Below we reprint this article by Hannah Sell, Socialist Party England and Wales deputy general secretary. Hannah will be speaking at two public meeting in Northern Ireland next week. On Thursday 25th June- 7.30 in Holiday Inn Belfast and Friday 26th June- 7.30 in the City Hotel Derry
Just six weeks after the general election – on 20 June – people are flocking to London and Glasgow to show their opposition to austerity. The question in everyone’s mind – whether marching for the first time or veterans of the battles against the Con-Dems – will be how can we stop austerity?
There is no question about the scale of suffering we will face if the Tories are allowed to implement their plans. George Osborne’s latest gimmick is to reconstitute the ‘Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt’ a body that last met in 1860. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. The committee may be a gimmick but the government is intent on trying to turn the clock back as far as they can to the Victorian era where there was no NHS, no state pension, no benefit system, and those that couldn’t earn enough to survive starved.
The last government took us more than a few steps down the road in this direction. Public services have been privatised or shut down on a massive scale. Under the last government we suffered around £80 billion worth of austerity, coincidentally the same amount that the bankers’ have received in bonuses since 2008!
Shorn of the Liberal Democrats, now the Tories want to go even further. The government claims that this is necessary for the economy, but even capitalist institutions that fully supported the austerity in the last five years now say that Cameron and co. are going too far.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned against the pace of Britain’s planned austerity, the Organisation of Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) has advised it could cause a new recession. Even the OBR (the government’s own think tank) has joined in the ringing of the alarm bells, warning that the result is likely to be a further huge increase in personal debt, leading to a new financial crisis.
Behind this unease about the Tories plans lies a fear not only of the economic consequences, but also the fear of a mass revolt against austerity that could defeat the government – which is actually very weak.
It had the support of only 24.4% of the electorate, the shallowest social base of any Tory government since 1918. It has a puny majority of 12 and already it is facing public splits in its ranks over Europe. Also, a section of the Tory party has become dimly aware of the mass uprising their plans will provoke.
The Guardian has reported splits at the top of the government on whether to go ahead with cutting £12 billion from welfare spending. To do so would mean slashing tax credits, leaving millions of the ‘hardworking families’ the Tories ludicrously claim to represent in dire poverty.
Some ministers are opposing this, not for moral reasons but because of the revolt it would lead to, as the brutal reality of low pay in Britain – where the big employers make huge profits by paying peanuts – would be fully felt.
The Socialist Party’s policy of a £10 an hour minimum wage and the right to a secure full time job for all would, for many, reduce the need to claim tax credits while lifting millions out of poverty.
The Tories, of course, are not only considering attacking tax credits and keeping the minimum wage at a poverty rate, but also planning to try and further shackle the trade unions with anti-democratic legislation. They are attempting to severely curtail the right to strike and make it more difficult for workers to get organised and fight for decent pay.
If the government’s plans reach the statute book it will mean that strikes will only be legal if ballots have a 50% turnout. For strikes in ‘essential services’ they would also have to win a yes vote from at least 40% of the total union members balloted – whether they vote or not. This onslaught on the trade unions shows that the government understands the unions’ potential power to defeat austerity.
However, just as on austerity, this savage attack can act to galvanise the trade unions. Even the right-wing Economist has warned that: “This plan could backfire. The most successful unions, such as the RMT, usually command high enough turnouts to the new thresholds not to make much difference. Meanwhile the new law might galvanise members who have not voted before in strike ballots… rather than weakening the unions, Mr Cameron may end up strengthening them.”
We can win
The potential to defeat the government is clear. Even in the few weeks since the election workers have shown that when we fight we can win. The threatened national rail strike which forced an improved wage offer, the victory of the Kone strikers in the North East, the defeat of the plans to turn schools in Lewisham into academies are all examples of that. Once we get off our knees we have enormous power!
However, that does not mean that victory is guaranteed. Without doubt there will be major struggles against this government, but whether they are successful depends on building a determined mass united movement against austerity with the workers’ movement at its core.
