A hugely successful ‘Make 2019 the year Corbyn becomes PM’ meeting in South Shields agreed a programme of action to take the fight against neoliberalism and for real democracy into other parts of the North East.
Jointly organised by Momentum South Tyneside and the Real Democracy Movement, the event at the South Shields Museum and Art Gallery on February 23 was warmly supported by local activists.
A range of speakers made contributions alongside workshops discussing how to meet the attacks a Corbyn-led government would face from the state, big business and finance, the media and from within the Parliamentary Labour Party. These were based on the scenarios in What if? published by the RDM.
A message of solidarity from John McDonnell MP, the shadow chancellor, was greeted with applause.
Roger Nettleship, speaking on behalf of the Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign, told the audience: “I always felt that campaigns like ours are not ‘non-political’ which is the old notion. Today, I think many campaigns are opening a path to the new politics and a new democracy.”
The challenge was “to unite the polity to solve the problems that people face”. The SSTC has therefore worked together with MPs, councillors, consultants and Unison and Unite trade unions.
Nettleship outlined the “catastrophic changes” in the care services, in particular for the elderly and mental health patients. The South Tyneside Foundation Trust had closed St Clare’s end of life palliative hospice with no notice. Acute mental care beds were sometimes 100 miles away from patients’ homes.
He denounced the “silos of corporate decision making not only in private companies but in public corporations and Trusts as well”.
The whole corporate direction in the NHS must be replaced with a human-centred health care delivery system, he concluded.
Tracey Manning and James Harkus from the Save South Shields School Campaign said their local school had improved dramatically after a new leadership had worked might and main to turn things around from an “inadequate” rating. Ofsted had even praised it.
The school building, with a capacity for 850, had only opened in 2007. But the massive PFI burden of £400,000 per year fixed costs had deterred any potential sponsors. Under the Academies Act the council said they could not do anything to support it.
News of a threatened closure broke during holiday time when people didn’t realise what was happening. In January the final decision was taken to go ahead with closure, despite a petition signed by 6,630 people and well-attended campaign meetings.
The community campaign was also supported by Jeremy Corbyn, Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey, local MP Emma Lewell-Buck and the Green Party. But, said former pupil James, it was shocking that only one out of 30 local Labour councillors had backed it.
The school is now scheduled for closure in August 2020. “The decision was heart-breaking and caused despair. But we have been enlightened by our campaign and we are determined that this will not happen again. Other schools are going in the same direction. They face larger classes which will cause difficulties,” he said.
Matthew Giles, regional officer of the Peoples Assembly Against Austerity, said that people using social services were “unseen”. But they were the victims of the North East being used as an experimentation ground for the roll-out of Universal Credit.
The situation in Job Centres was “truly dire and at breaking point”. People with serious mental and health problems sometimes had to wait 3-4 hours to be seen.
“Private companies are being paid to off-load you to a poor job. People are scared to claim so they were not registered as unemployed. You feel the staff are more concerned with you trying to defraud them rather than trying to help you,” Matthew said.
Due to being on Job Seekers Allowance, he had suffered a mental breakdown and spent six months trying to get his case heard by a tribunal. Then he had to appear before a doctor who he had never seen before and a judge. “It was as if you were guilty and were on trial. It was absolutely horrendous. I would not put my best friend on it,” he said.
The entire benefit system was complex. There was a case for basic income and guaranteed jobs. Local GPs should be making decisions about fitness for work, instead of people with no medical training.
The company that runs the disability scheme, Maximus, has a contract with the government to run the “Work Capability Assessments” schemes which test disabled people’s fitness for work. Maximus will get £595 million over three years for their “work”. However those they decree “unfit” will get nothing.
“The system should not be used for punishing people for things they cannot control. Universal Benefit and the benefits system as a whole cannot be reformed. It needs to be torn down.”
Penny Cole, anti-fracking campaigner, author and Real Democracy Movement supporter, joined the meeting via a video link from Glasgow to explain the background to the ecological crisis and the measures a Corbyn-led government should take.
Penny reminded the audience that the IPCC report that came out at the end of last year stated there are 12 years left to act before catastrophic climate change becomes unavoidable. News of the report mobilised hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to go on strike and brought the start of the Extinction Rebellion movement.
“There have been criticisms that this movement doesn’t have a goal but surely the idea of rebelling against the system that causes climate change is a good start. ER also calls for people’s assemblies to oversee the decarbonisation of the economy, not leaving it to politicians. And they are quite right. The response of politicians to the report was total silence.”
She said that “the engine of growth for the climate crisis” is the capitalist system which demands continuous growth in profits, through the production and sale of more and more commodities. Penny showed two charts showing how the speeding up of greenhouse gas emissions has mirrored the growth of commodity production in the globalisation era.
Penny told the event: “Our big problem has not really been politicians who deny climate change. It has been neoliberal governments, like the Blair/Brown government or the Clinton government, that accept there is a problem, but would not take the kind of drastic state action needed. Neoliberals do not believe in state action, instead leaving everything to the market to decide.”
Another chart showed the decades-long debate at international conference after conference. As the debates went on, the emissions continued to rise. Neoliberal states claimed they could tackle the problem using the same tools of marketisation, monetisation and commodification that they have applied to public services. But the market will only do things that are instantly profitable.
