‘March with us on 20 June for justice, for working people, for peace, for workers’ rights, for a living wage, a house building programme, for publicly owned utilities, and for society run in the interests of the people-not a society run for the racket of the small elite at the top’. This is the rallying cry of Owen Jones, calling people to #EndAusterityNow as part of The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, this is the call to arms to a generation left bemused and angry following the unexpected outcome of the General Election. In the week since 7th May, various impromptu anti -austerity protests have erupted on the street of Britain. These protests, which began less than 48 hours after David Cameron was returned to power with a parliamentary majority, have earned an outraged reaction from sections of the press. However, in a media culture dominated by ring wing interest, it’s important to look beyond superficial prejudice and examine the wider issues at play which have driven people to the streets.
Media attention has concentrated in particular on the ‘despicable display of disrespect’ as ‘Tory scum’ graffiti was found sprayed on a war memorial commemorating The Women of World War II in Whitehall. Whilst this is obviously a disgusting act, we must also recognise the coverage surrounding it is symptomatic of a press with an undeniable right- wing vested interest. The way in which the media controls Britain can be clearly seen in the gulf between statistical opinion and reality. For instance, Britons believe that 24% of our nation is Muslim, whereas in reality the figure stands at around 5%. Similarly, people consider benefit fraud to be around 27% whereas the total amount is nearer to 0.7%. Without wanting to condone the vandalism, we should be aware that it is something that is fundamentally reversible. What will be less easy to erase, however, are the £12 billion pounds worth of cuts that the new government are considering cutting from the welfare budget.
We only have to look to case of David Clapson, the diabetic who without his £71.70 a week of JSA, could not afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge where he kept his insulin working. Clapson’s JSA had been cut as a result of his missing one meeting at the job centre. Three weeks later Clapson died from a severe lack of insulin. A pile of CVs was found next to his body. This may seem like an extreme case, but staring forward into the next five years episodes like this will inevitably become increasingly common. Benefit sanctions such as the ones indicated by Osborne within hours of the election will serve to punish the unemployed, disabled and poor in ways that, according to Frances Ryan of the Guardian, are ‘utterly inhumane’. Surely the terrible permanence of Clapson’s case is just as despicable, no, more so, than a transient piece of disrespect like the one seen on the Whitehall War Memorial? And yet where is the coverage? The people on the streets are protesting against Anti-Austerity simply because apparently no one else will.
The protests have in some ways set a dangerous precedent-the voting was conducted fairly, and we should accept sometimes in a democracy you won’t always agree with the result. The protestors cannot challenge the validity of the vote, and it’s crucial to respect the system in which we operate. The real legitimacy of the campaigns themselves lie in the fact that they clearly illustrate that the first past the post system is broken; how can the government have the mandate of the majority of the country when the majority of the country either voted for different parties or didn’t vote at all? In terms of vote share the conservatives won 39 per cent and still managed to achieve a majority, whereas UKIP and the Green party amassed more than 5 million votes between them, but only managed to secure two MPs. Will Brett of the Electoral Reform Society has called this a ‘constitutional crisis’, especially given that only 66 per cent of the electorate turned out. Indeed, there are signs that the British public also feels that the election results have made the case for electoral reform undeniable; 30,000 people signed a petition supporting change to the voting system in the first five hours after it was launched at midday last Friday.
The condemnation of the protests perpetuates the argument that left-wing views are under-represented in the press, regardless of whether or not the Tories won ‘fair and square’ in the minds of those who voted for them. The thousands marching through Westminster chanting ‘75% didn’t vote Tory’ are protesting both the continuation of austerity measures and the evidently defunct electoral system. Yet young people on social media appear to be increasingly addressing this issue, using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to organise what should be seen as legitimate demonstrations and make their voices heard. For example, The People’s Assembly Against Austerity’s page on Facebook has over 30,000 likes. Clearly, despite the media bias, this is a generation that refuses to be forgotten.