Britain - the bosses' offensive and the necessary fight back

Jan/Mar 2011

The year 2010 ended with corks popping out of the usual expensive champagne bottles in the City. And why would it have been otherwise? Hadn't share prices gained a comfortable 11% over the year, bringing them back to their June 2008 level? Hadn't 2,800 financial high-flyers, each "earning" a £1m-plus salary, shared £7bn worth of bonuses over the last year? And wasn't the latest talk in town full of speculation over the 7-figure bonuses that the directors of the largest banks - including those controlled by public funds - were expected to award themselves?

Crisis? Cuts? Austerity? Quite simply, these words are not part of the capitalists' vocabulary! Companies are awash with cash due to having cut on investment. Their profits have gone up, due to their having used the crisis as a pretext to cut jobs and real wages, so that, now, they can maintain the same production on the cheap, with fewer full time workers and more part-timers. As to the banking sharks, having had their losses "nationalised" by politicians, they have simply resumed their speculative spree, threatening the economy with further shocks.

By contrast, the working population knew already that whatever was coming was certain to be painful. For months, the government had been testing the water and softening up public opinion with a raft of announcements, which all pointed to the fact that savage cuts were in store. So that the wide-ranging price rises announced for the first days of January did not catch anyone unawares.

But what made this pill even more bitter, was the fact that most of these price increases seemed to be especially targeted to hurt low income households. Not only are the VAT and petrol duty increases far more painful for those on modest earnings, since they have no choice but to spend most of their income on their day-to-day needs, unlike the better off. But, in addition, the transport fare increases which were introduced at the same time, were also designed in such a way as to be much steeper on commuter trains heavily used by working class families who have been priced out of the big cities by the bankers' housing bubble, and on the buses, which are often the only means of transportation used by the poorest, because they are cheaper.

As a direct consequence of these "targeted" price increases, the real cost of living is bound to increase significantly faster for the poorest than for the better off, let alone the wealthy, who will not even feel any difference. And this, at a time when workers are having their real income reduced due to below-inflation wage increases at best and, at worst, pay cuts or redundancy.

Cuts and more cuts to come

In theory, the Con-Dems' expenditure cuts should have only started to bite from the coming April. But in practice, they have already been felt for several months.

The final unemployment figures for 2010 published in January already tell part of the story: 77,000 public sector jobs have disappeared over the past year. Some of these job cuts, of course, are by-products of Labour's job-cutting programme in the civil service. But others are due to the "quango bonfire" announced in last June's emergency budget.

Above all, this figure is a vast underestimate of the real job cuts in the public sector, since it does not take into account the large numbers of agency temps and contracted out workers who have been sacked without compensation or any recourse, by all kinds of public sector organisations.

Local councils are meant to take a large part of the responsibility for implementing the job-slashing that the Con-Dems want to achieve. And many councils have willingly anticipated the expected reduction of their budgets by slashing "non-essential" services (closing down public libraries and youth facilities, or ending subsidies to cultural activities, for instance). They have already carried out endless department "reorganisations", in order to get fewer people to do the same amount of work. Having got rid of temps, they then turned against permanent workers, by getting some of them to reapply for their jobs on the basis of a more flexible job description, often involving a basic pay cut.

But although these job and pay cuts have already probably hit tens of thousands of workers in and around local government, they are only a prelude in the government's scheme of things. That much can be gathered on the basis of the job cutting intentions formulated so far by local authorities as part of their statutory consultations with the unions. A survey released by the GMB union shows that, at the end of December, the 145 local authorities covered (out of 350) were considering plans to cut a total 113,000 jobs. More or less at the same time, the Local Government Association published an estimate of 140,000 job cuts for the whole of Britain. Of course, no-one can be sure about the accuracy of such figures - not even the job-slashers themselves - but they certainly give an idea of how deep local authorities are prepared to plunge the axe.

However, another kind of light is shed on the government's cost-cutting programme by the small print of its plans concerning government grants.

In preparation for their savaging of local authorities' budgets, the Con-Dem spin doctors have invented an adhoc measure of their finances, called their "spending power", which has been quite obviously designed to make the cuts appear smaller than they really are. Thus government figures, based on this "spending power" measure, claim that council funding will be cut by "only" 4.4% on average in 2011-12, with a maximum of 8.9%. However, actual government grants to councils will be cut by far more - by 9.9% on average, and up to 17% in the worst cases, that is, twice as much as Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, dares to admit!