We need to learn the lessons of the battle to defeat the last government and fight to prevent the same mistakes being made again. Despite attempts to rewrite history, in reality we did see mass opposition to austerity.
In the spring of 2011, a demonstration called by the leadership of the trade unions – the TUC – was up to three quarters of a million strong. It was followed by two million workers taking part in a public sector strike against attacks on pension rights. At that point, opinion polls showed over 80% support for a 24 hour general strike against the public sector cuts, which the TUC congress had agreed to ‘consider’.
Such a strike would have terrified the government. Instead, however, the right-wing leadership of the TUC abandoned the field of battle and accepted a few crumbs on pensions, derailing the movement. Effectively trade unionists were told to put their hopes in a Labour government to save the day!
Many of those facing low pay, or hunger or homelessness are not members of trade unions. The Socialist Party supports and will strive to develop mass community campaigns against austerity. The struggles in defence of social housing and against evictions in London, for example, show the potential for such campaigns.
It should not be forgotten that Thatcher, the ‘iron lady’, was eventually turned into iron filings not by the organised trade union movement but by the eighteen million strong mass campaign of non-payment against the iniquitous poll tax, led by the Militant, now the Socialist Party.
The anti-poll tax campaign was organised via the anti-poll tax unions, democratic bodies organised in communities up and down the country, and brought together in the democratic all-Britain anti-poll tax federation. Any future mass community campaigns against austerity will need to improvise similar democratic structures.
Nonetheless, the trade union movement remains central to the battle against austerity. It is in by far the best position to unite together the many different strands of the struggle, which unlike the anti-poll tax battle, is not against one single attack but an avalanche of different ones.
The trade unions in Britain have over six million members; making them potentially the most powerful force in society, hence the Tories’ desperate attempt to hobble them.
Ultimately it is workers that create the profits which the bosses are so greedy for, and it is workers that keep society functioning. If the chief executive of national rail went on strike, it is doubtful anyone would notice. But when workers threatened a national rail strike it was clear that they could bring the whole network to a halt. As a result management had to accede to their demand for a pay increase.
If the trade union movement was to launch a determined mass struggle against austerity it would enthuse and draw around it millions who are currently untouched by the trade unions. Workers join trade unions if they see them fighting in their interests.
One of the main dangers the movement faces is that the trade union leaders attempt to absent themselves from the struggle against austerity, giving passive support to other – less powerful organisations – rather than doing it themselves. The 20 June demonstration in London has been called by the People’s Assembly (PA) not by the trade union movement.
However, the PA has the support of twelve national trade union organisations – including the two biggest trade unions in Britain – Unite and Unison – and the TUC itself. Of course, the demonstration is a good start to the fight, but not if that is used as an excuse by trade union leaders to tick the box ‘job done’ rather than to use it as a springboard for further action.
The trade union movement should give a lead directly, not just subcontract the job. If the trade union leadership were to use the 20 June demonstration as a launch pad for a massive TUC demonstration against austerity and the anti-trade union laws on the day they were first discussed in parliament this would have the potential to put the government on the back foot.
This should not be just a one off protest but linked to a strategy to fight until we win. Key would be mobilising for a 24 hour general strike, with the clear warning that if the government does not retreat the trade union movement would strike again.
Undoubtedly some trade union leaders will claim that a 24 hour general strike is not possible because it would mean defying the anti-trade union laws. In fact, by co-ordinating ballots on existing disputes, it would be possible to go a long way towards a 24 hour general strike even without breaking the existing anti-trade union laws. However, the legislation being threatened by the Tories shows beyond doubt that – if the workers’ movement is not prepared to defy unjust laws – the capitalist class will keep hedging it in with anti-trade union legislation until it is powerless to do anything within the law.
At the Unite conference this year the executive are correctly putting a proposal to remove the clause from their constitution which pledges to remain within the law. This is a welcome measure, but needs to be followed up by action. If it was seriously built for, a 24 hour general strike – calling on all workers to participate including those who had not been balloted – would have the potential to not only prevent the introduction of new anti-union laws but to sweep aside those that already exist.
