The scale of the cuts will be devastating for public sector workers, for communities who need these services and for workers in the private sector which relies heavily on public sector spending in Northern Ireland. The overall impact of the cuts will be to plunge the economy in the North deeper into recession, representing a general assault on the working class and also the middle class.
Economist John Simpson has estimated the cuts could mean between 33,000 and 40,000 public sector jobs being lost in the next four years. That figure is on top of the number of jobs cut as a result of ‘natural wastage’ (posts not being filled) in recent years. The Confederation of British Industry has championed cuts to the public sector. They have also called for a pay “freeze” (ie. a pay cut) for public sector workers, as well as the introduction of water charges and increases in household rates. There are currently in the region of 220,000 workers employed directly in the public sector in the North, accounting for approximately one‐third of all employment. The knock‐on effect of job losses and of a pay cut for public sector workers on the retail and services sector will see further job losses as spending power will be significantly undermined.
The effect of an estimated 32% cut in capital projects, which includes the building of schools, hospitals, roads etc. will pulverise the construction industry. Construction is in a slump as a result of the crash in the property market over three years ago. The huge over‐reliance on construction across the North has led to record‐breaking growth in unemployment in many towns, particularly West of the Bann. Since the recession began in 2007, officially more than 30,000 people have joined the dole queues. It is likely that (measured from 2007) the official unemployment figures will treble by 2012 as a result of the recession. The social consequences of mass unemployment, particularly amongst the youth will be severe, especially as plans to cut benefits are currently being hatched.
Unlike the establishment politicians and economists and, it has to be said, many on the Left, the Socialist Party and our sister sections in the Committee for a Workers’ International have not been caught unawares by these developments. Our analysis of the world economy over the past 10 years and more has been proved correct by events. We take no joy from seeing the disaster of the capitalist crisis unfolding internationally and what it means for workers and the poor. Nonetheless, we should take confidence from the fact that while the overwhelming majority of establishment economists and politicians were completely intoxicated and carried away by the “miracle” economic growth in the “noughties” (famously leading Gordon Brown to proclaim we had reached an end to the boom and bust cycle of capitalism!), we stood firmly to our analysis, warning that the massive bubbles which had developed in the world economy would eventually burst, opening a major crisis of world capitalism.
The crisis has shocked those who went along with the neo‐liberal agenda. The Northern Ireland Executive’s ‘Programme for Government’ was voted unanimously by all the parties in the Executive in 2007. It is a document which commits the Executive to pursue a neo‐liberal agenda – cutting the public sector to “grow” the private sector, privatise public services, and implement pro‐business policies. Even children were to be targeted by promoting a pro‐enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit in schools and colleges!
NIC-ICTU position on cuts
The trade union movement is confronted with a major battle – a battle which will require mass resistance and general strike action if the cuts are to be defeated. Under pressure, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) has launched a ‘There is a Better, Fairer Way – People, Jobs and Services Campaign’ in response to the cuts. As part of this campaign, many leaflets, posters and booklets have been produced countering some of the right‐wing arguments of the Tory / Lib Dem government being parroted daily in the media. NIC‐ICTU has also planned a series of public meetings across Northern Ireland and a strategy of linking up with regional centres of the TUC in Scotland and Wales amongst other initiatives. Socialist and trade union activists have a responsibility to critically discuss this strategy by NIC‐ICTU. It is necessary, in our opinion, for activists in the movement to appropriately take up incorrect strategies, tactics and methods by the trade union leadership and NIC‐ICTU in order to strengthen the ability of workers and communities to resist the cuts.
The NIC-ICTU document ‘There is a Better Fairer Way – Building an alternative strategy for the protection of people, jobs and services’ outlines the response of the trade union leaders in the North to the cuts. The key element of this strategy though is not to prepare trade union members and the working class in general to fight the cuts, but is to appeal for unity with the NI Executive ‐ the same Executive which has already imposed cuts (or efficiency savings as they are technically called) of between 3‐5% every year. These cuts have led to a crisis in the health service, crucial services in the education system being cut and the destruction of jobs across all Departments through “natural wastage”. There is an attempt by the politicians in the Assembly to portray these cuts as not impacting on “frontline services”. The reality is that accident and emergency services are being closed, courses in regional colleges being shut, much needed investment in new school buildings being scrapped, budgets of schools being squeezed to the point that there is no oil to heat classrooms, funding removed for childcare facilities, women’s refuge services etc. These cuts are a result of the cuts agreed by all the parties in the NI Executive, not as a result of cuts being imposed by the Tories and Lib Dems. In January 2010, five months before the formation of the Coalition government in Westminster, the NI Executive unanimously voted for £367m cuts to services this year.