Even worse, though, is the way in which these cuts are distributed. The vast majority of the 36 local authorities singled out for the highest rates of budget cuts "happen" to be among those with the highest levels of poverty and unemployment - they include, in particular, the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham, Liverpool and Knowsley in Merseyside, Manchester, St Helens, Doncaster and South Tyneside.

By contrast, wealthy areas like Dorset, Windsor, Maidenhead, Poole, West Sussex, Richmond upon Thames, Buckinghamshire, etc.. will have their budgets cut by less than 1%!

This is no coincidence, of course. The obvious fact that the poorest sections of the population require the highest level of public funding, in order to make up for low incomes - which does not allow them to spend over and above the bare minimum to survive - has always been vocally decried by the wealthy.

This is typical of the arrogant parasitism of the capitalists, who consider public funds to be their private property, from which which they should be able to help themselves freely - as they do constantly as a matter of course, and not just in exceptional circumstances like the bank bailout - whereas the working class population should be made to pay for everything under the sun, with its blood and sweat. If the capitalists could have their way, without having to fear riots in the streets, they would have got rid of the welfare system, social housing, state education and public services like the NHS, a very long time ago!

Already the Con-Dems' welfare "reforms" were based on precisely this kind of bigoted "logic", whereby the poor should be somehow held responsible for their poverty, and therefore punished in some way for the inadequate "help" they get from public funds. It is now the very same "logic" which underpins Pickles' convoluted calculations, designed to penalise those local authorities with the largest proportion of low-income and unemployed households.

Labour's anti-"slash and burn" hypocrisy

There is also, of course, another dimension to Pickles' calculations, which has a lot to do with outright politicking. Just as in the "good old days" of Thatcher's poll tax, Pickles' dream is certainly to get the other two main parties - and especially, Labour - to take responsibility for the government's austerity policies, by implementing it themselves in the local authorities which they control, but also to get them to face the resulting discredit among the electorate, in the hope that this will benefit the Tories in the local elections.

Of course, Labour is an ideal target for this kind of manoeuvre. For all Ed Milliband's rhetoric against the coalition "slash-and-burn" policy, who will fail to remember that, in fact, it was Alistair Darling himself, who initiated this "slash-and-burn", in his April 2010 budget? Besides, what credibility can Milliband have in his claim to be opposing the coalition's policy, when he goes to such great pains not to distance himself from the "need" for some form of austerity in order to reduce the budget deficit caused by the bankers, nor from Osborne's pro-business measures, while going to even greater pains to distance himself from the suggestion that workers might resort to industrial action against the bosses' and government's cuts!

Ultimately, where Pickles is probably right in his calculations, given the role the Labour party has played in British politics for nearly a century, is to gamble on the fact that Labour-controlled councils will implement the cuts required from them by the government and that any Labour council that would refuse to do so would immediately be disowned by the party leadership.

In fact, there are already plenty of examples of Labour councils which have anticipated the cuts exactly in the same way as any Tory- or Lib-Dem-led council.

Did they have to anticipate the cuts as they did? Certainly not, especially when it means cutting jobs or services necessary to the working class. Can they avoid implementing local cuts once the grant they receive from the government has been cut?

There are precedents in history - like the famous Poplar rebellion, in 1921. At the time, the 30 Labour councillors of the London borough of Poplar made a stand against the tax system which operated in London, whereby poor working class boroughs like Poplar funded the London-wide services which benefited the rich boroughs, while the rich boroughs did not pay a penny towards the social expenditure of the working class boroughs. Faced with a situation where they were legally required to choose between cutting the outdoor relief they provided to the poor and increasing the rates, the councillors chose a third option: they decided not to collect the part of the rates that was normally used to fund London-wide services. They were immediately arrested and jailed. But their arrest sparked off a popular mobilisation across the borough, numerous protests and the threat of a rent strike by tenants' associations. Finally, faced with increasingly alarming reports of rising temper in the East End, the government preferred to back off. Six weeks after their arrest the councillors were freed without charge and a new bill was drafted which met Poplar's demands. Labour leader Lansbury had won thanks to his determination and that of his fellow councillors but, above all, thanks to the mobilisation of Poplar's working class.

