Britain: The cutbacks and the fightback

Britain braced for massive 26 March demonstration

Campaigns to defend public-sector jobs, services and pensions are being built around Britain. The national demonstration on 26 March – reluctantly called by the TUC – offers a great opportunity to step up the movement. HANNAH SELL reports on the potential for developing a mass campaign of coordinated public-sector industrial action, linked with community and users’ groups, students and the unemployed, to defeat the Con-Dem coalition’s vicious cuts.

The government is trying to cow the working class by the sheer scale of the cuts. Two thirds of public-sector bodies are reported to be making job cuts. Every week a new slaughter of public services is announced.

Yet, like the Wizard of Oz, behind the shock and awe, a very weak coalition government trailing in the polls, is pulling the strings. Chancellor George Osborne’s declaration that the government has no plan B, has never been more than propaganda. Behind the scenes, the strategists of capital are clear that the government has no choice but to have a plan B in reserve. As the Financial Times editorial put it on 3 February: "Given the uncertainties, the government may have to adjust its plans in the light of events. To refuse to do so would be irrational".

In the face of mass outrage, the government has already shown that it is capable of retreat. In one week in February it delayed the plans to privatise Britain’s forests, continued threatened funding of debt counsellors for a year, and demagogically warned universities against charging the £9,000 a year fees that the government introduced just two months ago.

These are not major retreats, but they give a glimpse of how scared the government is of potential opposition. David Cameron has had to admit openly that, "It is not possible to make those cuts without cutting some things that are important. It will not make us popular. It will make us unpopular. It will make me unpopular". A determined mass movement, armed with the right strategy and tactics, would be able to defeat this government very quickly. Even a partial movement could potentially force it out of office this year. The scale of the cuts means that mass opposition is inevitable. Whether it can succeed will depend on whether it is inchoate or organised around a clear programme.

The TUC demonstration on 26 March will mark a turning point. At last year’s TUC conference it was the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), in a move initiated by Socialist Party members, which organised a lobby demanding that the TUC call a national demonstration. The demonstration is only taking place belatedly, when many tens of thousands of jobs have already gone. Nonetheless, it will raise the confidence of the hundreds of thousands of workers who take part, and the millions who watch it on TV. It will demonstrate palpably to all those living in fear for their jobs that they are not alone and that a fight-back is possible. A demonstration, however, is only a starting point.

Unfortunately, the majority of national trade union leaders do not see the possibility of defeating the cuts, in many cases even accepting the argument of New Labour that cuts are necessary, but need to take place more slowly. Therefore, they see their role as no more than organising token resistance and trying to ameliorate the worst effects of the cuts. The strategy put forward at the TUC demonstration is likely to centre on voting Labour in the local elections five weeks later. Even though many of those demonstrating on 26 March will vote Labour in May, in order to punish the ConDems, this ‘strategy’ will rightly be seen as a capitulation given the appalling scale of cuts already being implemented by Labour councils just as much as by Liberal and Tory ones.

Manchester’s Labour city council, for example, has announced that three leisure centres, two swimming pools, five libraries and all but one public toilet will close over the next year. All youth clubs will be handed to the voluntary sector. Refuse collection will only take place fortnightly. Streets will no longer be cleaned overnight. Two thousand council jobs will be cut. Children’s services will be cut by 26% – or £45.1m. Savings of £39.5 million, or 21%, will be made at adult services with charges being introduced. In the run-up to the TUC demo councils up and down the land will announce similar bonfires of public services.

Oppose all cuts

Despite the lack of a fighting strategy from the leadership of the TUC, the demonstration will increase the mood to fight the cuts. Socialists and militant trade unionists have a crucial role to play in intervening in the demonstration to put forward a strategy for victory. The NSSN Anti-Cuts Campaign can play a particularly important role alongside others.

Our starting point has to be opposition to all cuts in jobs and services. This slogan is essential if real unity of the anti-cuts movement is to be achieved. To accept some cuts is to allow the movement to be divided between service users and workers, public- and private-sector workers, benefit claimants and pensioners etc.