|Cuts agreed by NI Executive (Jan 2010)|
|Culture & Arts||£25.9m|
|Employment & Learning||£28.7m|
|Finance & Personnel||£6.2m|
Since the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to form the Executive, public spending has been cut by approximately £500m. The parties in the NI Executive are guilty of carrying out cuts to public services – a policy they set before the economic crisis and recession! Despite this, it does not prevent some of the parties pretending to “oppose” or “resist” cuts being imposed from Westminster. Recent statements from Sinn Fein that “British Tory cuts” should be resisted are nothing but grandstanding on the issue and are empty of any substance. When questioned on Sinn Fein’s position, spokesperson Mitchell McLaughlin argued that the other parties in the Executive (in reality the DUP) should not be arguing before the Comprehensive Spending Review in October that cuts of up to £2bn need to be made. He went on to argue that the Executive parties should put their case and negotiate the amount of cuts with the Tories / Lib Dems – not oppose cuts. Sinn Fein has already accepted cuts. In the Andersonstown News in September, West Belfast MLA Jennifer McCann wrote “the Executive is forced to reduce spending in accordance with London’s cuts” and continued to state that cuts will have to be managed “to ensure that the impact of public expenditure is maximised and the most vulnerable people in society are not forced to cope with any further financial hardship.”
In this respect, the strategy of NIC‐ICTU in seeking unity with the NI Executive and encourage them to link up with other right wing parties in power in the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies to oppose the Tory / Lib Dem cuts is utopian. Cuts are being imposed by the ruling parties in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The SNP in Scotland has appointed a special committee to identify where cuts can be made. According to the committee’s “super axe” Crawford Beveridge, the former head of Scottish Enterprise and Executive Vice President of computer giant Sun Microsystems, the only way out is by cutting up to 60,000 jobs in Scottish public services by 2014. The Labour Party in Wales, like the NI Executive, also imposed cuts before the Tories and Liberal Democrats came to power and stated that they were in favour of carrying out cuts to bring down the deficit. The parties in the NI Executive, the SNP and the Welsh Labour Party cannot see beyond the limits of capitalism and therefore see no alternative to the cuts.
Is Stormont powerless?
“But what else can the Assembly parties do? The British Government controls the purse strings” say the ‘pragmatists’. True, Westminster does control the purse strings. But that does not justify implementing their cuts. The trade unions should demand that the parties in the NI Executive defy the cuts and refuse to implement them. They can either take the side of workers and working class communities in fighting the cuts or they implement the cuts together with the Tories and Lib Dems. That is the message that needs to be communicated throughout the trade union membership and in working class communities across Northern Ireland.
Socialists and trade unionists should study the mass struggle of the Liverpool working class and the socialist‐led Liverpool City Council against Thatcher’s cuts between 1983 and 1987 to see how to fight the Tories today. In 1983, the Labour Party was at base a mass workers party. The overwhelming majority of the working class in Britain looked towards the Labour Party as their party, albeit always being led by right‐wing leaders vehemently opposed to the struggle for socialism. Unlike the Labour Party of today, it was possible for local branches and members to debate and decide the policy of the party. The Labour Party’s recent conference was a fine example of how big business has hoovered up the last remaining crumbs of democracy. If there are any workers left in the Labour Party, they were denied the opportunity to vote for the only principled left wing candidate John McDonnell MP for the leadership election. Gone are the days when workers had the opportunity to influence Labour Party policy.
