Austerity and the refugee crisis

Excerpt from my speech at RIC Aberdeen’s anti-austerity demo, 13 September 2015. Originally published on the RIC Aberdeen blog.

It doesn’t matter how you voted last year, or whether you voted at all. If you want to see people treated with dignity and humanity, we’re on the same side.

RIC is not a political party and we don’t endorse any one party, but these issues are political in the widest sense. Social justice. The distribution of wealth. Who gets to decide our priorities as a society.

As an example, a big priority in Aberdeen is the oil industry. On Friday I put on a corporate disguise and went undercover to Offshore Europe. I was flyering for a sustainable energy event we organised – many thanks to everyone who came along to that.

The wealth on display at Offshore Europe was incredible. There were huge TV screens everywhere, brand new furniture, carpets, two-storey offices built under giant tents. I’ve never seen anything like it before. A lot of the stalls were handing out more food than my neighbours have in their cupboards.

At our sustainable energy event, a lot of the discussion was about reducing energy use. Why aren’t we requiring every landlord to insulate the flats they rent out? It’s good for the environment, it’s good for jobs, it’s good for people’s fuel bills. Instead we let energy companies rake in record profits, while millions of people live in damp, cold homes.

These things are not inevitable. They are political choices. Austerity does not jump-start the economy. All it does is concentrate wealth at the top.

We called for this demonstration to bring people together who are fed up with austerity, whether it affects them directly or not. So we’ve got speakers who work with people at the sharp end of the austerity cuts, and we’ve also got speakers who may seem a bit removed. But austerity connects with almost every issue you can think of.

It also connects with the refugee crisis. Tony Benn said, “The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”

It’s all part of the same problem: this is the mind-set where rich politicians get to decide the fates of people who weren’t lucky enough to grow up with middle-class parents in stable countries.

Our government sees refugees as less than human and speaks of them with utter contempt. They refuse to help, even though it’s our own bombs and meddling in the region that’s destroyed people’s homes. I’m proud that ordinary people have seen through the rhetoric and are responding to the crisis with compassion.

Our government also sees people who are poor as less than human. They speak of them with the same contempt they show refugees, and are they’re determined to make them suffer as much as possible.

Life is getting harder and harder for more and more people, and it’s all down to political choices. Tax breaks and tax havens for the rich, low wages, high rents and zero hours contracts for the poor. Benefit sanctions and ATOS.

I’m proud that ordinary people donate to food banks and recognise that their neighbours are human, but it’s not ordinary people who are dismantling the social safety net or paying poverty wages.

Thousands of people are dying in the Mediterranean. Thousands of people are dying within weeks of being declared ‘fit to work.’ Thousands of families are relying on food banks and charities to survive, both in Calais and right here in Aberdeen. Ultimately our government is saying that some people deserve to live and others deserve to die. No one should have that power.

But the good news is that more and more people are demanding an end to austerity.

This week, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. What an incredible thing. An anti-austerity, anti-Trident, pro-refugee, pro-humanity leader of the opposition at Westminster, alongside the 56 SNP MPs who were also elected on an anti-austerity ticket. It gives me a glimmer of hope.

Still, it’s our job to keep pushing the politicians, keep reminding them what’s important, keep holding them to account. That’s the nature of democracy. And that’s what we’re doing here, today. Thank you so much for coming out.

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