John McDonnell March 2012

The evidence is now mounting that demonstrates the Government’s austerity programme is beginning to bite – and bite hard. Unemployment has surged to 2.67 million, with another two million forced into part-time work directly as a result of cuts in public sector jobs and the knock-on effect in the private sector of cuts in public expenditure. Studies of the impact of past recessions have clearly shown that both long term and youth unemployment usually leave the severest scars on individuals, their communities and their generation.

The social psychology of the reaction to poverty and inequality explains that it provokes a basic “flight or fight” response. The flight response pushes the individual to do whatever he or she can to escape from the terrible impact of the recession on themselves, their family and society. In the depression of the 1930s the escape route for some was alcohol, and for desperate people others it was mental breakdown and sometimes suicide. Putting your head in the gas oven was one working class method of escape. In the 1980s people suffered the same traumas – leading to mental illness, increased suicides, alcohol dependency and the new scourge of communities ravaged by drugs.

The alternative, the fight response, can take the form of an organised fight back by communities through their representative organisations in strikes and demonstrations or can be the more spontaneous reaction of individuals and groups in direct action or riots. Over the last 20 months we have already witnessed the fight response in all its main forms from the strikes, marches and demos to the August riots.

Last month Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby at Kent University published his analysis of the association between the introduction of austerity measures and social disorder in western European societies over the last two and a half decades. He compared the data from Harvard University researchers detailing social disorder in developed countries (riots, political demonstrations and political strikes) and the data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development on public spending, privatisation, job security and poverty.

He concluded, “My study shows that over a 25 year period and covering 26 countries, greater poverty, welfare state privatisation, public spending cuts and job insecurity lead to more disorder.” Commenting on the Government’s austerity policies he went on to warn very clearly that “It is exactly this kind of rapid deterioration in living standards for the most vulnerable groups and headlong privatisation that is most likely to lead to public disorder.”

The Government and the whole establishment know this and are increasingly fearful of it. The argument that the unrest seen in Greece could not happen here becomes less convincing with every cut and privatisation policy driven through Parliament and with every worker laid off or having their wages or pension cut.

It is this fear that motivated the courts to impose such disproportionate sentences on the student protestors and those participating in the riots of last summer. They were willing to risk destroying the lives of young people like Zenon Mitchell-Kotsakis, Francis Fernie, Edward Wollard, Alfie Meadows and Jodie MacIntyre in order to warn other young people off from joining the fight back against the austerity programme.

An essential part of the fighting response to austerity therefore is the defence of these individuals who have been victimised and the defence of the right to protest.

The group Defend the Right to Protest has organised a number of meetings and demonstrations over the coming months to expose the pattern of attacks on individual protestors by the state and to support those in prison and coming before the courts. It has also played an important role in supporting the families of those protestors who have been arrested and prosecuted. This work is an important and practical display of solidarity.

The campaign is a natural target for the right wing media as it goes on one of its law and order rampages and it is therefore not an easy or obviously popular campaign to be associated with. Nevertheless it is the right thing to do. On every action and demonstration the names of those who have been victimised by the state for their protest must not be forgotten.

I urge Briefing readers to do all they can to support the Defend the Right to Protest campaign. Sign the petitions calling for the charges against Alfie Meadows to be dropped, join the demonstrations outside the courts and the prisons, twin with a prisoner – and pass resolutions in support at your union branch and CLP.

Remember the next prisoner in the dock could be you or me after our next demo or strike.

  • John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.
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