In 1983, the Labour Party won a majority on Liverpool City Council. Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, at the time played a leading role on the council in carrying through real reforms and improvements for the people of Liverpool. No cuts were made. More than 800 extra workers were employed by the Council and over 16,000 jobs were created as a result of a major social housing building programme. Five thousand council houses were built, all with front and back gardens and their own private entrance, 4,400 council houses and flats and 4,115 private‐sector homes were renovated. Five hundred extra education staff were employed, six new nurseries opened and four colleges were built. Six new sports centres were constructed. Sports facilities were free for the unemployed, disabled people, those in receipt of a pension and school leavers. All of this was done without big rises in household rates. What a contrast to the councils controlled by the sectarian parties today! The only other council in Britain to defy Thatcher’s cuts at the time was Lambeth, yet despite this isolation and under constant attack from the right‐wing leadership of the Labour Party, Liverpool City Council, under the leadership of Militant forced Thatcher to concede an extra £30million in funding to the council. This was achieved through the mobilisation of the council workers and major demonstrations of the Liverpool working class in support of the Council and against the Thatcher government. An interview with one of the leaders of this struggle, Tony Mulhearn, can be read at: http://www.socialistpartyni.net/campaigns/fight‐the‐cuts/427‐interview‐with‐tony‐mulhearn
Still there are those apologists who claim that the NI Executive would fall apart if a budget could not be agreed allowing Tory and Lib Dem direct rule Ministers to step in and carry out cuts even more deeply. The Tories are despised in working class communities in Northern Ireland, in both Catholic and Protestant communities. The punishment the UUP received for linking up with the Tories in the general election is proof that the Tories have no support. If the parties in the NI Executive were genuinely opposed to cuts, then they should stand together with the millions of workers across Britain and the North in fighting the cuts. They should support the call for a one‐day public sector strike. This is the message the trade union leaders should be communicating to the parties in Stormont. Such an approach would make it far more difficult for the parties to implement cuts. Instead, statements made by some trade union leaders and NIC‐ICTU have in effect allowed the parties off the hook by heavily emphasising the cuts as being Westminster cuts – in some cases referring to “British Tory cuts”, a phrase being used by Sinn Fein to inject sectarianism into the debate. The approach of NIC‐ICTU sows illusions in the parties in Stormont that they are opposed to cuts, they will fight the cuts and that workers have common cause with these parties. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Socialist Party supports maximum devolution of powers as it strengthens the ability of workers to fight for their interests. The trade unions should call for extra powers, such as tax‐varying powers, for the Assembly to decide locally. However, that is completely different to uniting with the politicians who have already stated they are in favour of cutting corporation tax for big business, which will have to be compensated by further cuts to public services!
Unity of the working class – not with the bosses and their parties
Simultaneously, Sinn Fein has developed a position on the cuts almost identical to NIC‐ICTU. In the same article mentioned above Jennifer McCann MLA wrote “Sinn Féin is calling on the various parties in the North, the trade unions and community and voluntary sector to put forward a united demand to London that the Executive receive a sufficient block grant, which has already been cut by almost half a billion pounds.” The NIC‐ICTU is attempting to construct a cross‐class “unity” with right‐wing parties, the scandal‐hit churches and big business against the cuts. This reflects a closeness some trade union leaders share with Sinn Fein.
In a press statement released from the TUC Conference in Manchester, the TUC, the Scottish and Welsh TUC and ICTU made a joint call on “the leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to collaborate in emphasizing to the UK Government the consequences of its policies for the economies of the devolved nations and the English regions, particularly for jobs in both private and public sectors, and in making the case for a more sensible timescale for deficit reduction”. The question of refusing to pay the debt could emerge as the crisis unfolds. Xekinima (the Greek sister section of the Socialist Party) were the first to raise this demand for non‐payment of the debt, which struck a chord amongst workers and youth including in the ranks of the Greek Communist Party whose leadership was in favour of paying the debt. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the debt is owed to banks, big business and financial institutions means this issue could resonate in society. The graph below illustrates how British gilts (government debt) are being bought up by banks and hedge funds.
ICTU Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting stated in the same press release “There is no mandate for these cuts which are too deep and too fast.” He went on to state “We urge all sectors of our society, from large businesses to small local community groups, to unite in opposition and to support realistic and fairer alternatives to this misguided strategy.” The scale and timescale of the Tory / Lib Dem cuts, despite being opposed by a minority of bourgeois economists out of fear of a double‐dip recession, is wholeheartedly backed by big business and the super‐rich. The unions should not be pleading with employers to oppose cuts. The organised working class and working class communities have enormous potential to defeat the cuts. Workers can only rely on their own collective strength to defeat the cuts. Seeking to unite with disgraced and bigoted church leaders and big business who have exploited fears of workers during the recession to sack workers, drive down wages and erode terms and conditions, serves to obscure workers confidence in their own ability to fight independently and to sow illusions that ‘we are all in this together’.
