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.

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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.

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