Now, we are not in 1921 and the social make up of cities is certainly different from what it was at the time. Nevertheless, there are a lot of working class people who are sufficiently angry against the government's attacks to be prepared to get organised and to organise others around them on the basis of such a rebellion. Success is never guaranteed, of course, and such a rebellion would definitely face the opposition of the Labour party machinery, just as the Poplar councillors did, in fact. But for anyone who is determined to defend the interests of the working class against such a wholesale attempt at cutting its standard of living, failing to make a stand and to mobilise workers on this basis should not be an option.

The Labour-controlled councils which fail to make a stand against the attacks of the government, going along with them instead on the ground that they are "legally" obliged to do so and, therefore, have "no other choice", are actually making a choice - that of taking the side of the government and its capitalist masters against the interests of the working class.

The union leaders' tame "march for the alternative"

Despite Cameron's hype around the announcement made by a few big companies that they were going to create significant numbers of jobs, even his own experts have long admitted that the public sector cuts would result in large job cuts across many industries. And even before the planned public sector cuts have taken place, unemployment is increasing in many parts of the country.

Thus, the BBC reported in January that Jaguar-Land-Rover had received 14,000 applications following the announcement that it was to take on 1,400 workers at its Halewood plant, in order to produce the new Range Rover Evoque model. Ten jobless for every job, this is how dramatic the level of unemployment is today! And although the massaging of jobless figures and the increasing numbers of part-timers keep the head count down, at 2.5 million (which is already a huge figure), this massaging cannot prevent the number of long-term unemployed from rising steadily.

The working class is facing a double-barrelled offensive: first, from the government in the form of cuts which will affect welfare payments, jobs in the public and private sector, as well as all the public services which they use; and second, from the bosses, who are still whining about the "difficult conditions" created for them by the crisis, in order to blackmail workers into accepting all sorts of attacks against their jobs, wages and conditions. To this should be added yet unconfirmed plans to restrict even more the right to strike, to curtail the possibility of resorting to an industrial tribunal against an unfair dismissal and to reduce even further, statutory health and safety in factories - among many other rumours circulated by the Tory press, probably under the influence of bosses' organisations.

In fact, this double-barrelled offensive is two aspects of the same offensive by the bosses, who are determined to take as much advantage of the crisis as possible to reduce their labour costs at the expense of the working class, while getting workers to foot the bill for the cost of a banking bailout which has benefited the capitalist class as a whole.

Yet, workers have still to hear anything new from their union leaders. So far, they have stuck stubbornly to the "march for the alternative", due to be held in London on Saturday 26th March, which was announced at the TUC conference, last September. Apart from that, nothing. Even the militant sounding rhetoric of the new Unite leader, Len McCluskey, calling for unions to "get set for battle" and for "a rejection of the needs for cuts", sounded totally empty when, at the same time, he actually stressed that he would not support workers who would want to fight against job cuts imposed by Labour local authorities! As if all cuts affecting the working class should not be opposed!

On the other hand, there was a scramble of union leaders, on 19 December, to talk with Cameron in Downing Street. Nothing came out of this meeting, of course, except a statement released by the general secretary of the civil servants' union PCS, stating that such meetings were useless unless Cameron was willing to enter into negotiations. But what is there to negotiate, when the government is in the process of axing hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs and making massive welfare cuts on the backs of the poor?

What other possible reply is there to such a wholesale offensive against the entire working class, than to build up a counter-offensive on a scale proportionate to these attacks? And surely the "alternative" that this counter-offensive should be aiming at, should not be the sort of tweaking of the bosses' austerity measures that union leaders are proposing, but rather to aim at forcing the banks and the capitalist class to pay collectively, out of their colossal accumulated wealth, for the crisis that they have caused.

In this respect, what better example is there, than the determination and victory of the Tunisian workers and youth? There may not be a self-proclaimed dictator in Britain, as there was in Tunisia. But there is the dictatorship of big business, the dictatorship of capital - which is running society using puppet politicians like Cameron, Osborne and Clegg to do their bidding in front of public opinion. This dictatorship has already caused far too much damage, with the crisis, the resulting hardship for millions of workers, the turn of the screw on workers' conditions and on the poor, and now the cuts which are threatening more vital jobs and services.

Yes, it is high time the dictatorship of capital was cut down to size. And like in Tunisia, this will only happen if workers, the youth, the jobless, join ranks together massively in the streets to make their collective strength felt and their voices heard, loud and clear, to say: "enough is enough"!