxation and available to all… The banks and the major corporations should be taxed at a rate which can provide the necessary resources.”

    But this is premised on the size of the structural gap being such that it *can* be closed simply through higher taxes on the banks and the major corporations (together, presumably, with economic growth and perhaps higher taxes on wealthy/high-income individuals) . This is an appealing thought, but is it true? Do the People’s Assembly propose to make any positive case for it – spelling out just how large they believe the structural deficit is, and just how it can be closed through action on tax alone?

    Presumably the People’s Assembly propose that a future anti-austerity government should raise taxes to a level that suffices not just to close whatever structural deficit they inherit, but also to reverse any spending cuts made up to that point. Presumably they believe this can be done on a fairly short timescale, and without having a substantial negative impact on growth such that these tax-based austerity measures, like the Coalition’s cuts-based austerity measures, are wholly or partly self-defeating in terms of deficit reduction.

    I would *love* to believe all this, but what is there to justify it? Things will be looking up if tax revenues in 2015 are ‘only’ £100 billion short of where they’d need to be to enable us to halt all further cuts and reverse any cuts already made. How on *earth* are we going to extract an additional £100 billion a year from banks, other corporations, and wealthy individuals – especially given their expertise in avoiding tax – and all without harming the economy in any way? You’re talking about *tripling* the current tax take from corporation tax, the bank levy, and capital gains tax combined.

    Somebody is going to have to do a lot more than push my anti-Tory, pro-Welfare State buttons to convince me that this is not just wishful thinking. The reality of our situation, surely, is that a post-2015 government will be doing very well if they achieve enough on tax and growth to resist the need for *further* spending cuts in the next parliament. ‘Accepting’, in the short-to-medium term, cuts that have already been made – except for cuts to capital investment, and perhaps a few cuts the reversal of which can be funded through modest tax increases – is not surrender but sanity. We should all share the aim of restoring spending on public services to (the equivalent of) pre-crash levels, of doing so as soon as possible, and of doing so through a combination of economic growth and progressive taxation. But that journey – the starting point of which, in 2015, is going to be tax revenues far, far short of where they’d need to be just to sustain *Osborne’s* levels of spending – is simply not going to be completed in one parliament, or even in two. We are looking at a long uphill climb.

  6. Harry Leslie Smith

    Labour has to ask itself why it wants to govern in 2015? There recent vision statements seem rather similar to the coalitions and they appear to be ashamed of their party’s single greatest achievement-The creation of the modern welfare state. The left is never going to unite against austerity as long as Labour plays this dangerous game of economic real politik in their efforts to form the next government. Until Labour comes to terms with the enormous damage that Blair and Brown did to the party and their ideals, the labour party for me will be a party of hacks, hypocrites and profiteers. Labour has to choose whether they are a party of opportunist and hollow slogans or a party that believes that the 21st century belongs to every Britain not just the rich, the well educated and well connected.

  7. GO

    It’s interesting to note that the position of the People’s Assembly is the same as Labour’s in its basic shape. Both organisations accept that as well as a cyclical deficit that can be closed by promoting growth, there is a structural deficit that must be closed through austerity measures (tax rises/spending cuts). Both organisations accept that reversals in spending cuts already made must be funded by increasing the tax burden on somebody, somewhere, rather than through extra borrowing. Where they differ is in their assessment of how much it’s possible and desirable to increase the effective tax burden on corporations and banks (and rich individuals?), and so how far it’s possible to reverse cuts already made. And this is where Labour seem to me to be more in touch with reality. *Maybe* we can extract an additional £10bn, or £20bn, or £30bn, from corporations and rich individuals every year, without seriously disrupting the economy, and so go a long way towards closing the structural deficit we inherit in 2015. But to think we can extract an additional £80bn, or £90bn, or £100bn, still without seriously disrupting the economy, and so not only close that deficit but also reverse five years of Tory spending cuts … that’s just pie in the sky, isn’t it? Those figures just don’t correspond to any figures I’ve ever seen on what can realistically be achieved through measures such as restoring the 50p tax rate, bringing CGT in line with the 40p rate of income tax, reversing cuts to corporation tax, abolishing higher rate tax relief on pensions contributions, imposing a Mansion Tax and a Robin Hood Tax, etc.