The trade unions and NIC‐ICTU should invest major resources to mobilise for a major demonstration on 23rd October to build confidence amongst workers and to send a message to the politicians in Westminster and Stormont that the cuts will be fought. There needs to be a clear rejection of all cuts, not the ambiguous message about “realistic and fairer alternatives”. By stating that the cuts are “too deep and too fast” immediately suggests that NIC‐ICTU does not oppose cuts ‐ they should be introduced over a longer timescale – “a more sensible timescale for deficit reduction”.
There is no serious attempt by the majority of the trade union leadership to organise workers to resist the cuts. In fact, in many workplaces, right‐wing union representatives are actually facilitating cuts. Health workers at the Mid‐Ulster hospital were actively discouraged by union leaders to become involved in the campaign against the closure of accident and emergency services. In the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, the leadership of Unison has told staff that there is no alternative to working in “partnership” with management as they implement cuts, even though they publically state they are opposed to cuts. The right‐wing in NIPSA in education are also willing to accept “voluntary” redundancies. Right‐wing Unite representatives at Belfast City Council are also playing the same role, allowing management to implement cuts. At the same time, there are workers like medical secretaries in the Belfast Health Trust who are fighting attempts by management to carry out redundancies and wage cuts. Their militancy is ahead of most workers today, but they represent the music of the future.
The pressure on the British union leaders is mounting. Our sister parties in Scotland, England & Wales’ call for a major demonstration has been resolutely opposed by the TUC, but is gaining support amongst rank and file trade unionists and the leaders of some unions such as the RMT, PCS and FBU. The TUC are opposed to generalised action as they and the Labour Party fear a movement developing which could gain momentum and raise confidence amongst workers who will not be afraid to take on a future Labour government or the cuts being carried out by Labour‐controlled councils. Their message is to wait for a Labour government – as if workers can afford to. While demonstrations are to be held in Belfast and Edinburgh on 23rd October, the South East TUC has only decided to hold a rally at Congress House in London. This came about as a result of the combined pressure from the RMT, PCS and FBU, who together with the National Shop Stewards Network supported the lobby of the TUC Conference in Manchester. The RMT has now called on all workers to march in London to Congress House to demand action against the cuts. The potential exists in the coming period to bring together left activists across different unions and lay the basis for genuine Left oppositions to develop in the unions, including in Northern Ireland.
Such is the scale of cuts on the cards, it is inevitable workers will resist the cuts. In the absence of a mass party of the working class which could clearly reject the arguments for cuts, and given the weak “opposition” of the right‐wing union leadership, it is not surprising that many people accept the “need” for cuts. However, this acceptance is a theoretical acceptance. When cuts are concretely felt – the closure of the local school, the local schools bus services being withdrawn, confronted with losing your job etc. then it is an entirely different matter. Most workers are already angry at how those who are responsible for the deficit and the recession – the greedy bankers and multi‐millionaire financial speculators who were bailed out to the tune of trillions – continue to receive massive bonuses and make big profits. No matter how much hysteria is whipped up over the deficit, workers will not be fooled into thinking that they are responsible for the crisis.
The Socialist Party has welcomed the decision of NIC‐ICTU to call a demonstration on 23rd October to coincide with the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review. We also support the decision to hold public meetings and organise street stalls against the cuts. However, we are opposed to the bureaucratic control of these meetings and activities. At a meeting held in Unison’s offices on 11th September, NIC‐ICTU invited affiliated unions to a meeting to discuss their ‘Fairer, Better Way’ strategy. However, only Full‐Time officials and officers of Trades Councils were permitted to attend! Likewise, who speaks at public meetings organised by Trades Councils is to be decided by NIC‐ICTU.
The United Front and the Stop the Cuts Alliance
The Socialist Party has initiated the Stop the Cuts Alliance in order to provide a vehicle for workers, trade unionists, socialists, community activists etc. to unite and co‐ordinate struggles against cuts. It is early days for the Alliance, but it has been able to make an impact in forcing NIC‐ICTU to call a protest in Belfast and Derry on 29th September and has received the support of important trade unions such as the FBU, the INTO and prominent trade union activists from across the unions. It has been the only campaign to openly call for all groups and unions to come together to build a united campaign against the cuts. The Stop the Cuts Alliance has already justified its existence by pressurising NIC‐ICTU into calling the 29th September protest, and should continue to play that role, but that is not its primary raison d’etre. The Stop the Cuts Alliance (SCA) has so far brought prominent leading trade union activists together, but the aim is for the Alliance to develop in the communities, and to link local anti‐cuts campaigns together. It is also important that a principled opposition to the cuts is developed and built through the SCA. The SCA can enable socialists to counter the arguments of right‐wing trade union leaders such as Unison’s Patricia McKeown that certain services should be “prioritised” over others. McKeown’s call for the health service to be prioritised is a recipe for division amongst workers, potentially turning workers against each other on where the cuts should be made. Neither is it a call for protection of the health service – by calling for health to be prioritised, McKeown is calling for health to be at the bottom of the pile to be hit by cuts! The SCA, though not a replacement for the unions, can unite workers against the attempts by the politicians to use sectarianism to distract attention away from their support for cuts. It is only a matter of time until the Assembly parties begin arguing that more cuts are being made in “their” community.
