Britain: A further round of savage austerity

We must stop them!

The axe is about to be wielded again and this time it is a huge one. ’Black April’ will see a further round of government-imposed savage austerity, which will alter the very fabric of life in Britain:

"Cuts as far as the eye can see," is how the Guardian put it. We are assailed by a blizzard of horror stories of the effects of the cuts that have already taken place, or of the ferocity to come. Not since the 1930s has the cold cruelty of the British ruling class been so much on display.

Limiting benefit rises to 1% will push 50,000 disabled people into poverty. Even the flint-hearted ministers in this government have admitted that the bedroom tax will affect 440,000 disabled people and will cost nearly £14 a week extra on average, literally ruining hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives among the most downtrodden working class and poor people.

And, as the Daily Mirror pointed out, four people are already being made homeless every hour. Eighty thousand children live in temporary housing. Labour MP Frank Field, who shamefully supported Tory welfare ’reforms’ in the past, is now moved to advocate "civil disobedience" in opposition to the bedroom tax. He is not suggesting he would personally adopt such methods. Heaven forbid! He proposes instead councils should knock down walls within their properties, thereby reducing the number of ’bedrooms’!

The long-term scale of the cuts was spelt out in an item tucked away in the weekend edition of the Financial Times: "The public sector share of the workforce is set to fall by 2018 to its lowest level since the welfare state began in the 1940s."

John Philpott, director of the ’Jobs Economist’ consultancy, said: "The public sector would lose 700,000 jobs during the current parliament and 1.1 million between 2010 and 2018. The projected total fall will cut the public sector workforce by a fifth."

In the face of such an onslaught a mighty resistance is needed.

The Socialist Party says:

  • No to all cuts and privatisation
  • Prepare for a 24-hour general strike, mobilising the massive potential power of the trade unions, to launch a determined anti-cuts battle
  • Build a new mass party to represent workers and all suffering under austerity and to provide a fighting, political alternative to the pro-big business, pro-cuts parties
  • For a socialist alternative to cuts and capitalism with a democratic socialist plan of production based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people – not a tiny super-rich elite

TUC demonstration 20 October 2012, photo Claire Job

Who can lead the fight against austerity?

The labour movement, particularly the trade unions, is witness to the effects of the cuts. The civil service trade union PCS has already lost 50,000 members – with more cuts to come – and has mounted ferocious resistance. At a local level a determined battle has been conducted by anti-cuts unions to prevent the closure of libraries, youth clubs, care centres, etc. The attacks on public sector workers and services are being carried out not just by Tory councils, but also by ’Labour, yes Labour’ councils.

The labour movement, the trade unions and other working class organisations, mobilised three quarters of a million people to march on 26 March 2011 in opposition to this slaughter of precious gains. And it was not just trade unionists who demonstrated on that day. The ’middle layers’ of society, as well as pensioners, disabled people, young people, etc, were drawn behind the trade unions, who represent the overwhelming majority of the ’people’.

Many were not even in a trade union but were profoundly affected by cuts while others opposed the demolition of the welfare state on principle. This was followed by the 30 June 2011 strike and demonstrations involving public sector unions such as the PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU. The POA prison officers’ union walked out and Nipsa in Northern Ireland also took action.

This in turn was followed by ’N30’, the two-million strong 30 November 2011 public sector pensions strike; even the First Division Association of top civil servants joined in! Then there was 10 May 2012, involving PCS, Unite in the NHS, and the lecturers’ UCU in strike action.

This was followed up by the TUC-led march against austerity on 20 October last year, when three general secretaries, Lenny McCluskey of Unite, Bob Crow of the RMT transport union and Mark Serwotka of the PCS all called for a one-day general strike. This was met with thunderous acclaim at the Hyde Park closing rally.

The central role, the authority, of the trade unions was crucial in such a wide mobilisation of opposition to the cuts. The natural next step posed was to speedily organise a mighty demonstration of working class power through a 24-hour general strike.

PCS president Janice Godrich addressing the lobby of the TUC, 11.12.12, photo Paul Mattsson

One-day strike

So great was the groundswell for organising such a strike – with the National Shop Stewards Network playing a crucial role – that even some right-wing union leaders at the TUC’s annual conference were dragged kicking and screaming into supporting it, at least in words, while doing everything they could to sabotage its implementation.

But as Shakespeare said:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

… And we must take the current when it serves,

or lose our ventures."

