Britain - Brown-Cameron electioneering: competing for cuts

Oct/Dec 2009

The campaign for next year's general election has begun - and its main focus is already evident: it will be about public expenditure cuts, all round. That was Brown's message in his speech at the annual TUC conference, which he used to kick-off this campaign.

In the run-up to this, the last TUC conference before the election, the media made a big issue of Brown's alleged "reluctance" to upset the union leaders by using the "c" word in his speech. Cartoonists went to town, depicting Brown and Mandelson with knives, scissors or hatchets - comparing their size with those of their Tory counterparts and one rather obscurely pointed out that "TUC" is "CUT" spelt backwards...

As if cuts had not been on the government agenda for a long time already! Haven't Brown and his business chief "Lord" Mandelson already said as much? Haven't they insisted on the "need" to reduce public expenditure in order to halve, within 4 years, the £179bn deficit (officially) accrued as a result of the bank bail-out?

So, for all the media speculation, there was not really much which was new in Brown's first election speech. It was just a rehash of all Labour's usual platitudes and spin, designed to cover up the government's servility to the City and its attacks against the working class. Just as predictably, this was considered enough for union leaders to claim that there was "clear water" between Labour and the Tories, justifying the need for workers to vote Labour as a means to "choose jobs" over cuts. The worst deafness is found among those who do not want to hear!

Of course, if such a big deal was made of Brown saying the "c" word out loud at the TUC conference, it was primarily due to on-going accusations from the Tories, that he has mislead the public over the depth of cuts which must be made.

But, in fact, whatever packaging they put around their plans, all the main parties are preparing drastic cuts in public spending. There is a cross-party consensus over the "need" for the working class majority of the population to face "sacrifices" because of the crisis - just much as there was a cross-party consensus over the "need" to squander public funds in order to bail out the capitalists from the consequences of their own profiteering. The issue is not whether to cut, but who can cut "better" - that is, more effectively, from the point of view of the profiteers!

Besides, if public spending is now the focus of the election campaign, it is not just due to the fact that the Tories have chosen this battleground and forced Brown onto it. It is also because the main parties are all keen to demonstrate to the capitalist class what responsible managers of their interests they are in the present crisis - by spelling out their willingness to get the working class to swallow austerity measures designed to boost capitalist profits. Just as they are all keen, by the same token, to get working people used to the idea that, no matter what, they will indeed have to foot the cost of the crisis.

Labour's continuous cost-cutting

Since Labour's main card is to play on voters' fear of Tory spending cuts, it was obviously not in Brown's interests to spell out exactly where and when he proposes to wield the axe.

However, unlike the Tories who are still merely talking about their plans for cuts from the opposition benches, Labour already has a tangible record in this respect, both in terms of words and in terms of deeds.

Darling has already flagged up an extra £5bn of cuts out of public spending in the last Budget, on top of the £30bn Labour already had in the pipeline. And the government has carried out savage cuts already. Tens of thousands of jobs in the public sector went even before the crisis began to hit. There have been radical job cuts in the civil service (the Gershon review recommended 84,000 job cuts to be achieved by April 2008). 40,000 have gone in Royal Mail over a similar period. And, though Brown told the TUC that each and every redundancy is a "personal tragedy" to him, he failed to explain why he had just allowed thousands of these "tragedies" to go ahead at the bailed-out banks, which the government now controls.

In his speech, Brown made the usual empty statement that "frontline" public sector jobs would not be cut - as though cuts in "back office" support jobs did not affect services and weren't real job losses. This fine distinction was not made by public sector bosses when they implemented cuts in the past, nor is it made as they prepare to make the even deeper cuts to come. In the NHS, for instance, the financial squeeze has been going on for years. The number of NHS beds nationwide has gone down by 10% over the last 5 years alone and at least two-thirds of trusts have closed wards because of financial deficits. If that isn't a cut of frontline staff and services, what is?

Health secretary Andy Burnham doesn't want to talk about future cuts. He claims that "savings" will be made through "quality" improvements. This double-speak actually means further moves to make the NHS into more of a marketplace, for instance by abolishing boundaries for GP practices and linking hospital funding to "patient satisfaction" - not to "satisfaction" among overworked hospital staff, of course!

But NHS managers are more plain-speaking. According to NHS chief executive, David Nicholson, the health service will have to make cuts of £15bn-£20bn over the next 4 years. Heads of trusts are clamouring for a pay freeze for health workers, with the crude blackmail that every 1% increase on pay would "require" 10,000 job cuts. But apparently they are planning the job cuts anyway - the finance director of one unnamed trust told the Health Service Journal that he planned to cut 400 posts over the next 4 years, one fifth of which would be clinical. This was confirmed by the top manager of the NHS in Worcestershire, who wasn't afraid to go public. Predicting a shortfall in the regional budget of over £20m, he said that the inevitable consequence would be "hundreds" of job cuts together with the resulting cuts in services. The NHS is currently recruiting managers from the private sector into top posts since they are reputedly more ruthless in wielding the necessary axe.

