|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Striking back in austerity Britain
Arrogant, out-of-touch Con-Dem politicians actually believed they had defeated trade union opposition to their savage austerity measures after last year’s strikes. Yet a number of key unions are poised to strike-back on 28 March – and significant private-sector struggles continue. PETER TAAFFE writes.
"WHILE THE POLITICIANS and their advisers give the impression of being in charge, they are not really. The financial markets and the street: when aroused, these are our masters." (Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of the Independent, 16 February) The pensions’ battle, which has dominated the industrial and political scene in Britain for the last year, has now entered a decisive stage.
The Con-Dem government was triumphant at first when it believed that it had won the battle, with the willing compliance of right-wing trade union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison. His union, by far the biggest involved in the present struggle, and other smaller unions capitulated by accepting the ‘heads of agreement’ with the government. Yet everything that they accepted had been on the table before the magnificent 30 November strike. The government proposed that public-sector workers should work longer, pay more in pension contributions and receive less in payouts. Government hatchet men, Francis Maude and Danny Alexander, were quick to point this out.
They were already basking in the afterglow of a major victory for their side – a new ‘Black Friday’ for the trade unions. Christina McAnea, Unison’s head of health, seemed to concur when she cynically admitted that the strike action was just a "damage limitation exercise", with 30 November designed to allow workers to let off steam.
But both the government and the sell-out trade union leaders have reckoned without the resistance front of other unions like PCS civil servants, NUT teachers, lecturers’ union UCU and the possible welcome addition of the fire-fighters’ union, FBU. The latter had not joined the 30 November strike but now, because of the employers’ intransigence, is ready to resist. A widespread consultation of workers in these unions and others is presently underway as we go to print. There is every likelihood that an estimated 750,000 workers will now be prepared to strike on 28 March.
This would represent, in effect, last year’s 30 June strike, Mark 2. In terms of the numbers involved, in a sense this is a retreat on 30 November, because of the desertion of Unison and others. Yet a wholesale retreat by the unions without further resistance would have seen the worst possible outcome, a rout of the trade unions. It would encourage David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, to put the boot into the unions and embolden them in the further attacks that will be launched.
Endorsing economic destruction
AND THIS COMES at a time when the government has been further weakened, economically, socially and politically. Indeed, Osborne’s economic perspectives lie in ruins. Unemployment is at a 16-year high with female unemployment at 1.1 million, the worst in 23 years. Youth unemployment is the "highest ever on record" (Mark Serwotka, The Guardian). Scandalously, 860,000 people have now been unemployed for more than a year. In 2011, 300,000 claimed jobseekers’ allowance, and this was supposed to be a ‘temporary benefit’. In reality, we now have a permanent pool of unemployed, the product of ‘endless austerity’. The TUC estimates that the real unemployment figure is 6.3 million if part-time workers and those who have dropped out of looking for work completely are included. Osborne predicted growth of 2.3% last year which turned out to be only 0.3%!
This is even lower than in Italy, which is in such an economic meltdown that an unelected technocratic cabal, led by the former Goldman Sachs employee Mario Monti, rules instead of parliament. And how does the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, seek to explain the situation? This year, he informs us, will be a ‘zigzag’ of alternating ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ quarterly growth rates. In other words, Britain’s capitalist economy is unstable and in the grip of stagnation. There is no possibility of Osborne’s private sector – the famous phoenix arising from the ashes of the public sector – rescuing the situation. The ‘phoenix’ of a revived private manufacturing base is now reduced to ninth position in the world manufacturing league and has already flown to China and elsewhere, sadly never to return.
Despite all the pain and misery resulting from the cuts already inflicted, Osborne and his government are on ‘negative watch’ from the ratings agency Moody’s. The cherished AAA rating is in peril because the deficit has actually grown. Why? Because the Con-Dems’ policies have severely contracted the economy and unemployment has begun to climb. Osborne claims that this is a ringing endorsement of his destructive deflationary programme! Moreover, the injection of a huge £325 billion of quantitative easing by the Bank of England, while preventing an outright slump, has done nothing to fundamentally change the situation.
The level of national output is still 4% below where it was at the peak of the economic cycle. Larry Elliott of the Guardian writes: "At the current rate of progress it will take until the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war before regaining the lost ground. Those seven lost years will have cost the UK economy around £200 billion in output". Truly capitalism is a ‘progressive’ system!
