Fight the cuts - save the NHS

Up and down the country there is mounting fury at the proposed destruction of the NHS and the cuts. The seeds of resistance are being sown. Pensioners and disabled people create chaos in Oxford Circus in London protesting against council cuts. The call by UK Uncut to ‘turn the banks into hospitals’ mobilises hundreds to occupy banks in city centres. People are looking for ways to fight back and are responding with the most creative actions. While new paths forward are being opened up, there are those who would like us to hold on to tried and failed strategies. In Spain, tens of thousands of young people served time on these forces of the past as they turned the city squares into popular assemblies and defied police attempts to disperse them. This is the kind of inspiration we need as we face up to the ruthless British ruling class.

As we go to press, public sector unions including the National Union of Teachers, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Public and Civil Servants (PCS) and the University and College Union (UCU) are now balloting for action over attacks on staff pension schemes with a possible co-ordinated strike on 30 June involving 800,000 workers. They are protesting against ConDem coalition plans that public sector workers should pay more towards their pensions, work for longer, but receive less when they retire.

Some on the left are seeing this as a step change in resisting the attack on public sector services and jobs. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in its Party Notes of 16 May says: ‘It is very important that the organised working class is moving into action. This is the most effective way to break the coalition.’ This is just not true. Legitimate though the demands of these unions are, the fight to preserve public sector pensions cannot begin to address the devastation of working class lives that is taking place as result of the cuts in welfare benefits and decimation of council services. It does not in any way serve as a starting point for a class-wide response to a situation where hundreds of thousands of people are being forced off Employment Support Allowance on to Jobseeker’s Allowance because a multinational company – Atos – decides they have failed a medical test. It does not begin to tackle the human cost of the closure of day care centres for the elderly or people with learning difficulties, and the ending of any home support services. It does not consider the plight of tens of thousands who will be forced out of their homes because of cuts in housing benefit. Nor does it deal with the systematic denial of educational opportunities for working class youth because of the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance and the massive rise in university fees.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said that the 26 March demonstration by half a million people marked the end of the ‘phoney war’. In reality nothing has changed. The TUC set the date of the march to fall after councils had decided their budgets thus avoiding the chance of any confrontation. The principal council worker unions, Unite and Unison, which support the Labour Party position that cuts are necessary but should be implemented more slowly and fairly, are colluding with cuts where they are implemented by a Labour council. Elsewhere they are more concerned with agreeing voluntary redundancies than fighting for jobs and services. The latest government statistics show that levels of industrial action over the 12 months to March 2011 were the lowest ever recorded: 145,000 days lost through strikes compared to 714,000 in the 12 months to March 2010 (Labour Market Statistics May 2011).

The ConDem coalition will shrug off a single or even a series of one-day strikes. They do not amount to a serious strategy to defend the working class. The widespread notion, echoed by the SWP Party Notes, that the ConDems have been seriously weakened by the recent local elections ignores several facts. First, although the LibDems were hammered, the Tories have lost only a single percentage point in electoral support since the general election (36% to 35%). Second, even though Labour gained in England, it did so on a pro-cuts platform while Labour councils are actually implementing the cuts. Third, as we have shown, consistent resistance to the ruling class onslaught is at present only just beginning.

That is why what is happening in Spain holds important lessons. On 29 September 2010, Spanish trade unions held a one-day general strike against a programme of state spending cuts which would also dramatically reduce employment rights. It was estimated that 70% of workers walked out. In Britain, the Socialist Worker headline was ‘Spanish strike has bosses shaking’. Hardly – like 26 March in Britain, nothing happened afterwards.

It remained a gesture. So, eight months later, a completely new movement has arisen, one explicitly outside of the trade unions and bourgeois political parties, and led by young people who are not in trade unions because youth unemployment is 41%. The occupations of city centre squares throughout Spain by tens of thousands of young people are a protest against the failure of the trade union movement as well as against a system which offers young people no future.

In Britain a mere 4.8% of trade unionists are aged 16-24, numbering just over 300,000 out of nearly 7.5 million people in this age range. This is far fewer than the 938,000 ‘NEETS’, 16-24 year olds who were not in education, employment or training at the end of 2010. Over seven million young people are not trade union members, and unions will not give them a lead as they face rising unemployment and the impossible costs of higher education. Young people will have to organise independently as they are doing in Spain.

The SWP Party Notes say ‘Alongside the workers in the unions directly affected, we want to draw in other workers, anti-cuts groups, pensioners, students, UK Uncut groups, RTW activists, disability campaigners etc’. We say that to make these sections dependent on action by the trade unions would be the death of any real struggle. The trade unions want to limit the aims of any anti-cuts movement to the re-election of a Labour government. The leadership of resistance has to be in the hands of those prepared to mount a real challenge to the ruling class, rather than seek to replace one of its governing parties by another. This means building local groups that draw in all sections of the working class demanding the trade unions take their side on the basis of No cuts – full stop!

Robert Clough

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 221 June/July 2011

 

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