Owen Jones calls on the left to unite against austerity

Owen Jones

Chavs author, Independent writer and Labour activist Owen Jones talked to Salman Shaheen about the People’s Assembly and the prospects for resistance to austerity

If the People’s Assembly could be summarised in a word, it would be optimism. From the opening speeches it crackled, infusing enthused activists with the idea that austerity – a failure both in terms of restoring growth to the economy and protecting society’s most vulnerable – could be defeated with united action from the left.

Those speaking in the opening Plenary – angry, passionate and full of hope despite all past attempts to bring the left together in the face of neoliberal consensus – might have overstated the case and underestimated the challenge they faced, but the day was about inspiring people.

When I caught up with Owen Jones after the first session, he was naturally ebullient.     

“It’s going incredibly well so far,” he said. “Over 4,000 people are here, it’s the biggest anti-austerity meeting since the crisis began, and I think the arguments that people want on the agenda about alternatives to the self-defeating nightmare of austerity are going to be on that agenda for the first time. It’s such a broad cross-section of the country. And it’s a launch pad for local groups and actions across the country as well.”

But the People’s Assembly had the misfortune of falling on the day that Ed Miliband announced Labour – for many the natural locus of opposition to austerity – would be sticking to Tory spending plans.

While Jones appears to be very much in the Labour camp, he is less enthusiastic about the decisions of its leadership.

“The message for the Labour leadership should be you can no longer expect to automatically be the leaders of the opposition to what the Tories are doing in this country,” Jones said. “You’ll now face competition from those who want a genuine alternative to austerity.”

Jones pointed out the Labour leadership is used to being yelled at from the right, but now it’ll be yelled at by people from a different direction.

“Those sorts of arguments used to support austerity, as it has been proven to fail even on its own terms, they’re no longer credible,” he said. “We will be putting huge amounts of pressure and we’ll be building a national campaign which will give a voice to all those who do want an alternative to austerity.”

Of course, many have now abandoned Labour entirely. Ken Loach, who was reportedly barred from speaking in the closing plenary and relegated to an afternoon slot in the marquee because he was too anti-Labour, has launched an appeal to found a new party to the left of Labour. It’s an initiative that I and almost 9,000 others have signed up to and I asked Jones what his stance on projects such as Left Unity is. 

“At the end of the day, we will always have different strategies and tactics,” he said. “The most important thing is we all have unity where we can agree on an issue by issue basis.”

Jones stressed that the People’s Assembly is not a party, but a movement bringing together people from lots of different parties, initiatives, unions, and campaigning groups.

“I welcome anyone, whatever strategy they have, as long as we can work together on that common aim which is building a broad coalition against austerity,” Jones said.

The answer from Jones, then, is left unity in action, if not in name. While we disagree on the question of Labour, and while the People’s Assembly in its optimism may have underestimated the strength of consensus around austerity forged by the three main parties, Jones is certainly right that left unity against the cuts is our only hope.

This article was originally written for Left Foot Forward

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