The right-wing trade union leaders, led by Prentis of Unison and others, backed away from a strategy for action which would have represented the wishes of their own members and the labour movement.

Some, even on the left, prevaricated with the notable exception of the PCS and some other left unions who have resisted all cuts through action. Consequently, the momentum that was required to organise a general strike has been momentarily lost.

But the anger and determination to resist the cuts has not dissipated. In fact, the mood to resist has been shown in huge demonstrations such as the march to save Lewisham hospital, as well as in a series of strikes in recent weeks. These strikes, which seem to be mushrooming, have sometimes been victorious, as with the DWP workers in the PCS where the promise of strike action over the threat of compulsory redundancies forced the management to retreat. Similar small but vital strikes have been won by hospital and other workers.

The anodyne phrase, "austerity", does not adequately explain what the ruling class have in store. A civil war – sometimes a one-sided civil war – is being pursued against all the rights and conditions of the working class. To give it its right name, ’austerity’ is planned poverty.

And when the full implications of what the government is proposing hit home, we can expect colossal resistance, a virtual uprising, or even a number of revolts taking place throughout the country. The mass of meetings and protests against the bedroom tax, which has an element of the poll tax, that have taken place is symptomatic of what is to come. But the question that is posed is who will lead this movement to a successful outcome of the struggle and how will it be led.

Austerity is failing – banner on the 20 October 2012 TUC demonstration against austerity , photo Paul Mattsson

Trade unions

Up to now, resistance at national level has centred on the trade unions. The NSSN, by mobilising from below, exerted great pressure on the unions to take the leading role in this battle; it was the first organisation to call for and ceaselessly agitate for a national trade union-led demonstration.

Moreover, the structures within the trade unions, imperfect though they might be, allow ordinary members to exert pressure on policy in respect of the cuts and to propose effective action to oppose them.

Now the ’People’s Assembly against Austerity’ (PAAA) is seeking to supplant the trade unions as the main force at the national level in the anti-cuts movement. This will not have the authority to organise a 24-hour general strike. Only the trade unions together can prepare for such action.

Yet some trade union leaders seem to be voluntarily ceding leadership from themselves to organisations such as PAAA and UK Uncut. Is this because they are afraid, or half afraid, of taking full responsibility for the success or failure of the anti-cuts struggle?

The trade unions must be the central force not just an auxiliary. Of course, there can be scope for other organisations, such as the National Shop Stewards Network, to mobilise rank-and-file action from below, to put pressure on the official trade unions, even on right-wing trade union leaders. Such organisations can be a powerful lever on the unions but they cannot replace the authority of the trade unions.

Moreover, an emphasis on ’People’ compared to ’trade unions’ and clear working class-led opposition to the cuts signifies not a step forward but a regression compared to what has gone before in the anti-cuts struggle. However, more fundamental than the name adopted is the programme – or lack of it – and the organisations involved in the proposed ’assembly’. [The "People’s Assembly Against Austerity" has been called to “provide a national forum for anti-austerity views which, while increasingly popular, are barely represented in parliament” on 22 June. Those who have called it include leading left MPs, trade union officials and figures, and organisations. The Assembly has said that it will be “ready to support co-ordinated industrial action and national demonstrations against austerity, if possible synchronising with mobilisations across Europe”, although it would not have the authority to call such actions.]

There is no proposal for this ’Assembly’ to be democratically structured or composed of elected delegates, with the right to put forward resolutions – for instance, for a 24-hour general strike – as well as unequivocal support for councillors who refuse to implement the cuts.

Southampton councillors Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, photo Southampton SP


Those councillors who implement cuts will be rightly considered as quislings by those affected. It is the workers and poor who will undoubtedly suffer horribly because of the cowardly refusal to make a stand, unlike the two heroic Labour councillors in Southampton and a few elsewhere.

Moreover, the proposed Assembly has been convened by individuals and organisations who refuse to take a clear opposition to all cuts. Organisations such as the Greens, represented by Caroline Lucas MP on the steering committee, are proposing to ’assemble’ against cuts, but in practice the Greens have helped to carry through cuts.

