by Rowan Gavin
“We are living in unique, unique times.”
The words of Eddie Dempsey, Assistant General Secretary of the RMT, speaking to the packed-out rally for the Enough is Enough campaign at Epic Studios in Norwich on Tuesday night. He’s right. Many are saying they can’t remember a time when so many were so hard-off in this country. Meanwhile, by a number of measures, the richest few have never been so rich. My rent and the rate on my electricity meter have gone up this year, and with more price hikes on the horizon I’m worried about what it’s gonna cost to stay warm this winter. My friends, colleagues, and almost everyone I speak to are facing the same concerns. But despite all that, one thing makes this moment feel unique to me more than anything else: the strength of working people’s will to fight back.
Despite being announced just a few days before going ahead, the Norwich rally quickly exceeded expected attendance and more tickets had to be released. On the night, the queue was round the block in both directions. Epic was at full capacity, with around 850 in attendance. This follows the pattern for the Enough is Enough campaign, a joint effort on the part of trade unions and community organisations across the country to “build power in every single community”, as host of the Norwich event and outgoing chair of Young Labour Jess Barnard put it. Prior rallies in London, Manchester and Liverpool in recent weeks have smashed expectations for attendance, while over half a million have signed up to the campaign online in just a few weeks.
The speakers at Tuesday’s event were clear that the severity of this crisis should not be understated, particularly in the context of the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. As political researcher and Tribune writer Taj Ali bluntly put it, “Inequality quite literally kills”. In the latter half of 2021 there were 2.5 times more Covid-19 deaths in the most deprived areas of England than in the least deprived. The number of households affected by fuel poverty is predicted to rise to as many as 12 million by January – that’s half or more of all households in the country. “There are many more people who are likely to die because of government inaction” on energy bill increases, Ali reminded us.
He also provided another important reminder: speaking of his experiences growing up in Luton, he said “we have always had a cost of living, and we have always had a crisis.” Dempsey echoed this: “for all of my life, standards of living for working class people have been falling”. And protest singer Grace Petrie, who performed a short set to close the rally, reminded us that it has been the same for 12 years of Tory rule – and that many of the roots of the current crisis were planted by the Major and Blair governments. From Blair’s illegal wars to the bankers’ 2008 collapse to Cameron’s austerity, May’s spineless response to Grenfell and Johnson’s deadly Covid corruption, generations have grown up in crises caused by the powerful. And at every turn they take more from us. We have learned the hard way a simple lesson – as Ali put it, “There is no hero in Westminster coming to save us.”
“We have a new Prime Minister in Britain,” surprise guest Jeremy Corbyn announced, to pantomime boos from the crowd. “And it seems that she’s got a problem: I’m living rent-free in her head!” Jokes aside, the real problems are many, and Truss does not have solutions. Her talk of an “aspiration nation” with “high-paying jobs” is not just farcical: it is purposeful misdirection. One of her first stated goals as PM is to crack down on union powers, in a bid to limit the kinds of action that could really improve wages and working conditions. Like Johnson, she parrots claims of gratitude towards the working people whose efforts saved lives and livelihoods during the pandemic, even as she openly moves to strip those same people of their rights to organise. As Unison regional organiser Cameron Matthews put it, “I’m yet to see ‘gratitude’ from Boris Johnson cashed down the local Asda to put food on families’ tables”. Dempsey made it even more plain: “Their policy is to criminalise dissent against poverty.” Meanwhile, Starmer’s Labour disavows striking workers, harking back to the supposed glory of Blair and Brown as they offer to ‘manage’ the economy better than the Tories. There are no heroes in Westminster.
Rather, Ali went on to say, “The heroes are those that stand with workers on a picket line.” There have been times in the past decade when you could count all the active cases of industrial action taking place in this country on one hand. That is not the case today. RMT. CWU. NUJ. Unite. Unison. UCU. NEU. The Royal College of Nursing. Unions across the country – if they’re not already striking – are balloting to join the most significant wave of UK industrial action since Thatcher. Speakers at the rally highlighted two local cases that were new to me: Norse refuse workers in East Suffolk, and dock workers in Felixstowe. Many Norse workers in the area were being forced to sleep on friends’ sofas as a result of their consistently low pay – so they started organising, and now their new Unison branches have over 90% density of participation across two depots. In Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port, dock workers have gone on strike for the first time in 30 years following an inadequate below-inflation pay offer from their employer.
There is a long history of successful working class struggle in this country. That history was largely edited out of the education delivered to those of us who grew up after Thatcher; but even as many young people are learning about union action for the first time, there are many more who grew up on stories of the struggles their relatives and family friends faced. “My dad was a Vauxhall factory worker in Luton,” Ali tells us. “He recalls quite vividly how, when they had mass walkouts for better pay and conditions, how that had helped him. Him being part of a union was the reason I had food on the table when I was growing up, and I’ll always remember that.”
Young people are growing up into a movement that was considered the domain of the middle-aged and up when I was a teenager in the New Labour years. In the powerful words of another speaker, local Acorn activist Denzil Dean, it is a “thriving, varied, joyful movement, ready to take on anything that comes our way”. That’s what working people have that Tory cronies and the billionaire class do not: the joy of community, the joy of solidarity, the joy of mutual aid in the face of crisis. And we’re going to use our joy, and our anger, as energy to win more substantial things – starting with the wages, rights and dignity we deserve.
“I am not gonna have it said, in years come from now, that in this moment, I did nothing. And I want you to say the same thing.” This was Dempsey’s challenge to the audience. This unique moment is a challenge, to each of us, to stand up and be counted. And it is challenging. It will not be easy to win the change we need from our employers and the government. This, as several of the speakers said, is the fight of our lives. But, as Dean rightly said, “When we put in the work and act collectively, we can win, we do win, and we will win.”
To close the rally, Petrie led the crowd in a chorus of ‘Solidarity Forever’. Its familiar refrain has been heard on picket lines and protest marches up and down the country for decades:
‘The union makes us strong.’
It’s a tune that, I assume, has never passed the new PM’s lips. She will learn its meaning soon enough.
Featured image via EIE campaign FB
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