The cuts are looming and the threats are real; isn’t it time to take mass action?, asks Rahila Gupta
If anybody needed any further evidence of the devastating times we live in, then you need to look no further than the news that the US money lending firm, Dollar Financial, is poised to open 800 branches in the UK. Such businesses, which charge extortionate rates of interest, see Britain as a prime market because it is so unregulated. As we all know, where profits are concerned, the private sector invests a lot of money and energy in getting its market assessment right as the last thing it would want to do is lose money and shareholder confidence. April is set to be the cruellest month this year breeding redundancies, closures, cuts, wholesale restructuring of the welfare state – all of which begin to take effect then. We have six weeks in which to take action. Let us demand a re-election now. Let us stop the tide before it engulfs us. Let us occupy Parliament square and turn it into our very own Tahrir Square.
It is our right to do so. And theoretically, it should be much easier to exercise in a democracy than a dictatorship. Let us not surrender that right through sheer apathy or faintheartedness when so much could be gained through collective action. Although people expected a hung parliament in the last elections, nobody could have foreseen the shape of it, the craven surrender of the Lib Dems to the Tory agenda and the slash and burn policies that we’re now witnessing. We’re on the brink of massive and irrevocable shifts in the way this country is run – the NHS is going to be dismantled, two-tier schooling within the state sector is being introduced, the voluntary sector will be decimated and legal aid is going to shrink in a way that will affect not only the most vulnerable but will remove an important part of our armoury in making government accountable to the people. No one will remain untouched, except the wealthy.
Four years later when the next General Election happens will be too late. As we saw with Thatcher, the ground shifted to the right and Blair moved the centre only a little leftwards. Apart from anything else, the huge cost of yet another re-organisation may stop a future government from returning things to the status quo. Across Europe there is anger over austerity measures and a sense that there is no need for deficit budgeting when the deficit could be covered through unpaid business taxes or the shutting down of tax havens. The government intends to cut £81bn in the next four years; annual loss of income from tax dodging is reckoned to be £25bn (£100bn in 4 years). Defence spending is actually going up to £37bn in 2010/11, apparently 11% higher in real terms than in 1997. Am I missing something here or have I just resolved the issue of the budget deficit?
There is a huge amount of anger across the country across a range of radical and genteel groups – UK Uncut (occupying business premises and banks), Take VAT, student actions, sit-ins at libraries, campaigns against the sale of woodlands, local actions against the cuts and so on. We’re occupying all the other spaces but not the head of the beast – Parliament. And when the students occupied it, we did not join. But now Egypt and Tunisia have happened. There is a fresh sense of the potency of people power in the air. People are coming out, they just need to come together. A demo of Barnet Against the Cuts attracted 1500 people! Pragna Patel of SBS coined the slogan ‘Tunis, Cairo, Finch-erly/Cameron, Osborne, wait and see’. The London Feminist conference attracted 1200 women. A Million Women Rise march is planned for 5 March. The TUC March of 26 March should be massive and should be used as the starting point of an action that continues until a re-election is agreed.
If all of us bring our sleeping bags and give up a week of our time to demonstrate outside Parliament, we would bring about far more dramatic change than what we are achieving through painstaking judicial reviews of various government decisions and cuts or making lengthy submissions to government on how and why they should retain and improve legal aid provisions in the full disheartening knowledge that they will probably be ignored. All of that would be unnecessary if people came out on the streets. Why do commentators believe that these things are only possible under dictatorships?
People on the left point to the failure of 2m people who marched in February 2003 to stop Blair going into Iraq. We live in different times now. The Middle East is on fire and it has lit all our imaginations. Why not here? Of course, the circumstances are different. It has always been argued that the West’s apathy (and yet we have not been apathetic) stems from the fact that things are not so desperate here. But relative to what we had yesterday, tomorrow we will have nothing. If anything, it is easier. We do not live in a dictatorship: surely that should give us a sense of confidence that mass action will lead to change. It could be argued that a re-election will only bring Labour back and they’ve not exactly been leading the opposition to the cuts. But a Labour party brought in on the back of people power will have to sit up and listen to our agenda. In any case, they will be better than this lot. And who knows where such action can lead? The demise of capitalism has been talked about for the last two years: maybe this is the tipping point.
Rahila Gupta is a writer and activist. She is on the management committee of Southall Black Sisters and Clean Break Theatre Company.
Photo by alsokaizen, shared under a Creative Commons license