- Created: Thursday, 13 June 2013 12:23
- Written by Robert Clough
The British working class is facing a savage onslaught. The ruling class through its ConDem coalition is directing a brutal class war to destroy the state welfare system set up in the post-war period, break up working class communities and organisations, and drive down wages to poverty levels. The government attempts to justify its economic policies by reference to the public sector debt and a stagnant economy. But, as we wrote in the last issue of FRFI, such arguments ‘camouflage the real class interests behind savage austerity policies.
The government is testing the water for further and deeper attacks on state welfare and working class living standards as it attempts to sustain Britain’s parasitic and crisis-ridden capitalist economy, and with it the wealth and power of a corporate and financial elite. So it has to justify its austerity policies. The government is fighting an ideological battle, a class war, and has been able to do this in the most brazen way because it faces little or no resistance from the organised working class movement or from the so-called Labour opposition.’ Robert Clough reports.
The ConDem coalition has set the main elements of this offensive in place. It requires the fragmentation and privatisation of state health and education services which will throw provision for the working class back more than 70 years. There is to be a scorched-earth approach to working-age benefits whose purpose is not just to reduce state spending but to create conditions for substantial cuts in wages. Added to this are measures to undermine the ability of the working class to resist and organise, by, for example, slashing legal aid, maintaining anti-trade union laws and stepping up attacks on basic rights.
The absence of serious opposition has given the ruling class confidence that it can carry this through despite the divisions in the ConDem coalition. Previous Labour governments laid the foundations for the ConDem assault, and Labour-run councils are implementing both service and benefit cuts to order. Trade unions are offering no resistance: they have not prevented the cuts in council services, the privatisation of the NHS or public sector job losses, and days lost through industrial action remain at historic lows. Socialists have to understand why we are in this situation, and to put forward a strategy to build resistance.
Many on the left will point to statements against the bedroom tax that are now being made by Labour MPs and councillors as an example of opposition. For Labour councillors, attacking the bedroom tax in words is a useful distraction from their role in implementing local service cuts. What is clear is that the Labour leadership will not commit itself to repealing the tax if they get elected. Speaking on 17 May, shadow benefits minister Liam Byrne said ‘We think this tax should go, it is a bad, immoral tax but we know that before we make a promise to reverse it we have to prove we can pay for that.’ It was after all the last Labour government which introduced Local Housing Allowance in 2008, the bedroom tax equivalent for the private rented sector. Neither Byrne nor Labour leader Ed Miliband will pledge now to abolish the tax because the Labour Party, as a ruling class party committed to ruling class interests, agrees that austerity is needed.
What of the trade unions? They have failed to stop the attack on public sector pensions, failed to stop the Health and Social Care Act and privatisation of health services, failed to stop council service cuts, and failed to stop public sector job losses. The reason is that trade union membership is more and more restricted to better-off sections of the working class especially in the public sector and these layers look to the Labour Party to defend their material privileges. In 2011, when median full-time annual pay was £26,095, the median full-time annual pay of those in managerial and professional occupations who make up 40% of trade union membership was between £35,625 and £37,287. A further 13.2%, associate professionals, had a median full-time annual pay of £30,109. These are the people who run local trade union branches, and they are not going to allow struggles to develop which jeopardise their position.
This explains why there has been no serious challenge to local council cuts and why days of industrial action for the six-month period September 2012-February 2013 at 30,000 were the lowest ever recorded since statistics were collected in the nineteenth century. It explains why the main unions organising public sector workers – the GMB, Unison, and Unite – still pump millions of pounds into the Labour Party: this public sector labour aristocracy regards a future Labour government as key to its survival. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey may repeatedly call for campaigns of civil disobedience, but neither he nor his union have done anything to organise them.
A strategy of resistance that depends on the trade unions is therefore doomed to failure. It depends on the trade union leadership being prepared to risk the unions’ vast assets in a confrontation with the anti-trade union laws. This will not happen. It depends on the trade unions breaking their alliance with Labour as the RMT has done. No other union is set to follow that example. Such a strategy limits itself to a small, materially privileged minority of the working class and excludes the mass of the working class, especially those who are experiencing the brunt of the onslaught on state welfare.
The only answer is to go out to the mass of the working class – in housing estates, on shopping streets, in local communities, to the millions who are the working poor and who are overwhelmingly outside the trade unions, mostly in temporary, part-time or insecure work, as well as the millions who are unemployed or who cannot work because they are disabled or family carers. Some people are now coming together in local groups campaigning against the bedroom tax. These are organisations committed to action where everyone has a voice in deciding tactics. They are providing a basic education in democracy and political struggle. Socialists have to be part of this development. Our role is to fight those who argue that the way forward is by making concessions to the Labour Party and the trade union movement, and to encourage every independent step that these groups take. This is the only way a new movement can emerge, one which is capable of challenging the ruling class. Smash the bedroom tax – Can’t pay, won’t pay, won’t move.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013