Other public services have also been affected by a spate of recent cuts. A £3bn cut in Network Rail's budget led the state-owned rail infrastructure company to announce that it would be cutting its maintenance workforce by 2500 - one sixth of the total - which will inevitably include those who carry out the work. This is on top of hundreds more jobs cut by sub-contracting companies, thanks to drastic cutbacks in the rail renewal programme. No matter that Network Rail was created in the wake of the scandal caused by the cost-cutting of its privatised predecessor, Railtrack, and the subsequent crashes - ministers must figure that the public has forgotten by now.

There is a similar stark story unfolding in local fire authorities. At the time of writing, firefighters in South Yorkshire have just voted to strike over an attack on their working conditions and the fire fighters' union is in dispute with at least 5 other fire authorities - including Merseyside, which plans to cut 105 frontline jobs over the next year, and Warwickshire, which wants to cut 7 fire stations and 100 jobs. Obviously, public safety doesn't come into the calculations on their balance sheets.

As to Labour's future plans, should they get re-elected, an indication of what they have in store was given by Education secretary Ed Balls. Responding perhaps a little too eagerly to Brown going "up front" about cuts, he announced a plan for £2bn of cuts in the education budget, thereby revealing what Brown's commitment to "protect vital frontline services" would really boil down to in schools. The dispensable "non-frontline" workers, according to him, include 3,000 senior staff in schools - i.e. heads, deputy heads and heads of departments. But these senior staff usually take classes, as well as fulfilling other essential roles. They are hardly the "faceless bureaucrats" which are invoked as evidence of a bloated public sector! And if they spend an undue amount of their time on paperwork, it is only because of the obsession of the government with targets and monitoring and the ever-increasing pile of "policy initiatives".

Reactionary heart of the "caring" Tory party

As for the Tories, while demanding straight-talking on cuts, they are equally coy about the details. They go out of their way to try to present a benevolent, "caring" face, resulting in a considerable amount of double-talk.

The Tories' problem, of course, is that, however far ahead they may be in the polls, they need to broaden their appeal. After all, it would do nothing for their credibility if they won an election on a very low turnout, while large numbers of disgusted ex-Labour voters stayed at home. Memories of the Thatcher era are still vivid in the minds of several generations of working class voters and remain a big hurdle for the Tories to overcome.

Hence Cameron's long-standing posture as the champion of the "man in the street", especially since the beginning of the crisis. So for instance, the Tories ran a high profile campaign earlier this year, taunting Brown with accusations that he was doing nothing to help out indebted households threatened with repossession - which was certainly true, but then nor did the rich councils in which the Tories are actually in power!

As to Cameron's newly-found commitment to the NHS and the unlikely fronting of anti-hospital closure campaigns by Tory MPs, including the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, what hypocrisy! As if the Tories are not been responsible for the introduction of the so-called "health market" in the NHS and its disastrous consequences, in the first place!

However, alongside this "caring" posture, Cameron also has to play to his party's traditional electorate and its unsavoury social prejudices. Hence, for instance, the campaign staged jointly by the Tories and the bosses' organisation, the CBI, against what they describe as an "apartheid" regime in pension provisions - a campaign which portrays public sector workers as some kind of privileged parasites! Their argument is that public sector schemes which are still final salary schemes, and sometimes only funded by active members' contributions, should be subjected to the same treatment as most private sector schemes - i.e. they should be downgraded to funded, defined contribution status.

Never mind the fact that the dependence of funded schemes on financial markets has turned time and again into a catastrophe - especially in the present crisis, with share prices losing one third of their value since their peak in 2007. Never mind, either, the fact that, as a result of deteriorating pension provisions, pensioner poverty has gone through the roof over the past period, and that the only way of stopping the explosion of old age poverty would be a large increase in the pensions paid to all workers, from the private as well as the public sector!

But what does it matter to the Tories and their friends in the City? Isn't their only aim to maximise the amount of workers' pension money to play with on financial markets? Indeed, the only "parasites", as far as pensions are concerned, are the City barons - and certainly not public sector workers, whose pensions are not anywhere near the "extravagant" level alleged!

But, of course, this campaign is music to the ears of the section of better-offs who object to their precious money being used to pay pensions - or wages, for that matter - to public sector workers and would rather not fund any public services with their taxes - in fact they would rather not pay any tax at all!

There is, however, an even more devious twist to this joint Tory-CBI campaign, in that it is also aimed at driving a wedge between private and public sector workers. Beyond the general strategy of splitting the ranks of the working class in order to weaken its ability to resist attacks, this campaign is designed to justify in advance public sector job cuts - and, therefore, services - with the hope that the rest of the working class will not identify with the "privileged" workers targeted.

Of course, for the many low-paid workers in the public sector, even a pension which is proportional to their final salary is still a pittance (a recent union survey showed, for instance, that public sector pensions average £140/w for women!). But even the low wages in the public sector are still not low enough for the Tories. Together with the CBI and other right-wing "think-tanks", they also want public sector pay to "reflect the realities" - that is, to reflect what they describe as the low "productivity" of the public sector compared to the private sector. As if what matters in public services was not quality, rather than quantity! (And, in fact, what should matter in the private sector too, but never does, because profits come first) And as if, whatever job they do, workers should not be entitled to a decent wage in the first place!