The anti-cuts movement will inevitably be multi-faceted given the huge scope of the cuts. The student movement, which led the way so magnificently before Christmas, will remain an important part of the struggle. Already Manchester swimming pool users are threatening to occupy their local pool to prevent it closing. Many similar campaigns will develop. Rent strikes will also be on the cards. A mighty struggle to defend the NHS is required. A movement of benefit claimants is urgently needed, as the vicious cuts literally drive those worst effected to despair. According to the Disability Alliance, nearly one in ten of those claiming the threatened Disability Living Allowance say that losing the benefit may make "life not worth living".

All of these movements and more are essential and inevitable, but to maximise their effectiveness they need to be linked to the enormous potential power of the organised working class in the trade unions. The trade union movement needs to demonstrate that by allying itself clearly with all of those struggling to defend their benefits and services. If the trade unions were to lead a determined struggle against the cuts they would be able to win the active support of many millions more who are not currently organised in the trade unions. Such would be the popular support for such a movement it would be possible to sweep the anti-trade union laws aside.

Coordinated strike action

Our central demand on 26 March will be for a one-day public-sector strike, as a step towards a 24-hour general strike. There is widespread support among public-sector trade unionists for a co-ordinated public-sector strike. At a recent 250-strong Hackney Unison AGM there was a unanimous vote for a one-day public-sector strike. A motion calling for Hackney council to set a needs budget was also carried overwhelmingly. In Scotland, despite the leadership of Unison twice attempting to push through a rotten deal, the Scottish Council has twice stuck to its guns in demanding militant action. In the wake of 26 March, even the most right-wing trade union leaders could be forced to support co-ordinated strike action as a result of the enormous pressure building up from their membership.

Socialists have to support every step towards a public-sector general strike. We are campaigning for those trade unions planning national ballots, both on pensions and cuts, to co-ordinate their strike action and then to appeal to other unions to join them. Such action, even if it was only a partial public-sector general strike in the first instance, would scare the government and tremendously lift the confidence of the working class, preparing the ground for an escalation of the struggle.

To demand co-ordinated action, however, does not mean arguing that workers whose jobs and conditions are under threat should wait for other sections of the working class before taking action. As is being tragically demonstrated in many parts of local government, only speedy and determined action can prevent devastating cuts. If such an approach is taken, council workers fighting in even just one local authority can win victories. At the start of this year, Kirklees Unison, by threatening strike action, was able to force the council to retreat from compulsory redundancies and from reducing redundancy pay and some other measures. This was not a complete victory, but the concessions were won only by threatening militant action and opposing all cuts. The leaderships of many other Unison branches seem to be trying to prevent compulsory redundancies simply by pleading. Contrast Kirklees’ fighting stance to the statement by the Manchester Unison branch which, in the face of devastation, does not say it will fight the cuts but only offers to "assist members during this extremely difficult process".

Strike action needs to be linked to political action. At the moment, Labour is complacent that, despite carrying out government cuts, it will reap the electoral rewards from the government’s unpopularity. The anti-cuts movement urgently needs to discuss standing as many anti-cuts candidates as possible in May’s elections. They should be encouraged to stand under the banner of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the electoral coalition involving militant trade unionists like Bob Crow alongside the Socialist Party and others, which has an important role to play in co-ordinating this.

Liverpool’s great example

But does this mean that socialists should never call for support for Labour or Green candidates? No. On the contrary, we would enthusiastically build support for the stand of any council that was prepared to fight. At the same time, we do not create illusions that this is likely. The number of Labour councillors who have pledged to defy the cuts can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Not a single Labour council has even considered doing so. This contrasts sharply with the situation in the 1980s when Labour was at base a workers’ party, even though it had a leadership that acted in the interests of the capitalists. When it came to the crunch in the 1980s only the Militant-led Liverpool city council, alongside Lambeth, was prepared to defy the government. Another 18 Labour councils, however, at least pledged to do so, before betraying the struggle at a later stage. Today, even John McDonnell MP, who does support councils defying the government, has made the point that Labour councillors are, in general, among the most right-wing section of the Labour Party, not least because of the salaries they now receive.