Indeed, it so ‘progressive’ that it is on a strike of capital, a refusal to invest. It is resting on a mountain of cash locked up in the vaults of big companies in Britain and the US: an eye-watering £120 billion in Britain and a colossal $2 trillion in the US. Even Will Hutton in the Observer and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, apostles of capitalism, frantically urge them to invest. In vain! The capitalists see no profitable outlets. The system is in the death grip of a huge debt overhang; zombie banks in zombie capitalism!
Cold cruelty of the ruling class
BUT IT IS the working class, as always, who will be called upon to pay the price for the crisis of capitalism – aggravated by the ruthless policies of Osborne, a practitioner par excellence of the cold cruelty of the British ruling class. In recent months, this has been on full display. The vilification and scapegoating of the poor, those compelled to exist on benefits, including the disabled, has reached new depths.
Cameron has shamelessly presented a picture of ‘benefit scroungers’ receiving as much as £26,000 a year, while hiding the fact that, in the very few cases where sums like this are paid out, 70-80% of the benefits are taken by rack-renting landlords. Some disabled people, the long-term sick, are now being forced to work unpaid for a limited amount of time or their benefits will be cut. Disabled people have been singled out in shopping malls and elsewhere for vilification, with some tipped out of wheelchairs by those whipped up by the demagogic campaign of Cameron and Osborne.
The witch-hunt of the poor and defenceless is destined to go on but will be resisted. And 94% of government cuts and 88% of benefit cuts have yet to be implemented. Already there is massive ‘social cleansing’ underway. Tens of thousands of families from inner-city areas have been effectively expelled to the outskirts, and there are plans for some to be ‘relocated’ from London to northern cities like Hull and elsewhere.
Cameron appears determined to carry through the government’s pro-business NHS ‘reforms’, despite defeats in the House of Lords and opposition from some Liberal Democrats. Pushing through the legislation is one thing, however, implementing changes on the ground another. Cuts and privatisation will be resisted by the health unions’ rank-and-file and by a wider anti-cuts campaign.
A mass political voice
IT IS THESE factors which emphasise the crucial importance of the pensions’ struggle, which will hopefully fuse with the battle against the cuts. There has been a sharp rise in industrial action in both the public and private sectors. More days were lost in strike action in 2011 than any time since 1990 (1.39 million days compared to 365,000 in 2010). Public-sector action accounted for over 90%, but days lost in the private sector doubled between 2010 and 2011, the highest number since 1994.
The victory of the Balfour Beatty electricians is proof, if proof were needed, of the effectiveness of leadership both from above and below in the class battles that impend in Britain. Such is the explosive social situation that it is inconceivable that struggle will be off the agenda. Even if generalised national strike action does not materialise on the pensions’ issue that will not be the end of the matter. While not the preferred option, rearguard struggles are inevitable by the PCS and others given the attacks which are planned by the government. Maude has openly threatened trade union facility time and rights gained in the past. He will be resisted ferociously, which will probably include partial and regional strike action.
Industrial action will also be accompanied by a political and electoral challenge from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition on 3 May – beginning with the Greater London Assembly elections. Central is the need for a socialist answer to this devastating crisis of capitalism. This is cynically dismissed by Martin Kettle of The Guardian: "Socialism still has adherents, but it is a religion, not a programme… The failure of socialism has a lot to do with [conceptualising a plausible alternative]". (2 February) Not true, replies former Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price: "In December, a poll by the Pew Research Center found support for socialism now outweighs support for capitalism among a younger generation of Americans".
The baleful approach of Ed Miliband and New Labour has already provoked GMB members, through resolutions to their conference, to threaten to withhold £2 million from the Labour Party. Unite has also booked the biggest committee room in the Houses of Parliament for its general secretary, Lenny McCluskey, reportedly to read the riot act to Labour MPs.
The necessity for a new party – in this case, in the USA – is conceded by former advocate of ‘wild capitalism’, Jeffrey Sachs. He writes in the Financial Times: "The poorer half of the population does not interest the Washington status quo. A third political party, occupying the vast unattended terrain of the true centre and the left, will probably be needed to break the stranglehold of big money on American politics and society". (14 February) Such a third party would have to be a new mass radical party. In Britain, this would be a new mass workers’ party.
British society is on the edge of a volcano, of which the pensions’ struggle is just one expression. It can erupt at any time into a mass movement which could not only shake British capitalism but also the government itself, leading to its downfall.