Speech at launch of the People's Assembly Scotland 25 January 2014
Ricky Tomlinson did a great job in rousing the anger in this hall against austerity. But is anybody like me in wondering why people we represent and organise out there are not more angry?
Why so many don’t think there is an alternative to austerity?
After all, our movement has banged out the message that there is a better way,
- there is an alternative to this government’s cuts, to their privatisation,
- to their demonising of the unemployed and working poor,
- their demonising of young people,
- their labelling the elderly and disabled as scroungers,
Yet, despite that, we still don’t have mass anger.
We warned austerity would make the economy worse not better.
And we were right.
So we need to shout it loud and more that we were right. But we need to say it again and again because we still have work to do in convincing people.
We were right when we said this was not about the economy – it was about ideology.
An ideology that hates public services and the welfare state. An ideology where our prized NHS principles stick in its throat.
We were right that the private sector wouldn’t fill the gap – all they do is transfer public jobs to private so your taxes go on profits instead of services.
We were right. And thankfully, according to recent polls, we are winning the arguments against privatisation.
So can we get that move on austerity?
It’s not easy.
It is not easy because this government has had such an easy ride when it comes to real opposition to the fundamentals of what they are doing.
So far, the trade unions have been almost the only mainstream voice speaking out. We are backed up by the Nobel Prize winning economists who actually predicted the crash, but all we hear in the media are the economists and politicians who didn’t see it coming and are continuing to push their failed strategies.
Unions and many others have campaigned against austerity but where has the main political opposition been?
I have a message for them. To Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in particular. In the party leadership campaign you out-did each other eloquently debunking the austerity arguments.
But where have you been since?
Our people need a voice.
They don’t need austerity-lite.
But slowly, gradually, there is a growing realisation about the ‘big lie’. The big lie that this was about what the country can afford.
It never was.
It is about an ideology of planned poverty and a low wage, low skill economy.
The cost of living rises and rises but our pay plummets in real terms. The average worker will be almost £2,000 worse off by next year but the top earners will be billions richer.
And we are meant to believe that our pay is getting better. As my colleague Dave Watson tweeted, the problem with dodgy pay statistics is that people can read their paylisps and they can read their bills!
The country is not broke, it is just the money is in the wrong place.
The gender pay gap is widening. This is the longest real wage pay squeeze since 1870. For the first time, we have more in-work poverty than out-of-work poverty.
Meanwhile top earners continue to amass obscene wealth, profiting from austerity. In the last four years the wealth of Britain's 1,000 richest people has soared by a staggering £190bn to £449bn.
No, the country is not broke, it is just the money is in the wrong place.
Who would have thought we would have seen tens of thousands having to rely on food banks in 2014? Why do we put up with mounting child poverty when top executives are coining it in?
Public services didn’t cause the problem. But they are paying the price.
Unions didn’t cause the problem but their rights are being attacked like never before.
It was the speculators and the profiteers that caused the problem and they sail on untouched - while our services, our jobs, and our wages, conditions and benefits are paying for it.
The assault on jobs. 39,000 jobs lost in local government in Scotland. An active choice by Westminster and let us not forget and active choice by Holyrood too.
50,000 across the public services – yes and in the health service too. 60,000 more could be lost over the next five years.
No hope for young people. Audit Scotland data shows there are only 1,500 or so under-20s working in Scotland’s public services.
The job losses are bad enough. But what happens to those who are left behind?
If the need for the service hasn't gone away, how do you manage without the people to provide the service?
You manage by piling more and more work - and more and more stress - on the workers who are left – disguising the cuts.
The TUC reckons that over a quarter of public sector workers work 'extreme overtime'. Mostly unpaid. Contributing £27 billion to the economy and getting nothing back.
And what about the people who depend on these services? Too often they are hidden. They are the most vulnerable.
We don’t even know about some of these services until we need them ourselves. And then, more and more, we find out too late.
Each job lost is a human story – but it is also a hit on local economies. 70p in every pound spent on public services finds its way into the local economy. 92 per cent of the cost of employing a public sector worker is recouped through more tax coming in and less benefits needing paid out.
Now, I’m not an economist, but even I can work out that if you put someone out of a job, they can’t spend money in local businesses, they can’t pay tax to fund services and even this government still accepts you have to pay out some benefits. So how in heaven’s name is that strategy going to build the economy and tackle the deficit?
Of course it is not. Until now, this government has been borrowing more, not less. Instead of sensible borrowing to invest in services and jobs, they are borrowing to bankroll their financial incompetence.
And in Scotland a refusal to use existing financial powers, now or in the future, or create fair funding for local government is making the problem worse. We need politicians at Holyrood and in local government who will stand up for public services and not just pass across the cuts.
And all the time we are paying for it. Not the rich, not the cabinet, not the banks, but us.
Colleagues, we are not all in this together.
But, again slowly but noticeably, as the excesses of this government get more and more obscene, people are beginning to rumble them.
My UNISON colleagues in Stirling, in Higher Education and in Glasgow City Council have all been hitting the streets lately as they find the beginnings of the that confidence to stand up against the attacks. More than that – to reclaim their dignity.
We need to build that confidence wider. That is the purpose of the People’s Assembly.
Pooling our skills, our experience, our organisation to engage people and communities in a broad campaign that focusses on what unites us rather than what divides us.
We kick that off today as we debate ways to involve and engage – inform and educate - but most of all to organise.
Organising, I hope, to build justified anger, then the will and the confidence to do something about it.