Political challenge against the cuts
The NI Executive has taken a decision to try and delay as many cuts as possible until after the Assembly and local elections next May. It remains to be seen how successful they will be in this. However, the cuts agreed earlier this year are being felt on the ground and could continue to meet opposition in communities and workplaces in the coming months before the elections. As in the case of the Mid‐Ulster hospital campaign, it is possible that local campaign groups will consider standing candidates against local cuts. This would be a very important development, which would represent the first steps towards political representation for the working class. We cannot predict exactly how the tempo of struggle against cuts will develop, but we would be making a political mistake if we did not prepare for such developments. The Socialist Party would not necessarily support any call for people to stand in the elections against the cuts – there would need to be certain criteria in place before we would advocate whether campaigns should stand candidates. For example, candidates and campaigns would have to be credible, representing real campaigns and forces on the ground, not just any Tom, Dick or Harry standing. We would also oppose potential candidates with career ambitions or who would be prepared to do deals with the right‐wing parties. It cannot be excluded that a movement could quickly develop against the cuts, which could quickly pose whether anti-cuts candidates should contest the elections next May, representing broader layers of workers and community activists with roots and support in communities.
Reformism and Socialism
Ultimately, the crisis will pose to a growing layer of workers and youth that capitalism is incapable of delivering basic needs. The reformist programme of the unions will be questioned by layers. The Socialist Party supports and calls for an increase in taxation of the rich. We would also support the introduction of a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions and other progressive fiscal policies. However, we also point out that all reforms in favour of the working class will be resisted by the ruling class and will require mass struggle to secure concessions. Any concessions made are temporary in character as the capitalist class will attempt to claw back any concessions made. If a pro‐worker government was to be elected in Britain, attempts to impose higher taxation on the rich and other steps which would encroach on profits would be met with resistance by the capitalist class, including the threat of a flight of capital out of the country. It would be necessary to carry through socialist policies of nationalisation of the banks and the major companies which dominate the economy under democratic workers control and management in order to achieve permanent reforms. A state monopoly would need to be placed on foreign trade. This in effect would mean removing the capitalist system and replacing it with a socialist economy.
The Transitional method
Of course, every cut and question people raise about what the alternative is cannot be answered by crudely asserting “Socialism is the only alternative” as if it were that simple. A transitional method is essential in linking the objective need for socialist solutions, to the concrete conditions relating to cuts. Socialist answers are not merely theoretical but are needed to fight the cuts. Transitional demands and slogans should link the immediate concern of workers (eg. Saving the local school or hospital) to the need for socialist change. Transitional demands such as nationalising the banks and major companies under democratic workers control and management even have to be refined today and require more explanation. The demand for a cut in the working week to 35 hours without loss of pay in order to end unemployment will feature more prominently. This demand of “sharing out the work” can get a response especially from youth and many workers who are trying to hold down two or three (low‐paid) jobs. It will also become obvious to more workers that there is no national solution to the economic crisis. At times, even governments across the world recognise in such a globalised economy the need for synchronised action eg. the bail‐outs and stimulus packages carried out in the immediate aftermath of the financial meltdown in 2007. At the same time, the rival interests of national capitalist classes, as can be seen in the use of protectionist measures like Obama’s tariffs on tyre imports, limits the ability of capitalism to plan on an international scale. This again highlights the need for socialist planning as it is in the interests of workers to co‐operate internationally.
There is no doubt that the ideas of socialism will resonate with growing layers of workers and youth as capitalism reveals itself to be incapable of delivering decent jobs and a future. The Socialist Party will strive to build the socialist alternative in the coming period and will play a central role in the coming industrial and social battles which will shake capitalism to its core.