A well-attended and topical ‘rebel rant’ was delivered by Len McCluskey – UNITE and Keep the Faith, An Answer to Austerity – this week in the Adelphi Hotel as part of The Writing on the Wall series of the same name. This unique programme of events has previously included lectures from Martin Bell, Germaine Greer, Darcus Howe, Bonnie Greer, Peter Tatchell, Joan Bakewell, Benjamin Zephaniah and Derek Hatton.
With the impending Anti-Austerity demonstration in London on October 20th the trade union activist’s topic was whether ‘Austerity Britain is for us and not ‘them’ – the bankers and the millionaires?
The speaker was introduced by Ricky Tomlinson, who himself is no stranger to working class struggle, having been jailed as one of the ‘Shrewsbury Two’ for his role in the building workers strikes of the seventies.
Ricky made an impassioned speech about his working class background. He alluded to his own luck and the wealth he had gained from his acting career and how anyone in such a fortunate position should feel compelled to pay their taxes and put back into society what they have gained from it. ‘I don’t want the rich to pay more. I just want them to pay!’ he declared. Coming from a family of ‘grafters,’ he wondered what kids’ future was when they have no hope, no jobs, and no clubs to go to. He alluded to the full scale erosion of the job base for ordinary people in these times of economic hardship. Tomlinson said McCluskey was someone who had never forgotten his roots and always stood by his members in this struggle.
The UNITE leader went on to talk about the devastation the Government is unleashing on working people and their communities and. whether we were just con-demned to spend years back in Orwell’s Britain of the 1930’s? He talked of his opposition to the war on public services and the welfare state and the terrible stigmatisation of people on benefits. Through the media the public has been bombarded with the message that ‘there was no alternative’ to the vicious cuts. He reiterated that it was, of course, a political assault that had been waged for the past thirty years.
Statistics quoted included two and half million people unemployed chasing a fraction of vacancies. Those in work had to deal with the loss of their rights and a real cut in wages to rival that of the 1920s. Consumer spending is down and we are in a double dip recession that sees no end under current policy. He called for a rejection of the Neo Lliberalism of the past 30 years which had resulted in the richest 10 per cent of the population having increased their personal wealth disproportionately while the bottom 10 per cent of earners were suffering an unfair tax burden. Many high earners were illegally evading up to £70 billion in tax each year with an additional £25 billion being avoided.
It seemed people were disillusioned with the Labour party’s answer to the Government’s onslaught and were looking for someone to take a lead in the political debate setting out an economic alternative with policies that would deliver economic growth, create jobs and a system of fair taxation that would improve peoples’ living standards. Solutions were being put forward by UNITE that included public ownership of banks that had been bailed out. A National Investment Bank should invest in the housing market (currently in decline). There should be more investment in Britain’s infrastructure (public transport, communications, green technology and developing the manufacturing base). This concentration on our public services would mean that all would benefit from better healthcare, education, social care and local services and it would also provide an economic boost as spending multiplies.
He said, despite the mountain to be climbed, he was hopeful because of the strength of ordinary people. It was people power that brought down Thatcher (poll tax riots) and Tony Blair, who lost popularity due to the sheer weight of support of millions who opposed the Iraq war. While the media and government had sought to blacken the name of the unions, he felt that they had always been a force for good. Implementation of the most important changes for workers since they were introduced over a century ago had been the result. He encouraged everyone to join a Union and informed us of UNITE’s membership policy for students, single parents and the unemployed.
A heated Q and A in which attendees were encouraged to rant produced predicable results. Discussion was made of the position of the Labour party in this strategy, political activism across Europe and the way these cuts were punishing women. More radical alternatives such as civil disobedience and even a general strike were mooted. In answer to some of the questions McCluskey admitted to having ‘no magic wand’ but said that all that anyone here tonight could do would be to spread the word. He called for a huge turnout at the TUC’s demonstration on October 20th, demanding ‘A Future That Works’. We were encouraged to keep the faith. In that way we would win. Austerity, my arse, indeed!