We present a member's review of The People's Manifesto, available in print from the People's Assembly office (write to email@example.com or telephone 020 8525 6988) and online from the Campaign Tools section of this website.
The People's Manifesto.
London: The People's Assembly, 2015.
To commit oneself against a policy is already to believe that there is an alternative, but at its foundation in 2013 the People's Assembly Against Austerity seemed to represent (as was once said of the anti-globalization movement) 'one no, many yeses'. It has since turned to the People's Charter, adopted by the Trades Union Congress in 2009, as the outline of a broadly acceptable democratic alternative to austerity. The charter was adopted and enlarged by the People's Assembly's 2014 conference,* and is now the source for its People's Manifesto, a statement of twenty pages issued alongside the general election campaign.
The last days of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government call first for an assessment of its austerity programme. Of course austerity has failed to achieve what was promised: halfway through its term the government had to abandon the notion of eliminating Britain's budget deficit by 2015, and only cuts 'sharper ... than anything seen over the past five years' (in the words of the Office for Budget Responsibility) would allow it by 2018, the chancellor's current political answer to the outstanding economic question. Yet there is a viewpoint from which austerity has been a celebrated success: it is that of the Telegraph's hundred business leaders in their letter of 1 April, whose reasons are well explained in The People's Manifesto.
The balance of power in the labour market and the workplace has been shifted yet further in favour of the employers by the nurture of short-time and precarious employment, symbolized by the zero-hours contract. (The Manifesto voices the new balance: 'Do as you're told, when you're told, or you're out.') Their companies have seen corporation tax cut by 7 per cent (the Manifesto prints 14 per cent) since 2010. Assets have been inflated by £375bn of quantitative easing. As such the age of austerity has seen corporate profits recover strongly, and the country's thousand richest people double their wealth. Meanwhile average real wages fell for six years until late 2014, and the unemployed have been made scapegoats for the fiscal crisis: under this government the welfare system has been converted into one of bureaucratic punishment, whose sanctions are a major cause of what the Manifesto calls the 'explosion' in the numbers resorting in destitution to food banks.
Apart from the revision of the schedule of capital accumulation in British industry, The People's Manifesto shows how the upwards redistribution of property under austerity has embraced direct gifts. The final privatization of the Royal Mail was an open scandal – its undervalued shares assuring instant private profits at the expense of public revenue – but of far greater consequence for the future is what the public health doctor Allyson Pollock has described elsewhere as the 'abolition' of the public NHS in England. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 removed every legal brake on privatization and reorganized the NHS in England as a frank market, in which corporations bid for services commissioned by groups of general practice surgeries.† The Manifesto also describes the situation in children's education, where cuts to support services and the closure of Sure Start centres have rendered another area of urgent social need to private profit, and the expansion of academies and free schools (in a renewed attack on comprehensive education) has been chased by a 'proliferation' of consultants and management companies.
The alternative upheld in The People's Manifesto is an economy 'based on meeting the needs of the many and not making profits for the few'. To counter the power of the employers in the workplace, the Manifesto calls for legislation to improve employment terms and trade union rights. It calls for an end to private profit from public services, and the restoration of democratic control, equal provision, and co-operative structures in the NHS and children's education. In fiscal policy it demands action against tax avoidance and evasion, an array of increased or new taxes (including a windfall tax on corporate 'super-profits' and a 'Robin Hood' tax on financial transactions), and a reduction in VAT 'to boost working people's spending power'. The Manifesto claims that these measures would produce a considerable budget surplus, funding the new direction it urges for Britain's economic development: the nationalization of banks and public utilities, investment in research, training, and free higher education, and the protection of strategic industries with import tariffs. The object of this development policy is 'a full employment economy, protecting jobs, rebuilding industry, and creating a sustainable future.' Not years, but decades of British history are obviously in question here.
To write in the name of such a broad campaign as the People's Assembly is a difficult task and the national office has done good work. The text of the Manifesto is combative and clear, if necessarily thin for the want of a shared analysis. (For the campaign to spur an effort towards a convergence in doctrine on the Left would be welcome, but it probably testifies in the first place to the tenacity of our divisions.) What are missed in the Manifesto are sources for the statistics given, for example to dispel 'Ten Myths about Austerity' on the back cover.‡ Some are familiar from the press, only a few are surprising (it is said that the budget deficit has grown in the last year), but the inclusion of sources would have made the booklet a complete reference for local groups – and if it is used as is suggested, helped the individual reader to challenge parliamentary candidates on certain ground. Even so The People's Manifesto is a forceful, far-reaching statement, which will guide the People's Assembly well beyond the election and should be read by every participant.
† Prof. Pollock recently demonstrated to a Cambridge audience that these new clinical commissioning groups are embryonic insurance companies on the US model: the patter of 'patient choice' is therefore not dishonest, in that CCGs will finally be able to choose their patients.
‡ The 'Ten Myths about Austerity' have also been printed separately as a leaflet, where the statistics are attributed as a block to the Office for National Statistics and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.