General election - Westminster parties gear up for more of the same austerity and lies

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In just over six months’ time there will be a general election. Whatever the party politicians say, there will not be any real choice on offer for the working class. We will instead be treated to a circus as hundreds of greedy parliamentary candidates fight each other to get on the Westminster gravy train. Behind the scenes, the ruling class must decide which of the Conservative, Labour or LibDem parties will best serve British imperialism’s interests for the next five years.

The last four years of the ConDem Coalition have proved devastating for the working-class. A ruthless austerity regime has seen attacks on state welfare comparable to the attacks on the unemployed in the 1920s and 1930s, and a return to the punitive principles of the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century. So far the ruling class have faced little resistance, but the crisis conditions that produced the crash in 2008 have not been resolved. Restoring profitability will require further attacks on the working class to drive down wages and standards of living. The challenge the ruling class faces is how to do this without provoking massive opposition.

The effect of the austerity measures on the standard of living for the working class is already extreme, and has hit the poorest sections hardest. In 2012, the number of people living in absolute poverty rose by 900,000, of whom 300,000 were children. In 2013 food prices rose by 3.8% while benefits were capped at 1% and wages for many were also frozen. The Trussell Trust reported a 21% increase in its distribution of food parcels over the summer. Since the start of 2014 there has been a 19% increase in people admitted to hospital for malnutrition.

Trade union resistance to these attacks has been next to non-existent. The majority of unions have remained tied to Labour despite its support for austerity and despite the savage cuts in services and jobs imposed by Labour-controlled councils. The number of working days lost to industrial action in 2013 stood at 443,600 working days – one day a year per 15 union members. The unions will not risk their huge financial assets or the salaries of their officials in a real battle with the government. Thus in June 2013 Unison issued a directive to its local government members instructing them to cooperate with implementation of the bedroom tax, and although the PCS agreed to oppose sanctions and workfare at its conference in May 2014, union members continue to impose such sanctions on unemployed people at Jobcentres across Britain.

Resistance to date has been reliant on activists working outside of the trade unions, building bases of support in working class communities, like the Focus E15 campaign in London, the bedroom tax action groups which sprang up in many cities in the summer of 2013, and the campaigns that have been waged to defend hospitals, Sure Start Centres, swimming pools, libraries and other services against closure.

If democracy were to mean anything, next year’s general election would be a referendum on austerity, an opportunity to overturn the policies that are devastating the majority of the population. But instead we are going to be offered more of the same poison, the only difference being the flavour.

On housing…

The working class faces an acute shortage of housing after decades of ‘right to buy’ for council tenants, with much of the former council housing stock ending up in the hands of big private landlords and housing associations. In England alone, 4.5 million people are on waiting lists for social housing and more than 48,000 families are homeless. Labour has promised it will build 200,000 houses a year if elected, and the Lib Dems have promised 300,000. But for both parties, these figures are the total: there is no indication as to how many will be for sale or rent, or how many will be in the social sector. Their promises ignore the main issue for the working class: the need for social housing at a rent that is really affordable. The government’s definition of affordable is 80% of local market rates, but more and more people have been forced into a position where this is utterly unaffordable. In 2008, Labour restricted housing benefit for those renting private accommodation to the 50% point of local market rents, then in 2012 the ConDems reduced this further to the 30% point. Labour has made no promise to restore the cut.

Having prevaricated for months, in September 2013 Labour said it would scrap the bedroom tax. But meanwhile Labour councils continue to impose the tax on social housing tenants. The National Housing Federation estimated in May that 32% of those affected by the bedroom tax have cut back on food as a result, 26% have cut back on heating, and 66% are in rent arrears. We have to ask: what would a Labour government do for the thousands of people who have already been forced to move, or for those who have outstanding arrears as a result of the bedroom tax?

The Conservatives, Labour and UKIP are united in their support for the Overall Benefit Cap. Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary argues the attacks need to go even further, saying, ’The Tory-led government talk tough on housing benefit, promising new measures, crackdowns and action to control rising costs, but the reality is far removed’. What has the Labour Party to offer the 100,000 children of families hit by the benefit cap, mainly in London, many of whom are being forced out of the city because they are unable to meet housing costs?

On health care…

Labour opened up health care as a source of profit by introducing privatisation and outsourcing, and saddling health services with billions of pounds of debts through Public Finance Initiative (PFI) deals. The Conservatives and Lib Dems accelerated this process with the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. Now Labour wants to win back some credibility with the working class by promising to reverse the trend which was actually started by the last Labour government. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has promised that a Labour government would repeal the Health and Social Care Act and stop the creeping privatisation of the National Health Service, and fund an increase in numbers of NHS staff through a new ‘Mansion Tax’. But the promised extra £2.5bn per year is a drop in the ocean compared to the £20bn cuts imposed over the last five years, or the £30bn savings required over the next seven. Nothing is said about PFI debts, nor is there any acknowledgement of Labour’s own role in the fragmentation and privatisation of the NHS.

On education…

The 1997 Labour government started the process of dismantling state education, marketising whatever service could be sold off. It set up the original academies programme which removed schools from the control of local education authorities and allowed them to set pay, terms and conditions for their employees Under the ConDem coalition academies and ‘free’ schools now make up 50% of the total as education is turned into a commodity. The consequence is that education and educational services are now Britain’s seventh largest export. Labour introduced university tuition fees and set them at £3,000 per annum; the ConDem government then tripled them to £9,000. There is no proposal from any of the major parties to reduce let alone abolish the charges. Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has said ’I am in favour of parent-led academies which are going to be good parent-led academies. And we will keep the good free schools when we get into government.’

On benefits…

All of the parties are united in their support for racist restrictions on EU migrants’ access to benefits, and on non-EU migrants’ access to housing, health care and other services. The purpose of these measures is to force migrants to accept even more oppressive working conditions, or to leave Britain. Labour is making much of its plan to create 50,000 ‘paid starter jobs’ for unemployed young people, funded by a tax on bankers’ bonuses and a restriction on pension tax relief for those earning over £150,000. It is also appealing to the middle class by proposing a contribution-based supplement to Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). UKIP, courting Labour voters, has promised the same.

All the parties agree on the underlying principle that workers must accept work on whatever terms employers offer, or lose their benefits. As Ed Balls has said: ‘those who can work will be required to take up the jobs on offer or lose their benefits. A life on benefits will simply not be an option.’ This is backed up by the proposal to remove JSA for 18-21 year olds, and replace it with a ‘youth allowance’ means-tested on parents’ income. Ed Balls used the Labour conference to further reassure the bankers that the Labour Party remains committed to austerity by promising to extend the cuts to Child Benefit a year longer than the Coalition proposes, with a 1% cap until 2017.

What would a Labour government do about the people forced to work as a result of the Work Capability Assessment that Labour introduced in 2007, when in fact they are unfit due to illness or disability? Or the growing numbers of people forced by the threat of sanctions to accept zero hours contracts and other oppressive working conditions?

Build the alternative

None of the main parties due to fight at the general election have an answer to the problems facing the working class. Far from it, they are all committed to a programme that will make things worse. There will be no proposed option for halting the attacks on the working class: it will merely be a chance for the ruling class to select which party can lead the assault most effectively. Although many of the struggles that have emerged over the last four years within working-class communities have been short-lived, they point the way forward for the working class. We need a new movement that will not be held back by ties to the Labour Party. The alternative has to be built among the working class; there are no shortcuts.

James Bell and Thomas Vincent

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014