The last five years demonstrate beyond doubt that we cannot rely on the majority of the trade union leaders to organise this. Trade unionists need to campaign for it from below. That is why the National Shop Stewards Network conference on 4 July will be so vital – not just for shop stewards – but for all those who want to see a serious trade union fight against austerity.
Defeating austerity also requires the creation of a political alternative that is 100% against austerity. Labour lost the election not because it was too left wing, but because it swallowed hook, line and sinker the austerity myth.
The central promise in Labour’s manifesto was to cut the deficit every year. Of course – with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour leadership candidates that have made it to the ballot paper have drawn the opposite conclusion – and want to push the Labour Party even further to the right.
Channel 4 news summed up the reality when it asked the candidates, ‘why don’t you just join the Tory party?’ Yet at this stage millions of pounds of trade unionists’ money are still being handed over to the Labour Party in affiliation fees.
Left MP Jeremy Corbyn making the ballot paper will be welcomed by trade unionists, but it does not reflect a significant shift left by the parliamentary Labour Party. He was ‘lent’ nominations by a number of MPs on the right of the party, including Jon Cruddas and David Lammy.
They obviously hope that letting him on the ballot paper will prove the party’s ‘diversity’, but that the result of the vote will prove the right are firmly in the driving seat.
However, given the very low requirements for individuals to vote in the contest (paying a one off £3 or trade unionists registering for free as supporters) this is a high-risk strategy, as Corbyn could get a higher vote than they expect.
Nonetheless, this would not represent a shift to the left within the Labour Party, but on the contrary show the potential to build a socialist alternative which, given the right’s complete grip on the structures of the Labour Party, will only be possible outside of it.
At local level Labour councils have implemented the Tories cuts. So did the Greens in Brighton, resulting in their losing control of the council in May. Councils who continue down the cuts road in this parliament will preside over the complete annihilation of the services that their constituents rely on.
The Socialist Party calls for all councillors who are opposed to cuts to stand firm and refuse to implement them. It is not true that council have ‘no option’ but to pass on Tory cuts. If just a handful of councils used the powers they have to refuse to implement cuts the Tory government could be made to back down.
The Socialist Party is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which brings together the transport workers’ union, RMT, plus many trade unionists, anti-cuts and environmental campaigners and socialists. In the last elections we stood 135 parliamentary and over 600 council candidates, winning 118,000 votes.
We were acting as pioneers for the building of a mass, democratic anti-austerity electoral force beyond the general election. TUSC asked the PA for a speaker at the 20 June demonstration.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, it has not had a response. Yet many of those demonstrating will have voted TUSC rather than for the pro-cuts parties who will be speaking on the platform.
The Socialist Party argues in the trade unions that are still affiliated to the Labour Party that the time is overdue to break the link with Labour and begin to build a new party of the working class. In the local and other elections taking place next May TUSC will work to convince all those fighting against austerity in the workplaces, in the colleges and on the streets that they should unite together to also fight it at the ballot box by standing as candidates for TUSC.
Logic of capitalism
It is not coincidence that all the establishment parties in Britain have shown themselves willing to implement austerity. Any party which acts within the framework of capitalism will be forced to accept the logic of capitalism; that the majority should pay the price for capitalist economic crisis, while the profits of a few at the top soar.
Zero-hour contracts, poverty pay, healthcare only for those that can afford to pay – this is the net result of the logic of capitalism. By getting organised and fighting back, working class people can win improvements in our living conditions under capitalism, as has been shown by the recent victories on pay even against the background of endless austerity.
However, as long as we live in a capitalist society any victories we win will be temporary, as the bosses will always try to claw them back when they get the chance. That is what is happening on a huge scale now.
The NHS and the other gains our forebears won are being systematically taken away, which we can only prevent with determined mass action. That is why the only way to permanently end austerity is to fight for a different kind of society – for democratic socialism.
That would require taking the major companies that dominate our economy- about 120 in Britain – into democratic public ownership.
Only on that basis would it be possible to liberate society from the drive to maximise the profits of a few, and begin to build a democratic, planned economy that would meet the needs of all and protect our environment.