The vast majority of Green councillors also rule out voting against cuts. For example, Samir Jeeraj of the Green Party was a platform speaker at the November conference of the Coalition of Resistance (CoR), in the workshop on ‘what should political representatives do?’ He argued that "many of the tools used by radical councils in the 1980s are no longer available to councillors". Therefore, it is no longer possible to take the ‘Liverpool and Lambeth road’. Bill Randall, the convenor of the Green group on Brighton city council (the largest group of Green councillors in the country), stated clearly: "We can’t stop the cuts, but we believe the blow can be softened by adopting an open-book approach involving councillors, staff, trade unions, the third sector, the business community and services users to find ways to deal with the grievous cuts inflicted upon our city by the government. We urge other parties on the council to join us in negotiating the best possible outcome for the city in these very difficult circumstances". This is identical to the position put by New Labour.

But this assertion is simply untrue. Even – the Labour bloggers’ website set up by arch-Blairite Derek Draper – published an article by Daniel Blaney saying: "If there was a collective defiance of Eric Pickles by scores of local authorities (essentially going on budget strike), and their act was vindicated by Labour gains in the local elections, it could force a political crisis on the Tory-led coalition. A cascade of ‘no cuts’ budget decisions by local authorities could be the most effective resistance to the cuts so far".

We agree. In the 1980s, Liverpool city council was able to win £60 million in extra funding from the Tory government – fighting without other councils, but with the active support of tens of thousands of workers. Liverpool’s councillors were only surcharged and removed from office, after a four-year struggle, as a result of the betrayal of the right-wing Labour leadership. A ‘cascade’ of Liverpools would have forced Margaret Thatcher from government then, and would defeat the Con-Dem coalition now.

Today, councillors can no longer even be surcharged unless they are found guilty of financial crime for personal gain. But it is still true that any council that refused to carry out cuts or introduce hikes in council tax would come into conflict with the legal system at a certain stage. If a council acts without ‘due regard’ for the advice from the council’s Finance Officer (ie by setting a deficit budget) then it could be referred to the Standards Board and councillors could be barred from office for a period. However, if the inevitable popularity of such a council was used to mobilise a mass movement it would be very difficult – as in Liverpool – to do this. And any councillors removed from office for fighting the cuts would find many others prepared to take their place to continue the struggle.

However, most councils have time to prepare before taking this road. By using their reserves and borrowing powers to avoid making cuts, councils can gain time to build a mass movement in their support. Manchester city council, for example, is estimated to have £100 million in reserves. To strengthen such a stand – and this answers the lie that there is ‘nothing Labour can do’ – Ed Miliband could promise that an incoming Labour government would write off all local authority debts incurred from avoiding cuts.

Exerting pressure from below

Some Labour councillors’ groups, not yet in power, may stand on a platform that comes closer to opposition to cuts than those of Labour councils. Many will have their pledges tested very quickly when they are swept to power in May. In Hull, to give one example, the leader of the Labour group spoke at a 450-strong local anti-cuts rally and pledged to demand the return of the £80 million that has been cut from the council grant by central government, to oppose compulsory redundancies, and bring at least some privatised services back in house. The idea of introducing a local Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has also been mooted.

The anti-cuts movement in Hull has managed to exert huge pressure on the Labour group. It now needs to draw up an anti-cuts programme and demands that the Labour group stands on it in May’s elections. If the whole Labour group does not adopt it, then individual councillors should be asked to give explicit guarantees to support the whole anti-cuts programme and, if not, to specify which they will support and why they do not support others. Verbal pledges from councillors in anti-cuts meetings, when they are feeling the heat of local workers’ anger, are one thing but are not enough. Concrete, written pledges are required. Any anti-cuts programme needs to include opposition to all cuts in services, jobs, pay and conditions. Given the scale of the cut in the funds Hull receives from central government, any pledge short of this will, in reality, mean devastating cuts.

Potentially, a promise not to carry out compulsory redundancies could mean merely using this as a bargaining chip in order to extract agreements to major cuts in pay and conditions – as Barnsley council has done, for example. Polly Toynbee has shamefully held up Barnsley council as a good example, but for local authority workers in Barnsley it is a council of axe men and women. Nor has accepting cuts in pay and conditions avoided compulsory redundancies. Determined to do the government’s bidding and ‘balance the books’, the council has still had to make some compulsory redundancies.

