Austerity in Britain: undermining resistance

With 80% of the Coalition’s proposed public sector spending cuts yet to be implemented, the 20% that are in place are causing misery for millions of working class people. Tens of thousands are being evicted from homes across the country as housing benefit caps are implemented making their existing accommodation unaffordable. Raising the threshold for eligibility for Working Tax Credit from 16 hours to 24 hours work per week will cost 200,000 of the poorest families up to £3,900 a year. Council services for the disabled, for children and the elderly have been slashed; overall 400,000 public sector jobs have disappeared over the past two years. Median household incomes have fallen by 6.4% over the last two years and will fall by 0.6% this coming year, 1.5% for the poorest 20% of the population (Institute for Fiscal Studies, IFS). Robert Clough reports.

Worse is to come if the ruling class has its way. The new Universal Credit system will be introduced six months earlier than planned. This will set a cap of £26,000 per annum on the benefits a single household can receive. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has announced that ‘suspected’ alcoholics and drug addicts will be denied benefits if they do not attend AA meetings or enrol on addiction treatment courses. Assessments will be carried out by benefits officers. Half a million disabled people will lose their support as the Disability Living Allowance is replaced over the next four years by Personal Independence Payments. Using figures for 2010 as a baseline, the IFS estimates that a further 700,000 children will fall into poverty by 2020, 4.2 million children in all, a rise from 26.9% to 31.6%.

This is not all. A recent report by millionaire venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft recommends lifting a whole range of regulations from small businesses. He says they should be allowed to fire workers at will, that they should be able to opt out of equality legislation and that they should no longer have to seek licences to employ children. The ruling class mantra is that business is being strangled by red tape – this in a country where employment protection law is the weakest of nearly all OECD countries.

These are the actions of a government which as yet faces no serious opposition. It is presiding over the double-dip recession it said would not happen, where it has even alienated natural supporters such as business leaders, police and prison officers and where its leaders have been exposed as up to their eyeballs in corrupt relations with the press. Responsibility for a situation in which workers are being hammered without offering resistance lies squarely with the trade union apparatus. 10 May was another one-day stoppage in the futile trade union campaign against public sector pension cuts. There may be a further one in June. There again, there may not. The NUT doesn’t want one, the PCS will have one if others agree – it is all a case of pass the parcel. There is no conviction, no determination. The changes to pension arrangements, which mean that workers have to pay more, work longer and receive less when they retire, are now in place. The trade union leadership just wants the issue to go away, and its strategy is to take the steam out of its members’ outrage with its series of ever more empty on-off one-day stoppages.

Underlying this is the political dimension: that the trade union leadership is not prepared to break with the Labour Party and mount a serious challenge to austerity, and the social democratic left outside of the Labour Party is not prepared to break with the trade union leadership. Together, they have failed to mobilise serious resistance to, for instance, the privatisation of the NHS or education, or to the huge cuts in council services and consequent job losses that continue to take place week by week. The Labour Party has no alternative to the ConDem Coalition other than slightly slower cuts. The alliance between the trade union leadership and the Labour Party means that the trade unions too have accepted the need for slightly slower cuts, and because of this they are not prepared to challenge Labour-run councils slashing jobs and services. They have not even mounted a serious struggle against Tory-run councils because to do so would involve breaking the anti-trade union laws, and the trade union leadership will not allow this to happen since it would threaten their £1bn-plus assets.

To stifle resistance the leadership has relied on the forces which control local union branches, which in the public sector white-collar unions are mainly lower and middle management. These layers may be experiencing lower living standards and sometimes job losses, but not to the extent that they want a serious struggle which threatens further their still relatively privileged position. The absence of sustained resistance is also the responsibility of the social democratic left, organisations like the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party, whose strategy of gaining elected positions in trade unions at local, regional and national level has drawn them into the trade union apparatus where they have to play by the rules of the game. Their criticism of the leadership becomes muted as they are forced to work through labyrinthine trade union processes. Thus when the NUT on 10 May rejected a further strike in June, SWP industrial organiser Martin Smith complained that ‘it is further evidence that those at the top of our unions, even in one controlled by the left, are not pursuing this fight with the same determination as the rank and file.’ The point is that the ‘determination’ of the leadership is to prevent anything from happening at all, and the left is too compromised to be able to change this.

For signs of serious resistance at the moment we have to look outside the trade unions. On 18 April Disabled People against the Cuts (DPAC) organised a protest at Trafalgar Square halting traffic for more than two hours. The protesters used chains and locks to bolt together dozens of wheelchairs to block the roads; police were unable to cope. ‘We are fed up with being vilified as scroungers by successive governments,’ said DPAC co-founder Debbie Jolly. ‘We are sick of hearing about disabled people who have died from neglect and lack of services or who have committed suicide because services and benefits had been withdrawn from them. We want to make sure politicians know we will not accept these attacks on our lives any longer.’ This is the determination that real resistance requires, together with creativity in deciding forms of protest. As socialists we should also take encouragement from George Galloway’s victory in Bradford West. When the mass of the working class in one constituency, black and white, vote for an anti-war, anti-austerity programme and deliver a crushing defeat for not just the ConDem coalition but the corrupt pro-imperialist Labour Party, we can see that a new political consciousness is emerging. As the cuts bite deeper and deeper it is inevitable that this consciousness will lead to real resistance.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 227 June/July 2012