The Politics of Austerity in Leicester and Dublin

Over the past couple of months “the main findings” from the first round of research being carried out by De Montfort University’s Centre for Urban Research on Austerity were published. Although the academic research in question looks at political developments in eight major world cities, in this article I will just be examining their remarks concerning two cities, Leicester and Dublin.

First off with the Leicester report, the researchers highlight how it is ordinary people who have borne the brunt of decades of corporate neoliberal politics that, as we all know, were embraced by all the leaders of our mainstream political parties, with the one notable recent exception being Jeremy Corbyn. The report notes:

“Leicester has experienced several waves of industrial decline and restructuring over the past 40 years, leaving it with high long-term unemployment and income poverty. The crisis of 2008 and ensuing national austerity regime intensified these problems.  In 2013, ONS statistics suggested that gross disposable household income in Leicester was the lowest in the UK.  In-work poverty persists at very high levels with full-time workers earning less than 80% of the national average.  These conditions mean that many citizens rely on public welfare. However, our research suggests that benefit cuts, continuing policy reforms and the government’s sanctioning regime have hit the city very hard in the eight years since the crash, leaving many unable to meet their basic needs, and eroding the social fabric that people depend upon to participate effectively in social, political and economic life.”

Highlighting the scale of the ongoing Tory attacks on the public sector since 2010, they add: “Leicester City Council estimated last year that by 2019, it would have lost some 50% of its budget over a decade.” Yet despite this dire situation, so far Leicester’s Labour Council has refused to accept that they can fight against Tory cuts – an approach which the report calls “austerity realism” (read: spinelessness). “By austerity realism,” the report notes, “we mean that the city applies cuts regretfully, but diligently, because policy makers cannot see any alternative.”

But as Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party’s leadership made clear, it is not that our local politicians “cannot see any alternative,” but rather that they are wilfully resistant to supporting any alternative. Indeed, shortly after Corbyn’s unexpected election victory last year, Professor Jonathan Davies, who is the Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, himself acknowledged that hostile commentators, including within the Labour machine itself, “fear that he really could threaten the enervating austerity consensus.” This was concretely demonstrated at the time by the total lack of public support for Corbyn by any of Leicester’s 52 Labour councillors, and more recently when both the Leicester City Mayor and his Deputy both threw their weight behind the ongoing coup against Corbyn (as have a number of other councillors).

Nevertheless, while the DMU researchers observe the existence of “lively anti-austerity protests in Leicester” they conclude that “Austerity has a seemingly vice-like grip on England and it is not easy to see beyond it.” “At the same time,” they add, — ending on a slightly more optimistic note — “several respondents mentioned Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership as a weathervane of change and foresaw potential tipping points ahead.” This is indeed true, and a political revolution does appear to be taking place within the Labour Party at this very moment.

Moving on to the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity’s initial published findings for Dublin, it is apparent that an organised fight-back against austerity is taking firmer roots in local political affairs across the water, with a “significant increase in the number of left wing ‘anti-austerity’ Councillors on the City Council following the last (2014) local elections.” A good example is this regard is provided by Paul Murphy, who was elected to the Irish Parliament in the 2014 Dublin South-West by-election for the Anti-Austerity Alliance — having previously represented the Socialist Party for the Dublin constituency as a Member of the European Parliament. Murphy, like many other members of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, have played leading roles within the massive and successful anti-austerity campaigns like the famous ‘right to water’ movement (see “Non-payment of water bills rises to 73%”). As the Dublin report produced for the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity continues:

“While the formal institutions of Council politics remain a focal point for interviewees and critics of austerity more broadly, interesting things are happening across a variety of more disparate sites within the city which point to a range of new political actors, new political alliances and new ways of doing politics.  Most noteworthy among these is the so-called ‘right to water’ movement – a national movement which is particularly active in coalescing around the newly introduced (2015) and much contested water charges.  Survey findings which show that over 50 per cent of those involved are first-time activists concerned with austerity more broadly rather than water charges per se, point to significant developments across the city’s broader public sphere.”

It should perhaps be noted that the political establishment has reacted to the swelling anti-austerity movement with typical vindictiveness, and water rates protestors are currently facing imprisonment as a punishment as a testament to the effectiveness of their activism. As reported in an article appropriately titled “‘Jobstown trials’ to go ahead: Government loses battle on water charges but wages war on Left”:

“Three Socialist Party members- Paul Murphy TD [Irish MP], Cllr Mick Murphy and Cllr Kieran Mahon  – are among nineteen adults and one youth charged with false imprisonment and related charges of the Deputy Prime Minister, Joan Burton, and her assistant. These charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.”

Peter Soulsby and Austerity

So while here in Leicester only a couple of Labour councillors have poked their head above the water—because of pressure from the rightwing members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is leading the coup against Corbyn—the same is not true for Dublin’s politicians. Members of the Anti-Austerity Alliance have even used their positions in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) to send a strong message of solidarity to Jeremy Corbyn. Speaking on July 5, shortly after the EU referendum, Paul Murphy explained:

“The key question now is the attempted coup by the Blairites against Jeremy Corbyn in order to remove him and put a Blairite back in charge of the Labour Party. There is a battle of two parties in one Labour Party, that of the pro-war, neo-liberal Blairites and that of the socialists of Mr. Corbyn and, for example, many of the 60,000 people who have joined the Labour Party over the past week. That battle inside the Labour Party is vital and I send the solidarity of the Anti-Austerity Alliance to Mr. Corbyn. We hope he and those coming around the Labour Party prevail in that battle and they have a Labour Party worthy of the name, unlike the Labour Party in this country. There should be a call to a conference of the broad labour movement to defend his leadership and therefore have a socialist-led Labour Party engaging in a general election campaign, fighting for a government position that can be won in Britain. That will create a completely different picture in terms of the nature of exit that will take place, as well as the debate right across Europe putting on the agenda the question of fighting for a Europe that serves the interests of people; it would be a socialist Europe, as opposed to the neo-liberal, militarised Europe that has been rejected.”

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