It is necessary for Labour groups which say they oppose cuts to understand that it is only by coming into conflict with the government, and building a movement to defeat it, that it will be possible to avoid cuts. It may be possible to set a ‘balanced budget’ initially without making cuts – by spending reserves and using borrowing powers, and the local anti-cuts campaign should make proposals on this. But this would only be to gain time in order to prepared for the inevitable conflict with the government at a later stage.

A different approach

These kinds of concrete discussions between anti-cuts organisations and Labour and Green candidates will enable workers to see clearly who really opposes cuts. It is a completely different approach to that taken by the leadership of Right to Work (RtW) and CoR who have uncritically built up New Labour and Green councillors as leaders of the movement, without a word of criticism of them for failing to actually oppose the cuts. Such an approach is to prepare the movement for betrayals and defeats.

There is a clear comparison here with the movement against the Iraq war. The leaderships of both CoR and RtW led the Stop the War Coalition (STWC). Against the objections of the Socialist Party representatives on the STWC committee, the Socialist Workers Party and its allies bulldozed the decision through the committee to allow a platform to the Liberal Democrats – without any public criticisms of them – before hundreds of thousands at the massive anti-war demonstration in London in February 2003.

They also refused to allow any speaker on behalf of a socialist organisation. This burnished the ‘anti-war’ credentials of Charles Kennedy and the Lib-Dems. Undoubtedly, this helped to build up their ‘radical’ image, particularly amongst young people. Today, Nick Clegg boasts of his anti-war stance then, while enthusiastically embracing Osborne’s axe today as well as the continued occupation of Afghanistan! To repeat the same mistake in the anti-cuts movement would have even more serious consequences. That this is a real danger is demonstrated by a RtW advert for a lobby of Manchester Labour council, which is making 2,000 workers redundant. The advert declared: "We want to show the Con-Dem government that we will stand with our councillors in opposing the cuts" – without a mention of the fact that the councillors are the ones voting through the cuts!

The reason given for this is that ‘the broadest and most united possible’ anti-cuts movement is needed to beat the government. This is complete misunderstanding. It is wrong to imagine, in Manchester for example, that the road to involving more local authority workers and service users in the anti-cuts movement is to have the councillors who are decimating services in the leadership of the movement. Without doubt, workers rightly lay the primary blame for the cuts at the feet of the Con-Dem government. But this does not mean that they consider the Labour councils carrying out cuts to be blameless.

We favour united local anti-cuts campaigns, but not to the extent of involving people who are voting through cuts and who inevitably demand that the campaign does not lay any blame at their feet. We have already the example in Coventry of Labour councillors threatening to set up an alternative campaign to Coventry Against the Cuts if it did not desist from its plans to lobby the Labour council for voting through £101 million worth of cuts.

This does not mean that we expect local anti-campaigns to be ‘chemically pure’. There are bound to be workers who are attracted to the local anti-campaigns, seeing them as the best fighters, but do not see the possibility of opposing all cuts at this stage. Such workers are welcome in the struggle. However, this is a different issue to giving a platform to councillors who are implementing cuts. In the anti-poll tax struggle the activists included people of many different political persuasions, including Tory voters. All who supported mass non-payment were welcome. Councillors jailing non-payers were not.

Socialists have a vital role to play in the anti-cuts movement. Potentially, our role, together with the best workers, could make the difference between the success and failure of the movement. At the same time, there will be greater opportunities to win workers to socialism and to Marxism than has been the case for many decades. Undoubtedly, there is an ideological element in the Tories’ messianic drive to destroy public services. In essence, however, the cuts arise from the concrete position that capitalism finds itself at the current time. Across Europe, capitalist governments, regardless of their political stripe, are carrying out similar savage attacks on public spending. Governments can certainly be forced to retreat by mass struggle, but the only way to permanently end the attacks on public services is to end capitalism. In Britain, the Con-Dems could be thrown out of office, but they would be replaced by a Labour government that would also try and continue to cut, albeit at a slightly slower pace. It is essential that socialists are not just the best fighters against the cuts but also link the fight against the cuts to the need to build mass independent workers’ parties with a clear socialist programme.

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