For massive union demonstrations, linked to a 24-hour general strike
When Maggie Thatcher first spoke from the steps of Downing Street as prime minister in 1979 she quoted Francis of Assisi, promising to bring harmony and hope. Instead she ruled ruthlessly in the interests of the 1% – the capitalist class. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise last week to rule as a ‘one nation’ prime minister is a lie on the same scale.
Elected by just 24.4% of eligible voters, the smallest percentage of voters of any Tory government since 1918, Cameron and co have no mandate for the attacks they intend to carry out against the majority of working class people. But this will not stop them.
Only a mass movement of opposition to the Tories savagery will force them back. In order to try and prevent such a movement the government is also going to propose further undemocratic restrictions on trade unions’ right to strike, alongside other anti-democratic measures including the abolition of the Human Rights Act.
However, the trade unions are the largest democratic organisations in Britain, with six million members. If they mobilised their potential power they could not only prevent the introduction of new anti-trade union and other undemocratic laws, but could play the central role in a movement against austerity powerful enough to defeat the government.
In the Queen’s speech on 27 May the first round of misery will be announced, closely followed by a second round in a special budget on 8 July. Huge cuts in public spending are promised. In the last parliament all departments, except health and education, suffered funding cuts of over 20%. The Tories plan to repeat at least the same scale of cuts again.
This will include further cuts in benefits, from which the Tories have pledged to slash an astronomical £12 billion. It is rumoured that this could include an increase in the hated bedroom tax.
The Tory lie – that Labour has criminally gone along with – is that benefit claimants are all scroungers. In reality, working class people fought for the right to claim benefits when they were in need in order to provide a vital safety net against the brutality of a capitalist system where workers could be thrown out of their jobs at a moment’s notice.
If the Tories succeed in destroying that safety net we will be pushed back to the 1930s, when those who could not earn enough to live starved.
The benefit cuts over the last five years have already left millions of people in desperate straits. Almost a million have had no choice but to go to food banks in order to feed themselves and their families. Homelessness has rocketed.
The next round of benefit cuts will mean further misery for benefit claimants in work, as well as those who are unable to do so. In Britain today levels of employment have increased, yet 38% of working-age households claim benefits. The vast majority are working, but are so low paid that they cannot afford to make ends meet without claiming tax credits. Last year, for example, £11 billion in tax credits was claimed by low paid workers in the major supermarkets.
The answer of course, would be to implement the Socialist Party’s demand for a £10 an hour minimum wage, thereby lifting millions of low paid workers out of the ‘benefit trap’. This, however, would make the giant corporations that the Tory Party acts for pay more. So the government will not increase the minimum wage at all – or only marginally – but will cut the benefits that millions rely on to get by.
On top of all this will be further cuts to local council funding. So desperate is the situation, even the Tory-led Local Government Association – representing local authorities – is begging Osborne to stay his axe. In a letter to the Observer they state that they have already suffered cuts of “40% since 2010 and cannot find more savings without serious consequences for community life and social care, and knock-on effects for the NHS”. It concluded: “Further local government funding reductions over the next five years are not an option”.
The need for a fight back is clear. Young people, unprepared to accept a lifetime of misery, have already begun. When a handful of sixth formers in Bristol called an anti-austerity demonstration five thousand, mainly of their own age, turned up at a few days’ notice. Youth Fight for Jobs in Leeds posted a budget day protest on Facebook and had over 3,000 signed up within hours. Youth Fight for Jobs has now called budget day protests in towns and cities across Britain on budget day – 27 May.
But while young people are showing the way the same cannot be said – as yet – of the majority of the trade union leaders, who have limited themselves to hand-wringing and pleading. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, in her initial post-election statement suggested that the trade unions’ role in this situation is to: “relentlessly argue the case for the public service ethos”. As if this government could be convinced by argument!
What is needed is action. On 20 June the Peoples’ Assembly is holding a national demonstration against austerity in London. This will be the first national opportunity since the election to show opposition to austerity and has the potential to be very large.
However, trade unionists have to fight against any attempt by their leaders to suggest that lets them ‘off the hook’ in calling action. It must be a beginning not an end. It is positive that in Scotland the demonstration taking place on the same day is organised directly by the Scottish TUC.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, has correctly called for 20 June to be followed by a massive trade union demonstration in the autumn as part of a plan for co-ordinated strike action. In our view such a demonstration should be linked to a call for a 24 hour general strike against austerity and in defence of trade union rights.
There was nothing pre-ordained in the success of the last government in carrying out austerity. It was a weak government. Had the two million strong public sector strike in 2011 been used as a springboard for further action the Con-Dems could have been defeated. The trade union movement would also have grown enormously. The millions of currently non-unionised low paid, zero hour workers would have seen the trade unions as a force fighting in their interests, as would the unemployed, the disabled, and all others affected by austerity.
Instead, the majority of the union leaders settled for a few crumbs and told their members to wait for a Labour government. All trade unionists need to fight to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The National Shop Stewards Network conference, taking place on 4 July (see advert below), will be a vital forum to discuss that battle.
Objectively, this government is even weaker than the last and can be defeated. Even the Osborne loyalist and Financial Times commentator, Janan Ganesh has tried to warn the Tories to govern “moderately”. He said that if Cameron “tries to do Thatcher’s unfinished business, he could saddle his party with a foul reputation by 2020”. There is no doubt Cameron will achieve that, but we need to build a movement to make sure his austerity programme is defeated.
Even if, in the short term, the trade union leaders act as an obstacle to effective national trade union action against austerity, this will not prevent a fight back. However, it is likely then to be much more inchoate, perhaps with a myriad of different anti-austerity struggles – local strikes, campaigns against benefit cuts, anti-eviction movements, struggles to defend local services, a possible uprising of young people, and more. The Socialist Party will support all of those fighting against aspects of austerity, but will also campaign for them to linked together in a mass movement against all of the government’s attacks.
One important way to do this will be in elections. As the Labour leadership contest begins it is clear that there is no prospect of Ed Miliband’s replacement being opposed to austerity. Next May there will be council elections taking place. There is a glaring need to elect councillors who are prepared to stand up and fight rather than watch their local community be destroyed by Tory cuts.
Clearly we must work towards building an electoral voice which is 100% against austerity and stands for a democratic socialist society, run in the interest of the millions not the billionaires.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, involving the transport workers’ union the RMT, the Socialist Party, and other trade unionists and socialists, is an important step in that direction. It was set-up in 2010 to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity establishment parties. Its federal structure can allow all of the various campaigns against aspects of austerity to unite together under one umbrella to contest elections, without losing their own identity.
To make sure all the opportunities to build a movement against austerity are seized we need the strongest possible socialist organisation.