By Thomas Carmichael
When researching for this article, it came back to me that, around the time the Tories first came to power, the mainstream media often referred to “Broken Britain”. A decade on from then and any serious examination of the facts shows irrefutably that first Cameron, then May and now Johnson have only broken it further.
Demonising the poor
The central plank of Cameron’s election manifesto, and subsequently the central platform of the coalition government, was the reduction of the welfare state. In order to justify this, a campaign of deliberate disinformation and distortion was deployed to paint the picture that the deficit, rather than being the result of the biggest financial crash since 1929, was the result of a culture of ‘workshy-ness’ and ‘skiving’. Vast swathes of lazy, unemployed leaches were apparently living it up on the dole at the expense of honest, hard-working taxpayers. All this despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the UK’s welfare expenditure went on pensions, which they stressed time and again that they were not going to touch
Thus, low-paid workers, who faced having their in-work benefits slashed under the proposed changes, were misled into directing their ire towards supposed spongers, rather than the people responsible for making the cuts. The Tories were even able to paint themselves as the party of workers, while painting a picture of Labour as the party of ‘shirkers’, with George Osborne saying as much in the Commons at the time.
In the ten years since they came to power, welfare spending has shrunk by £37 billion. Most of this comes from the freezing of working-age benefit levels and from cuts to PIP and ESA (the disability benefits), which have been cut by 10% each. This at a time when a measurement of UK poverty by the Social Metrics Committee showed that more than half of UK families living below the breadline contained at least one person with a disability. A report by the UN into the UK’s austerity measures under the Conservatives made comparisons with the Dickensian workhouse, while the National Audit Office – the UK’s public spending watchdog – has claimed that the Government’s flagship welfare programme, Universal Credit, will end up costing more than the system it replaced, while not meeting government claims that it will help more claimants into work.
Lib Dems betray hopes
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems busied themselves proving that Liberalism is incapable of providing any kind of meaningful opposition to Conservatism, and disproving the idea that, in a coalition, liberals will provide any kind of check or balance for the worst impulses of their conservative partners. Nick Clegg has been compared to Judas Iscariot for his selling out on promises to not increase tuition fees, and recently a former policy director for the party bragged on Twitter of how they had traded tighter benefit sanctions for the grand victory that was implementation of the 5p carrier bag levy.
While destroying the welfare state with one hand, the Conservatives began to attack the finances of those able to work with the other. In 2017, the think-tank Resource Foundation made the truly horrifying announcement that the 2010s had been the weakest decade for wage growth in the UK since the end of the Napoleonic wars. As a result, in-work poverty is sky high, with the number of workers living in poverty having grown by half a million between 2013 and 2018, bringing the total to 4.1 million. George Osborne’s 2015 promise of a minimum wage of £9/hour by 2020 has not been met, while Sajid Javid almost immediately rowed back on his 2019 election promise of £10.50/hour by 2024 after the election was over
Strangling our NHS
It is, of course, not possible to talk about the impact of Conservative rule without talking about what they have done to our NHS. In their first five years in power, the Tories increased the NHS budget by an average of only 1%, when the average under previous governments had been 4%. Waiting times have gotten worse across all services in every part of the UK. In England, hospital performance is at its worst level on record. Targets across all major areas of hospital functions are being missed. This includes the target of 95% of A&E patients being admitted or treated within 4 hours, currently only the case for 83%; and the target of 85% of cancer patients starting treatment within 62 days, currently only the case for 76%. In addition, the use of private companies to provide NHS services has increased from 4% when the Tories came to power to 7% today.
The effects of the Tories’ maltreatment of the NHS have come to a head now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. The Tories have mishandled the crisis every step of the way – from their failure to stockpile PPE as they were advised to by epidemiologists as much as five years ago; their inability to make testing as widely available as it needed to be as early as it needed to be; and their disastrous ‘herd immunity’ strategy. As we all now know, the UK is the worst affected country in Europe in this crisis, and the second worst in the entire world. There can be no doubt that the reason for this is the fact that Johnson and his fellow Tories decided to put the interests of capitalism before the welfare of the general public.That the Tories have ‘Broken Britain’ is only the first of many conclusions that must be drawn from the last ten years and, in many ways, the most obvious. Any socialist could have told you on 11th May 2010 that this is where we would end up, had they known in advance how long Tory rule would last. But there are lessons that we must learn about how to fight back against the attacks made by the Tories on the working class.
Lessons from Corbyn’s defeat
The recent defeat of Labour in the December election provides us with perhaps the most important of these: that it cannot be done by parliamentary politics alone. Corbyn’s defeat can be attributed to a number of factors – the Blairite wing of the party working against him; the concessions made to said Blairites on key issues such as Brexit and Scottish Independence; and the relentless smear campaign conducted against him in the media since the day and hour he was elected as leader.
However, all of these issues are merely symptoms of one larger, over-arching problem: that Corbyn – isolated at the top of a party whose apparatus and upper echelons were viciously opposed to his policies and working for his defeat, as the recently leaked report confirms – was incapable of fighting back against the attempts of the ruling class to suppress him. In order to overcome this isolation, it was necessary to do two things – firstly, to democratise the party from top to bottom so the pro-capitalist Blairites could be democratically removed and the party transformed to reflect the hundreds of thousands who joined to back Corbyn’s policies; secondly, that Labour’s policies needed to be connected to a mass movement of protest and industrial action, to engage ordinary workers and young people in a battle against the bosses and their political representatives, and to build confidence that it was possible to achieve change.
Struggle is the key to winning change
It was possible to build such a movement. Think of the huge protests in London in defence of the NHS, the mood that existed around defending Corbyn’s leadership when it was challenged, and so on. When has another politician ever taken the stage at Glastonbury to thunderous applause? Mass rallies were a feature of the 2017 election campaign which saw Labour achieve the greatest electoral turnaround in post-war history and deliver a humiliating blow to Theresa May. Unfortunately, this was not built upon, with the focus shifted to purely parliamentary manoeuvres, while the trade union leaderships largely put off struggle by advising people to ‘wait for Corbyn’.
The election of Keir Starmer to the Labour leadership represents a backward step, and the right wing of Labour is again consolidating its grip in terms of organisation and policy. Undoubtedly, this will be a blow for the millions who placed their hopes in Corbyn. But instead of becoming demoralised, we need to draw the lessons of his defeat, and apply them in building a fighting, political voice for the working class in the period of economic and social crisis which undoubtedly lies ahead of us