Author and columnist Owen Jones looks back at a tumultuous year in politics, characterised by protests, riots, strikes and occupations
2011 was the year the phoney war ended or – as the kids say these days, so I’m told – shit got real. When queues of anxious customers demanding their money suddenly formed outside Northern Rock over four years ago, it seemed like a slightly surreal – but one-off – disruption to normality, like an eerie re-enactment of a scene from Depression-era United States. As the entire global financial system faced total meltdown a year later, a sense of normality was mostly still preserved thanks to taxpayer bailouts and multi-billion fiscal stimuli. But more than one commentator conjured up the image of the global economy as a cartoon character who runs off a cliff, legs still flapping, suspended in mid-air as the scale of the fall sinks in. This year, the tumble began.
The declared strategy of the Conservative-led Government was that, as it pushed forward with the most devastating cuts since the 1920s, there would be a private sector-led recovery. By the end of 2011, unemployment had soared towards 2.7 million, a level not seen for 17 years. And while 67,000 public sector jobs were lost in the third quarter, just 5,000 private sector jobs were created. As had been predicted by those the Conservatives and their outriders had sneered at, the cuts were sucking growth out of the economy. Four years since the crisis began, Britain once again stands on the brink of another recession. Even on the Government’s own terms, its strategy is a failure, with George Osborne forced to borrow more than was projected under Labour’s plans at the last election. No wonder Osborne stood accused by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of being “a medieval doctor bleeding his patient.”
“We’re all in this together,” or so George Osborne and the Government told us. Throughout the year, it was a sentence that veered between the ludicrous and the insulting. The average Briton is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s. The majority of us will be no better off in 2016 than we were at the turn of the millennium. But there might as well be an economic boom as far as those at the top are concerned. The wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain surged by a fifth, one of the greatest leaps recorded. In the corporate boardrooms of the top 100 companies, pay went up by 49% - nearly as much as it did last year. Here was a silent class war waged from the top.
Bleak stuff, and enough to leave the Government in serious trouble, you would think. After all, the Conservatives had the last election on a plate thanks to the biggest economic crisis since the Depression and a woefully unpopular Labour Prime Minister – but they lost. Cameron is only ensconced in Number 10 because of the duplicity of the Liberal Democrats. But with a coherent alternative still lacking from the Labour leadership, David Cameron looked smugger with every passing month. Even as Job Centres became more crowded, the PM and Chancellor remained (perversely) more trusted on the economy than Labour. The genius of the Conservatives’ strategy of turning a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending – and the failure of Labour to challenge it from the start – was paying off.
And as 2011 advanced, the Cameron regime looked a whole lot more like a hard-line Conservative government. “We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of,” boasted Tory minister Greg Barker in April. As those on benefits became more demonised than they were before mass unemployment returned to Britain, a Government report proposed forcing cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to be assessed for their fitness for work. With little co-ordinated opposition, the Government pushed through the first stage of the privatisation of the NHS, without bothering with the courtesy of putting it before the electorate first. And as Cameron flounced out of the EU Treaty negotiations – after making sure journalists were briefed he had eaten a full English breakfast – it was clear Britain had the most Eurosceptic government since World War II. But still the Liberal Democrats – a now indisputably rag-tag bunch of opportunists – kept the Government in power in cynical defiance of their (former) voters, with just the odd bit of choreographed “letting off steam” to keep up the pretence they were anything other than Tory voting fodder.
Though Cameron remained largely untouched, economic upheavals invariably cause things to “kick off”, as the BBC’s Paul Mason puts it. The students had led the charge at the end of 2010, throwing off illusions about British passivity and proving that it was possible to resist. They had put the trade unions “on the spot”, as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey put it. Many an obituary has been written for the labour movement since the hammering it suffered under Thatcher, but in 2011 it returned to the stage. Its unique potential to mobilise was showcased on March 26th, as it organised the biggest workers’ demonstration in a generation. The theme was ‘March for the Alternative’, and though that alternative remains far from properly sketched out, here was the biggest show of defiance against Tory rule yet.
But it was a Tory attempt to impose a deficit tax on public sector workers that forced the trade unions into action. Superficially, it was about pensions: they were becoming unaffordable, claimed the Government, even as a report it commissioned by ultra-Blairite New Labour ex-minister Lord Hutton revealed that pensions would shrink as a proportion of GDP in the years ahead. Indeed, the money raised from increased contributions is to flow straight into the Treasury’s coffers. On June 30th, teachers and civil servants went out on strike, and Tory minister Francis Maude had his arguments torn to shreds on national radio. Then came the biggie: on November 30th, public sector workers ranging from dinner ladies to top civil servants, lollipop ladies to nurses came out in the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.
There was a sense of exhilaration that comes from sharing a common purpose on the day. It didn’t last. In the face of media hostility, the union leaderships (with honourable exceptions) failed to present their compelling case in a way that could resonate with an increasingly union-free workplace. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, had promised “the fight of our lives”, but looks set to lead a capitulation to Government proposals. No concessions on the key issues were offered, and civil servants’ union PCS – whose leader, Mark Serwotka, had shown the most determination of the trade union leadership – was locked out of talks. And so 2011 could end with what may come to be seen as the biggest trade union defeat since Thatcher.
Resistance came in unorthodox forms, too. On 17th September, protesters set up tents in Wall Street in protest at the injustices of economic crisis; in part, they were inspired by the Spanish indignados (indignant) who occupied Madrid’s main square in protest at the political establishment in May, and they, in turn, looked to the example of the Egyptian revolutionaries who seized Tahrir Square. Occupy Wall Street was the catalyst for a global movement that finally came to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral on 15th October. It was a drama that dragged in the usually irrelevant Church of England, forcing the resignation of three priests. But Occupy clocked up a real achievement: it reminded us all who caused the crisis, and who was being made to pay for it. Indeed, one poll revealed that 51% of Britons felt the protesters were “right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people.”
Britain’s tearing social fabric could manifest itself in uglier ways. After 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, riots exploded in Tottenham on 6th August; within two days, rioting and looting were tearing through London; other English communities were next. Anger and fear provoked a ferocious backlash: mid-way through the unrest, one poll revealed one third of people wanted live ammunition used. Newspapers blamed single parents; and I was all too paralysed as I sat in a TV studio while Tudor historian David Starkey attempted to scapegoat black people by arguing that what he described as their “culture” had turned white people into rampaging thugs. As Government supported plans to evict rioters and their families if they lived in council homes and to confiscate their benefits, a precedent was set in Cameron’s Britain: if you are poor and commit a crime, you will be punished twice. With talk of “feral underclass” being bandied around, there was little sympathy for those – like myself – who argued that there were growing numbers of young people with no secure future to risk.
And so Britain leaves 2011 with an increasingly triumphant right in office; a broad opposition not lacking in passion, but scattered and lacking in coherent alternatives; a Labour leadership still failing to make the case against the Government; brutal cuts and economic crisis biting away at people’s jobs, living standards and futures; and swelling ranks of people with nothing much to lose. If it doesn't sound pretty, it’s because it isn't.
But it’s no time to flail around in despair. 2012 could be bleak, or it could be the year that a resurgent left gets its act together, unites around an alternative that resonates, and starts building pressure from below. Rather than assailing Ed Miliband for being hopeless, political space could be created for progressive policies, and the Labour leadership dragged to support them – willingly or not. But a note of warning. If the left doesn't tap into the inevitable growth of anger and frustration, then somebody else will. And a cursory look back over the 20th century tells us just how disastrous that can be.