Labour's plans: stick for today, precious few carrots for tomorrow

21 November 2006

The government's legislative plans for the coming year, announced in last week's Queen's speech, are as unremarkable as one could have expected. Besides, they must be taken with all due suspicion: after all, we are not in the habit of getting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, from governments, nor from the royal mouth!

However, in the middle of a long list of more or less irrelevant bills, two stand out because they involve major attacks against the working class.

Cutting the "cost of poverty"

One of these attacks is the "Welfare Reform Bill", already tabled twice in the Commons, to cut the "cost" of incapacity benefit.

Labour cannot force the disabled or those on long-term sickness into work - not even if there were jobs for them, which is not the case. But, never fear, its advisors have devised new tests to throw claimants off the benefit register.

According to the bill, these claimants may have "limited capacity for work", but not for "work-related activity". With this sleight of hand, they will be harassed by "counsellors" - private agencies - into attending interviews, work trials, etc.. Failure to abide will result in benefit cuts. And councils will have powers to "prosecute benefit fraud", meaning yet more harassment.

Of course, this is a well-tried technique - in fact, very similar to the one already used to deprive many jobless of any benefit at all and so reduce the official unemployment count. And just as such methods have only succeeded in increasing poverty among the jobless, without reducing real unemployment, they are guaranteed to push more disabled and other vulnerable people into complete destitution.

But what do ministers care, as long as this poverty does not cost the state a penny?

Work till you drop or live in destitution

The other attack is contained in the long-planned Pensions Bill. It involves the postponement of retirement age to 68, by 2046.

This may seem a long way away for most of us. But it is opening a breach, by giving legitimacy to the idea that "progress" equals working more, not less, as was always considered to be the case up to now. And who can be sure that this or another government will not bring the 2046 deadline forward at some stage, in the name of "progress"?

Of course, there is a carrot designed to cushion this major attack on our pension rights: the qualification age for the state pension is supposed to be reduced from 39 to 30 years of contributions and its amount to be re-linked to earnings.

Except that no date have been set for these changes, which will not take place before the beginning of the next decade at the earliest!

Labour's untold plans

This being said, Labour has its little secrets, which were not part of the Queen's Speech.

The NHS is one. Labour mortgaged public funds to the tune of £45bn for its PFI projects - or 4 year's spending on the 2.7 million getting incapacity benefit! All this for the few hundred big shareholders of the few large companies involved! Meanwhile, 21,000 NHS jobs have been lost since February!

Likewise, no mention was made of the cost of the 2012 Olympics, which has now almost quadrupled to £8bn. Not to mention the hardship of those forced out of their homes in the process. Again, those who will get the lion's share of this bounty are the same few hundred big shareholders!

In fact, Labour is going even further out of its way to please the City. Brown has announced new legislation allowing big companies to negotiate the taxes they have to pay ahead of any deal. This means that the Treasury will be involved in helping companies to win big financial deals with tax rebates - nothing to do with boosting job creation, but everything to do with boosting dividends!

This is a government which has been good for business. Companies are awash with money. Like National Grid, for instance, which, despite the alleged "difficulties" of electricity utilities due to energy prices, has announced that it is to hand back £1bn to its shareholders.

The truth is that the so-called "savings" made by this government on the back of the working class, find their way eventually, not into new public investment, but into the coffers of the capitalist class. And as long as we, workers, do not give ourselves the means to control directly, at every level of society, what is done with the product of our labour, where the money goes, who gets it and for what, private profiteers will thrive on our backs.