The speech reproduced here was delivered by YCL General Secretary Zoe Hennessy on 13th of December at the Marx Memorial Library to open the YCL’s 47th Congress.
Welcome to the 47th congress of the Young Communist League. We are meeting at a critically important time for the left in Britain. In his autumn statement George Osborne announced a further round of cuts that will take public spending back to levels not seen since the 1930s.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies said these cuts would force a “fundamental re-imagining of the role of the state”. By their own admission, austerity is ideological, it is a class war aimed at clawing back every gain working people have made in the labour and trade union movement since the post war period.
The left still have not reached out to working people to convince them that the massive rise in unemployment, poverty and inequality is not accidental, it is a deliberate aspect of capitalism, trying to further reduce the power of workers, and shore up profits by redistributing money away from workers and to the rich. We have also not adequately convinced people that of course there is an alternative, and that alternative is socialism.
Our role as young communists is to make socialism relevant to young people. We are not here just to try and stem the tide, we also need to be building a future movement which can fight back.
Our generation is at the sharp end of attacks on working people, there is plenty of potential.
University is now prohibitively expensive for many working class families. Those graduating with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt are discovering that there is little hope of finding a job, given that there are 85 applicants for every graduate job, compounded by the fact that private firms reserve 40% of graduate jobs for unpaid interns.
The youth are working in increasingly low paid, highly exploitative and insecure jobs.
Currently three-quarters of a million people aged between 16 and 24 are unemployed across the UK, and are forced to search far and wide for jobs which don’t exist, and face welfare sanctions meted out with little regard for their survival or wellbeing. These sanctions mean that unemployed workers cannot buy food, cannot afford to heat their homes, and cannot even afford to travel to the job centre or job interviews.
The number of unemployed people claiming welfare has fallen from 98% twenty years ago, to just 53% currently. It is clear that the aim of the reforms to the benefit system is not to help people find work but to stop them from accessing state support altogether.
There are no statistics for where these people end up once they give up claiming benefits – one can only imagine.
One of the most disgraceful and cruel outcomes of this coalition government’s attempt to destroy the welfare state is the huge number of foodbanks springing up across Britain. In the last year, a million people across the UK have been given a 3 day emergency supply of food from the Trussell Trust Foodbanks.
As the welfare state is rolled back, it is women who are picking up the pieces. It is women who are overwhelmingly affected through pay freezes and benefit cuts, and it is women who suffer when access to domestic violence centres are withdrawn.
Despite this, women are under-represented in our organisation. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Although the ConDem government tries to argue unemployment has fallen slightly, we know that the problem of underemployment and the outrageous use of workfare across the UK is a serious misrepresentation underpinning official government reports. Approximately 1.46 million people are working part time because they can’t find full time work. 1.4 million workers are employed on zero hour contracts, therefore denying them any guarantee of work or earnings, and no holiday or sick pay, whilst giving employers a license to use employees as an expendable and cheap, reserve workforce.
No one should have to work for their poverty.
We know that the rise of UKIP and other far right parties across Europe is a direct product of austerity and the vacuum caused by the lack of working class representation in politics. As long as the ruling class is able to conveniently deploy the politics of division, as long as the working class believes that job losses, poverty and strain on our public services are the fault of immigrants, they will be unable to see that capitalism is the root of the problem.
Some parts of the media pretend to scrutinise UKIP, but all they do is give them oxygen to breathe. Moreover, a privileged liberal elite mocking the far right and the people that vote for them doesn’t address the reasons why people are turning to the right. The media and the mainstream political parties are unable and unwilling to challenge UKIP, because talking about solving the housing crisis, about the causes of unemployment and inequality, necessarily means talking about socialism as a solution to these problems.
The YCL has had a relatively good year in terms of its industrial and political work. However, we are clearly not at a point of critical mass and much more work needs to be done.
Our membership remains small, and our base of active, reliable YCL members is even smaller. Too often the burden of work falls on a few people. We need to increase our membership, and we need to develop a proper base at universities and reach out to students in schools. We also need to insist on consistency and discipline.
I think that in recent years young people have reacted against austerity. However, in the absence of a strong Communist Party highlighting the relevance of class politics, and putting forward an alternative to capitalism, i.e. socialism, these protests have petered out or been side tracked into opportunist movements not rooted in class. It is up to communists to make the case for socialism.
There are now only 6 months to go until the 2015 General Election. If the Tories win another term they will claw back our post war gains and welfare state with renewed vigour. They will further attack our trade unions and our human rights. They will destroy our National Health Service.
The only practical step towards a solution in this time frame is the election of a Labour government. However, it will be a hollow victory if Labour fail to break with austerity politics.
There are a number of considerations to make in our fightback.
The Communist Party is influential for its size, but it is not big enough, and it is not influential enough.
The number of workers organised in trade unions has declined heavily since the 1970s. The number of workers covered by collective bargaining has fallen to 20%. The biggest and most influential unions voted for the Collins review.
The Labour Party has never lead us towards progressive policies, and that has never been the party position. The Labour Party has only implemented progressive policies during periods of class struggle. Currently our class forces are weak, the Labour Party reflects this. There is no basis for thinking the Labour Party should be to the left of the trade unions.
Our priority is to build the party and the YCL, build the trade union movement and the People’s Assembly.
I will finish by saying that we must promote class politics and our party and league. It really is a choice between barbarism or socialism.
Social democracy has made significant improvements to people’s lives, but ultimately it rehabilitates and preserves capitalism, a system of injustice, poverty and war.
The ruling class, in attacking us the way they are, sow the seeds for their own demise. We must take advantage of this crisis, to make the case for socialism. It will ultimately be up to the working class to strike capitalism the death blow, and they will never do this without a strong communist movement. Our enemy is strong, and united. But our enemy is not and has never been invincible.
The working class, despite all the attacks it has sustained, despite all the battles it has lost, still has the potential to fight back. The Communist Party, despite all the attacks it has sustained, despite the battles it has lost, is still here. We are still relevant because the Marxist Leninist doctrine is true.