I had the pleasure of speaking at the Trades Union Congress in Bournemouth earlier this week, where I addressed the fringe event ‘Race, Racism and Austerity – Defending Workers, Communities and Trade Unions’.
In my speech, I argued that the government’s austerity programme is disproportionately hitting black and minority ethnic people across the UK, across London, and in my constituency of North East London.
The constituency of North East London is one of the most diverse areas in the country with 42% of residents identifying as black and minority ethnic (BME). Before the 2010 General Election, over 20% of black working-age men and over 40% of black working-age women worked in the public sector. These groups have lost their jobs at a disproportionate rate.
It is vital in these difficult times that we speak up for those whose voices are not heard. As a movement we have fought long and hard for equal rights and fair treatment for all workers and it is unacceptable that the government and Mayor’s cuts are hitting BME groups disproportionately – as well as everyone else who is having their livelihoods torn apart by Government cuts.
I told Congress that, in the face of austerity, people like Boris Johnson underestimate one thing: the power of people to speak up for themselves. The majority of men and women across the country – including those from black and minority ethnic groups – have had to work hard to get what they’ve got. People like Boris will never understand what it’s like to fight for what you’ve got; to fly in the face of racism and discrimination and to keep pushing and pushing for economic, social and political justice.
In order to challenge austerity successfully, the case needs to be made for creative, fair and progressive solutions to the cuts being handed down by MPs in Whitehall, Boris and their colleagues in local Government. A case in hand is the living wage – the non-statutory hourly rate that exceeds the minimum wage, and is based on what people need to earn in order to live comfortably in their lives.
In London, we’ve worked hard to get more and more organisations signed up to it. The former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, did great work in championing it across London, and forced home the message that not only does the Living Wage benefit its recipients, but it boosts the economy by having more money in circulation. It also undermines businesses whose model is based on low wages and exploitative labour practices.
As a result of Ken’s work, Mayor Boris Johnson, to his credit, picked up the mantle left by Ken and now extols the economic benefit of having the Living Wage in London.
This only happened, though, through hard work from the former Mayor. And it gives a great lesson for people who want to challenge the austerity agenda of the current Mayor and national Government – that, if we engage in debate, and make not just a moral argument in favour of fair policy, but one rooted in sound economics, we can make real progress.
We must continue to challenge and provide real alternatives – based in sound economic foundations – against the government and Mayor’s cuts to our essential services and our jobs.
I, for one, will keep fighting the corner of my constituents at City Hall to ensure that Boris and his colleagues at Westminster are held to account for their debilitating and discriminatory actions.