We need united and co-ordinated action by all of the unions facing the same attacks by the same class enemy
We know that today the working class is frustrated and angry, and that workers across the country are fighting back, resisting the head-on attacks on their job status, wages and working conditions. We also know that today there is growing discontent and pressure building up in the trade unions and inside the Labour Party regarding the lack of political opposition to those attacks.
In this situation, Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered a budget speech in Parliament on 3 March which confirmed that the Tories are once again attacking working people, the NHS, care homes, and people on benefits. In his statement, he did not set out any plans for the NHS, but the “Red Book” containing the detailed figures for the statement showed that NHS England’s budget will fall from £148 billion in 2020-21 to £139 billion in 2021-22, a 6 per cent cut for a period when the NHS will need to deal with a big backlog of surgery and other treatments, and increased mental illness. Sunak ignored the social care system and set out only a temporary extension (to September) of the £20 per week boost in Universal Credit, potentially plunging 500,000 people into poverty next winter.
As well as attacking the nurses and other NHS workers on pay and funding, the budget puts a further squeeze on local council funding to the point of forcing cuts, and puts low-income tenants at risk of eviction by freezing the Local Housing Allowance (LHA). Despite some emergency Covid-related funding from central government, councils are facing huge financial gaps caused by massive drops in income – especially business rates – accompanied by big Covid-related expenditure. Manchester city council is facing cuts in the next financial year of £41 million; in Bolton, the figure is £35 million. The London borough of Newham is set to implement “cuts and savings” of £43 million by April 2023, £30 million of it this year. Leeds council is facing cuts of £87 million, the single biggest amount to be taken out of its spending since the start of the Tories’ austerity policy. Millions of council tax payers in hundreds of council areas are now facing increases of up to 5 percent in their annual bills from April, with those on low and middle incomes hit hardest by a sixth year of increases in England above the rate of inflation.
The Starmer leadership’s response to all of this is to “play the game” on nurses’ pay and to threaten with suspension any Labour councillor who dares to refuse to implement the Tory cuts, all the while saying we shouldn’t get worked up, because “the next general election is years away”.
In terms of benefits for the capitalists, time will tell whether corporation tax will indeed be raised from 19 percent to 25 percent by 2023, but in the meantime, big businesses such as Amazon have been handed an untargeted £25 billion “super-deduction” tax break. Sunak also announced the creation of eight freeports with low-tax zones, telling the House of Commons it was a policy the UK could only pursue now it was outside the European Union. In fact, there are around 80 freeports within the EU, which have been linked with money laundering, corruption, tax evasion and organised crime.
However, the budget also served as a reminder that there is a growing crisis among the bourgeoisie over the economic situation following Brexit.
The Tory government’s false promises and a lack of practical management regarding road haulage, fishing and the north of Ireland, to mention just three examples, is resulting in increasing public expressions of frustration and anger by representatives of whole industries and economic sectors, echoed by Tory MPs.
Amidst all of this, the Starmer leadership not only remains silent, but instructs Labour MPs to “not mention Brexit”. In December 2020, Starmer publicly justified his support for the “final” version of Johnson’s Brexit deal by saying he would hold the government to account “forensically” on the detail. It only took a few weeks to break that commitment – the silence of Starmer and his cabal has been deafening.
The right wing of the Conservative Party may criticise the 3 March budget for not going far enough in its attacks against the working class – which is one expression of the government’s awareness of the resistance to it. But it already contained both direct and indirect measures in the direction of making the working class pay for the crisis, heralding further attacks in future budgets.
What we need is a government that will implement the measures required by the working class: a ban on lay-offs and job-cuts (including “fire and rehire”), providing the necessary funding to local councils to maintain and expand local services, investing properly in other public services including renationalising the railways, reversing the privatisation of the NHS, and investing massively in social housing, to name just a few.
Only a workers’ government acting solely in the interests of the needs of the workers, the youth and the wider population – a government that breaks with the capitalists and its institutions – can nationalise the big means of production, direct public funds towards social needs, and deliver where we need to be.
But the fightback by workers on specific demands is already happening, and must be expanded in a way that will force this government to retreat. “Fire and rehire” has been successfully resisted through strike action in some high-profile cases, but the bosses’ offensive continues nationwide, with the government’s full support. The various unions representing municipal council workers have won individual local battles, but in the coming months they will face massive cuts due to be made across the board by hundreds of councils throughout the country, all of them the result of the government’s funding decisions, and all of them hitting the local communities in the same way.
A big problem so far has been the isolation of each of these struggles. What we need is action on a united and co-ordinated basis by all of the unions facing the same attacks by the same class enemy. A proposal by one of our readers (see page 8) points the way.
The new Police Bill: a further move towards an authoritarian state
The timing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is anything but coincidental. As the 3 March budget set out the first elements of the Tories’ new austerity programme, intended to make the workers and youth pay for the economic impact of Covid-19 and Brexit as part of the wider crisis of capitalism, the new Bill is designed to provide the means to systematically repress public protest and dissent.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 already provides the legal framework for the police to break up public protests, as we have seen so graphically with the vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham (London) and the three Bristol protests against the new Bill. But – thanks to the Labour Party’s voting with the government on 25 March – the powers granted to the police under the Coronavirus Act will extend only until September, hence the Tories’ need for new legislation.
As it stands, the new Police Bill is worded so vaguely as to allow the police to arrest someone for being noisy or disruptive in public – the very definition of public protest. It creates the offence of causing “serious annoyance” and “serious inconvenience”.
A judicial review in November 2020 (in a case brought by Unite to uphold the right to picket by strikers at the Optare bus manufacturing company) resulted in the government backing down and instructing all police forces that socially-distanced official pickets can go ahead.
But unofficial pickets (i.e., not approved by the union apparatuses) are not covered by this ruling, nor are other forms of protest: students protesting against their financial exploitation by universities, women protesting against the violence and harassment to which they are subjected on a daily basis, people protesting against the closure of their local amenities, and so on. All of these expressions of resistance and dissent could be declared illegal under the new Bill.
When the new Bill was published, the Starmer leadership said that Labour would abstain in the vote rather than oppose it, and then changed its position days later, after the media reported a negative public response to the events in Clapham and the Bill itself. Just the latest example of a so-called Leader of the Opposition who will face whichever way the wind blows, as determined by opinion polls and focus groups. The only quote by Marx likely to pass Starmer’s lips is the one by Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”
The media response to the Bristol protests, where the police instigated and carried out much of the violence, was wholly predictable in its condemnation of the predominantly young protestors, with Bristol’s Labour mayor calling them “politically illiterate”.
This last comment bears further scrutiny. Dismissing protesting youth for their perceived inexperience or supposedly narrow focus only serves to endorse this government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. It also reinforces the false notion that there are “special interest issues” that can be compartmentalised and therefore ignored by the organised labour movement.
Yes, the capitalist system does attack particular components of society in different ways at different times. But the common thread to all of these attacks is preserving the system of exploitation for profit and repressing any resistance to it. This is why collective action is needed to resist the latest Police Bill, based on an awareness of the common interest of organised workers with all those who are socially and/or economically deprived in various ways.
Lenin famously described one of the “major symptoms” of a revolutionary situation as including the element that “the upper classes should be unable to rule in the old way”. The new Police Bill is proof that the capitalists and their government are already preparing for the coming social explosion.
The labour movement must respond accordingly.