While Cameron is careful to remain vague about the cuts he has in mind, the Institute of Directors shows no such restraint. Together with the Taxpayers Alliance, a right-wing pressure group, it produced a report proposing spending cuts of £50bn. These include a public sector pay freeze, unsurprisingly, and a proposal to increase public sector employee pension contributions by a third. But it's not just public sector workers who are in the firing line - apparently, they think even the poorest pensioners are "overpaid" and suggest freezing state pensions and the Minimum Income Guarantee. The cost of pensioners' "perks" is obviously also a worry to them - they would abolish free TV licences and give free bus passes only to those elderly and disabled who "genuinely" need them, whatever this may mean. And at the other end of the age scale, they would axe child benefit and the interest subsidy for student loans. Even though this programme has not been formally endorsed by Cameron, it provides a very good idea of what to expect from his party. Especially considering the policies that it already favours at council level - the latest example being Barnet council, which came up with a proposal for a "Ryanair" model for council spending, where only the most basic services would be provided and anything else would be chargeable!

Finally, Cameron's baby-face should not conceal the fact that, at the heart of the Conservative party, there is a hard core of arch-reactionaries, some of whom would fit in very well in the ranks of the BNP, if only this party was able to offer them the parliamentary and council seats they aspire to. There is a long list of such characters. For instance, there is the case of MEP Daniel Hannan, who caused red faces all round by supporting the US healthcare companies' campaign against Obama's proposed reforms and describing the NHS as a "60-year mistake" in American TV programmes. Hannan may have been disowned publicly by Cameron, but he got the backing of other Tory MPs and MEPs - including from the party front bench - one of whom also favoured the introduction of a £10 charge for seeing a GP!

To these dubious characters should be added a host of Tory high flyers, whose names have been associated with business scandals. Two prominent Tories, including Lord Strathclyde, the Tory party leader in the House of Lords, were involved in the shadowy oil trading conglomerate which dumped hundreds of tons of toxic waste in the capital of Ivory Coast, in August 2006, causing 16 people to die and tens of thousands to need medical attention. And even after the scandal broke out, it took no less than 3 years for Strathclyde to finally resign his directorship! There is also the case of Lord Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the party, whose business empire includes a controlling position in BCB Holdings, a financial conglomerate which operates in British and ex-British tax havens in the Carribean and Central America. Ashcroft, who controls the largest bank in the former British colony of Belize, was recently accused of having "subjugated an entire nation" in this now independent Central American country. Of course, there are, in addition, a large number of Tory grandees in "respectable" big business, whose actual record is probably not much better. The working class cannot expect any favour from such people!

The "lesser of two evils" illusion

No-one can doubt that Cameron's policies will be every bit as anti-working class as those of the last Tory government and fully in keeping with Labour's current policy of making the working class foot the bill for the crisis! No-one can doubt either that Labour has nothing else to offer than more of the same austerity or rather, worse of the same.

As to the Lib-Dems, despite their efforts to stand out of the main parties' pack at their conference, they cannot create any illusions. Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable may have made a media coup with his proposal of a "mansion tax", which would slap a 0.5% tax on the part of the value of a house over and above £1m. But even this cheap populism proved to be too much for the party's sitting MPs, who were quite worried at the prospect of losing their better-off voters to the Tories. Other than that, they joined the chorus of voices calling for "savage" public spending cuts, as leader Nick Clegg put it - including a "long-term" public sector pay freeze and cuts to child benefit, together with an increase in employee contributions to public sector pensions and later retirement ages.

So the scene is now set for an election whose outcome is already a foregone conclusion. Whichever party gets in, the future government will aim at turning the screw on the working class, under the pretext of restoring prosperity in the economy, but in fact for the sole purpose of restoring the profits of the same capitalists whose system and profiteering caused the present crisis.

In this election campaign, working class voters are already being presented with the worn-out argument of the "lesser of two evils" as a reason to support, once again, the Labour party. Never mind that the Labour government has, for the past 12 years, boosted the parasitism of the capitalist class at the expense of the working population - in particular by turning public services into a milch cow for the private sharks. Never mind, either, the fact that, since the present crisis broke out, this government has mortgaged the whole economy to bail out the same private sharks, while underwriting their offensive against workers' jobs and wages.

The "lesser of two evils" argument was always a con for workers, because ultimately, whether Labour or Tory, the party in office always plays the role of loyal manager of the capitalists' interests - necessarily on the back of the working class. The packaging and the language may differ - not even all that much, in fact - but not the policies. But in this period of crisis, when the bosses are on the offensive against the working class, nuances in packaging or language are more irrelevant than ever. Against the all-out attacks of the bosses, the working class has nothing to expect from the ballot box. What is required today is to stop the bosses' offensive in its tracks and to start regaining the ground lost. To this end, regardless of which party is in Downing Street, the working class can only rely on its collective strength, in the workplaces and in the streets. And better not leave it until the election!