This year, for instance, in Brighton and Hove council where the Greens are the largest single group and form the administration, £17 million worth of cuts, including compulsory redundancies, have been suggested. The Tories and the Greens proposed cuts budgets. This involved proposals to cut the council workforce’s allowances, which workers naturally resist. The Greens, in the run-up to the council budget meeting, made it clear "they would impose the changes unilaterally, if there was no agreement with the trade unions." (Brighton’s Greens vote for cuts in workers’ allowances, Jon Redford, Socialist Party website)

At the same time, according to the Independent, not only will an Assembly take place, but also a march is proposed, which it is claimed, will be on the scale of the anti-war march in February 2003!

The anti-war movement holds vital lessons for today’s battle against the cuts. One is on the question of political representation. To propose now a bloc with those who do not clearly come out against all cuts is to repeat the same mistake the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, strongly influenced by the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party, made in the anti-war movement. They burnished the anti-war credentials of Charles Kennedy, the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, by allowing him to speak at the 2003 demonstration in Hyde Park.

No criticisms or warnings of the likely future desertion of the anti-war movement by Kennedy and the Lib Dems were made by the leaders of Stop the War. Kennedy’s participation undoubtedly boosted the Liberal Democrats politically by allowing them to present themselves as anti-war – until they supported the war once it began.

Alternative to cuts

The anti-cuts struggle should be organically linked to presenting a clear alternative, not just to the present coalition but to New Labour also. How is it possible to be against the cuts and then support, or remain quiet – as do some of the supporters of this Assembly idea – when Labour councillors weep crocodile tears, while ’reluctantly’ implementing cuts? These ’Labour, yes Labour’ councillors then use crocodile teeth on the working class by voting for job losses and reductions in vital council services.

Ed Balls has already stated: "My starting point is… we are going to have to keep all these cuts." Peter Hain, the ex-Labour minister, in a recent Guardian article expressed his "disappointment" that Labour backbenchers are already saying that a future New Labour government will have to remain within the "spending limits" that have been set out by the coalition government.

In other words, Ed Miliband and Labour’s alternative is "austerity with a human face", which is no alternative at all nor will it turn out to be very humane.

Those such as Owen Jones, radical celebrity and writer, as well as some trade union leaders, who continue their support for the Labour Party as the vehicle through which the trade unions can act are profoundly mistaken. Miliband and Balls in government will work within the confines of diseased British capitalism and therefore disappoint the hopes of working people.

Despite Owen Jones’s radical phraseology, he merely acts as a ’buckle’ in the belt which seeks to link the anti-cuts movement – ultimately subordinating it – to the idea that salvation lies through election of Labour.

Owen is a worshipper of accomplished facts. He maintains that Labour has been the ’traditional’ party of the trade unions and therefore forever it will remain so. History does not stand still; parties can be transformed by hostile political and social covenants to become the opposite of what they were at the outset. New Labour is now an unalloyed capitalist party.

The same arguments to justify continued work with New Labour were deployed by the Lib-Labs against Keir Hardie when he was fighting for the idea of independent working class political representation through the creation of a labour party over 100 years ago.

Ken Loach, the socialist, radical film director, understands that New Labour represents a dead end and therefore it is necessary to seek a new road; hence his call for people to sign up to a new ’left unity’. By so doing, he has opened up a very welcome discussion on the need for a viable alternative to the Labour Party for working class people engaged in the anti-cuts campaigns as well as working people generally looking for an alternative to New Labour.

Left unity

But this is not the first time that Ken and others have sought to create a new left force. We have seen previous attempts to form a left party: Scargill’s ill-fated Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance that Ken Loach himself was involved in. These failed either because of sectarianism – the completely intolerant approach of Arthur Scargill – or the equally narrow and ultimately opportunist approach of the SWP in the Socialist Alliance and in Respect.

Learning from this, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is the first serious attempt to create the foundations of a new movement expressing the voice of the working class for their own independent party. It is in the best traditions of the labour movement with a federal constitution, and, moreover, unlike other attempts, is firmly based in the trade union movement.

Therefore, any discussion that is opening up with Ken Loach and his supporters cannot ignore the importance of TUSC. Some, including many of those gathering around Ken Loach, are political grasshoppers leaping light-mindedly from one project to another. Their ’projects’ invariably failed.

We do not need at this critical juncture miracle workers searching for an easy route to the solution of the problems of the working class. We need, instead, a mass movement to defeat the cuts – and the trade unions offer the best hope for the vehicle that can do this. On a political level TUSC also offers the best hope for furthering the process of creating a viable new mass workers’ party.

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April 2013