  8. Donald J Williamson

    This should help to heat up the general election campaigns of the main political parties, now that all three have all but launched their offiicial campaigns. Those of us with an eye on the independence referendum in Scotland don’t have far to look for an alternative stance on austerity. I’m only sad that I live 30 or so miles from the border, otherwise I know where my vote would go. Westminster, this is your wake up call!

  9. Salman Shaheen

    Scottish independence would leave those of us south of the border with a permanent Tory government. Then again, so would Labour 😉

  10. GO

    “Until Labour comes to terms with the enormous damage that Blair and Brown did to the party and their ideals…”

    I have no problem acknowledging New Labour’s failings – e.g. on inequality, on bank regulation, on the marketisation of public services. I do wish, though, that certain people on the left – usually those shouting the loudest about the need to resist cuts to public services – were a bit quicker to acknowledge its success in giving us such well-funded public services in the first place. There’s more than a hint of irony about all the “Down with New Labour! Defend Tax Credits!”-style rhetoric out there.

  11. blarg1987

    I think part of the problem is that there is a large number of people who are dissatisfied with the current political system. We have the three main parties, all have their core voters but it is the swing voters that they adjust their policies for usually low taxes etc.

    What Labout neeeds to do is re establish itself and target those people who have lost interest in politics and go back to its origional principles, e.g. a party representing the working person. Once it has re established its core principles it will find more people will vote for it and although may never again be a party of goverment, will be a large party in coalition, be it with the greens or lib dems.

    Now I would rather have that then the Labour part of the last decade.

  12. Ann Parks

    Ah, the myth of “permanent Tory government” if the Scots leave. Cast your mind back to 1997. Blair’s New Labour won enough English seats in the Commons to form an outright majority, even without Scottish and Welsh seats, so if Labour won in England then, it can win in England again, as it probably will do in 2015. Or are you saying that Labour’s made itself unelectable in England? If so, Labour has nobody but itself to blame.

  13. Owen Jones

    Thanks all for debating this. It adds to my media profile and I earn great gobs of dosh doing that.

  14. GO

    Don’t mention it Owen. In fact I’m happy to earn you another few quid by inviting you to answer answer the point I made earlier:

    “Things will be looking up if tax revenues in 2015 are ‘only’ £100 billion short of where they’d need to be to enable us to halt all further cuts and reverse any cuts already made. How on *earth* are we going to extract an additional £100 billion a year from banks, other corporations, and wealthy individuals – especially given their expertise in avoiding tax – and all without harming the economy in any way? You’re talking about *tripling* the current tax take from corporation tax, the bank levy, and capital gains tax combined… The reality of our situation, surely, is that a post-2015 government will be doing very well if they achieve enough on tax and growth to resist the need for *further* spending cuts in the next parliament… We should all share the aim of restoring spending on public services to (the equivalent of) pre-crash levels, of doing so as soon as possible, and of doing so through a combination of economic growth and progressive taxation. But that journey – the starting point of which, in 2015, is going to be tax revenues far, far short of where they’d need to be just to sustain *Osborne’s* levels of spending – is simply not going to be completed in one parliament, or even in two.”

    I’m not asking for a detailed manifesto or budget, just an outline of a case that it would genuinely be possible to close the structural gap between pre-crash levels of spending and 2015 levels of tax revenue just through additional taxes on banks, corporations, wealth etc.

    (My estimate of the size of that gap, £100bn, is just what you get if you assume that 50% or so of the forecast deficit in 2015 (so, 50% of c. £100bn) is structural, and that £50bn of cuts will already have been made by that point. (I think £10bn a year is about the rate at which the Tories have been cutting.))

  15. JohnPReid

    Jones outrage oat the demonization of the
    working class in his book, is hypocritical ,The way that lefties like Jones refer to the Edl
    as Robinsons gangs

  16. Salman Shaheen

    The EDL are racist thugs. In my view standing up for the rights of working class people does not contradict calling the EDL what they are. The EDL are no more representative of white working class people than Anjem Choudary is of British Muslims.

  17. JohnPReid

    Chourary calls for violence ,the EDl don’t, apart from a couple of incidents of name. Calling and a couple of criminal records, proof the EDL are thugs, the EDL are 1000s of people Choubary is but one men, you call them thugs and racist based on a w incidents, yet you’re outraged at the claim that Muslims are like Choudary?