In the face of this inaction and indifference to the future, people often feel powerless. But John McDonnell has promised that a Labour government will act urgently. She outlined some of the actions a Labour government could take in the short and medium term.
Keith Hussein, liaison officer for Momentum South Tyneside, spoke about the “full blown” urban crisis in the area. He told the audience: “The erosion of well-paid skilled jobs, individual self-worth and respect are among the most common everyday experiences for many people living in South Shields over the past 40 years.
“The local economy was hit particularly hard during the Thatcher era as the introduction of neoliberal economic policies led to a huge rise in unemployment and the deindustrialisation of shipbuilding, coal-mining and manufacturing.
“These traditional industries had previously been fundamental to the material well-being of the North East and its people for at least the last century. These have since gave way to a the expansion of generally low skilled flexible jobs in the retail and services sector.”
Harsh austerity policies had hit South Tyneside harder than anywhere else in the region with the loss of essential school and hospital services. “The national rate of those living in poverty is now approaching 20% while, a recent Cambridge University study shows that South Tyneside is the third hardest hit local authority in the country with spending levels slashed by 44% over the period 2010-17.”
Keith said the argument had to be made for a “new economic model that firmly places ordinary people and basic human need at the very centre of its priorities”.
The neoliberal model had only ever encouraged an economic race to the bottom that destroys domestic demand and spending. Britain now has amongst the highest levels of inequality in the developed world while the richest 10% of the population now own 44% of the country’s total wealth.
He welcomed the fact that John McDonnell had proposed a new settlement which will restore privatised industries to public ownership, create a public investment bank, and end private finance initiatives.
“At the same time they promise to increase spending on health and education, and ensure measures are taken to ensure the financial sector serves ordinary workers.
If such measures can be implemented, this economic programme would vastly improve the lives of ordinary people, who have had to endure years of attacks and declining living standards.”
He praised the “Preston Model”, where co-operative forms of ownership had helped generate investment and improve the urban area. “When redevelopment plans for the city centre collapsed its local authority didn’t chase inward investment from large multinationals but instead set up the Preston Co-operative Network together with a credit union and a not-for-profit energy firm Fairer Power which has saved users millions of Pounds in energy costs.
“They now aim to establish a Lancashire-wide community bank to provide loans to small businesses. This is one way ordinary workers can be empowered by wider participation in ownership.”
He added: “With the move toward co-operative forms of ownership we can be optimistic that such policies will transform our towns and cities, provide sustainable skilled work and more vibrant local communities.”
Paul Feldman, editor of Time’s Up for Neoliberalism and author of books on the state, said what he had heard at the meeting strengthened the case for a democratic revolution in the UK. The absence of democracy in South Tyneside was self-evident given the action of the local council in closing schools, cutting down trees and implementing austerity.
All over the world, existing political systems were in crisis. In the UK, we are in the midst of a breakdown of the Parliamentary system itself, Paul said.
“Why is this happening? There’s been a merger, but not one you’ll read in the media. In the last 40 years of corporate-driven globalisation, the state and the political process has essentially come together.
“Control over the economy is beyond the reach of elected governments. Capital and finance moves at will across borders. Currencies are subjected to massive speculation. Everyday the currency market trades are worth 5 or 6 trillion dollars.”
The vote for Brexit was, for many of the 17.4 million who voted to leave the EU, a way to strike back. Naturally, this has reinforced the crisis as Parliament can’t deliver a Brexit that would reverse the impact of neoliberalism. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the UK’s political system is also falling apart at the seams.
He referred to a recent report by Hope Not Hate which charted the growing anti-politics mood of the nation. It showed a massive 55% of people think that our political system is broken while 75% think that politicians “put the interests of big business before people like them”.
Paul added: “There is representation – but it is representation without power. For example, in the UK, people are against fracking and nuclear power. But these policy decisions are made by government, endorsed by Parliament and rammed down people’s throats. Our voices and votes are disregarded and the majority are effectively disenfranchised.”
A transition to real democracy would have to go beyond representative democracy and create a system where people themselves have direct power in their workplaces, communities, towns and cities. What this will look like and work has to be decided by the people themselves, meeting in conventions around the UK to work out a new constitution, a new system of politics. Labour’s manifesto promised to organise such a convention.
He concluded by reading a quote from Democracy against Neoliberalism by academics Alison Ayers and Alfredo Saad-Filho:
“Neoliberalism cannot be challenged effectively through the political institutions and modalities of dissent which neoliberalism itself has put into place. In this sense, struggles against neoliberalism can be supported by mobilizations around democracy. In turn, success depends on the extent to which these democratic movements become anti-capitalist. The expansion of democracy operates, then, as a synthesis of many determinations in the mobilisation against neoliberalism”
Parliamentary democracy was not the last word on the subject. Extending and expanding democracy to give expression to what the term actually means – the power and rule of the people themselves – was the way forward. Placing the necessity for a new democratic system on the agenda in every campaign and activity would raise consciousness about the way forward.
The event concluded with proposals to take the work forward. These include staging public meetings about neoliberalism and democracy; urging young people to vote; joining campaigns to halt the destruction of trees and save high street shops, stage a meeting at Sunderland University, publish the results of the day in a pamphlet, launch a local Assembly to give a voice to people and empower the local community, support Jamie Driscoll as North of Tyne mayoral candidate and the local MP, Emma Lewell-Buck and use the format of the event in other parts of the North East.