  18. Atos Victims

    The Labour Party have failed the most vulnerable in our society, they continue to attack those having to survive on welfare benefits especially the sick and disabled, never again will I and thousands of others vote for that sham of a Party…

    http://www.atosvictimsgroup.co.uk

  19. Salman Shaheen

    In the pub after the People’s Assembly, a man with a ‘no surrender’ tattoo on his arm glassed a Catholic in the face. Are you brushing that kind of behavior under the carpet?

  20. Salman Shaheen

    You should get involved in Left Unity if you haven’t already, help build a challenge to Labour from the left.

  21. JohnPReid

    No and what’s this got to do with the fact that I feel the EDL aren’t racist thugs

  22. Salman Shaheen

    Pretty racist and thuggy behaviour if you ask me. No surrender is a common EDL phrase. I’m sure Robinson, much like Griffin before him, is keen to instil some kind of centralised spruce up for the press image, but that doesn’t change what the core of its activists are. You can put lipstick on a pig and all that.

  23. JohnPReid

    So you’re sure that the EDLleaderwants press attention,like you feel that Nick griffin does, t hen they’re the same

    As for your view that the bloke in the pub had a no surrender tattoo, and some EDL people say that, it means they’re the same, you really feel that if someone says the same two words as someone elsewhoviolent,it means that all people who say those words are violent?

  24. JohnPReid

    As for core of his activists, if there are. Sally 250,000 a it sits and a hundred have criminal records for race related to violence, that’s not really the core

  25. Salman Shaheen

    What? That was just noise.

  26. Salman Shaheen

    I’m suggesting people on the far-right are not by their nature the friendliest of folk.

  27. JohnPReid

    The core would be 70% not 1 in 2500′ does that not make sense in your book?

  28. JohnPReid

    What’s far right, the EDl have one view anti ilsamifiction of extremism, define far right, could some one be far right and not racist, if they’re a ultra capitalist that doesn’t believe in free health care and is socially conservative on. Gay marriage or women’s rights, that could some up many Black politicians in America, as for your assumption that a white person being racistto a black person in the U.k is far right, it was the dockers union that went on strike against immigration in the 60’s,so they would have been left wing?, whites being racist towards blacks, can’t be defined as being right wing anymore that Muslims being anti semetic, or blacks being anti white racist ,could be defined as being left wing

  29. Salman Shaheen

    Look if you genuinely believe the EDL aren’t racist thugs, that’s your call. I won’t be going on any marches with them, despite my opposition to radical Islam.

  30. Salman Shaheen

    Call it what you will, racism is racism and I’m opposed to it in all forms.

  31. JohnPReid

    So am I, a leftwing writer on left futures somed up things, women’s rights gay rights and a end to anti semeticism have been hard won gains, if opposing Islamic extremism, means ( the writer) I’m called islamaphobic so be it

  32. JohnPReid

    Me mother but I’ll defend their right to protest and be heard

  33. Salman Shaheen

    Then we agree on something. I am opposed to all forms of prejudice, and Islamic extremism breeds many prejudices.

  34. Salman Shaheen

    I’ve never called on their marches to be banned. They have the right to march, as have the UAF et al the right to march against them.

  35. JohnPReid

    Agreed its only the UAF ,who want their marches banned and falsely say they’re racist

  36. Debbie Price

    Labour will have lost a huge amount of voters by saying they would carry on the cuts.

    At grass route level. The most vulnerable and poorest in our society are really suffering.

    The introduction of ‘The Bedroom Tax’ or what ever you want to call it. Is the biggest mistake of all. How can you for instance, expect someone on JSA to have to now pay it, plus, now, council tax and survive?

    They can’t. Simple.

    People are starving. Hence, the major NEED for food banks. In 2013. What sort of society is that??

    People feeling and committing suicide. Because they just cannot cope or see a way out.

    This government do have blood on their hands.

    And they DO NOT care at all.
    Cameron can spend £49 of tax payers money on lunch and leave a £50 tip.
    That’s more than some people get to live on in a week!!
    This government AND Labour are totally, ‘out of touch’ with what is going on.
    And, for Labour to state they are going to continue these policies.
    Who, do they think is going to vote for them?
    Just, those, that are, ‘all right jack’, it doesn’t affect me!!
    In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
    Lets not forget that the Bedroom Tax was the brain child of Labour, in the first place.

  37. Matthew Blott

    So what? Should we support the current undemocratic settlement where Scots help decide the laws I have to abide by and I have no say on Scottish law because leftwingers like yourself don’t like the Tories?

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