Friday 12 October 2012

Alternatives to Austerity

I've lost count of the underpopulated trade union-organised meetings I've attended over the last 10 years. But thankfully, Tuesday evening's event organised under the banner of 'For a Fairer North Staffordshire?' by North Staffs TUC, the local PCS and Pensioners' Convention turned out to be a public meeting the public wanted to be at. Around a 150 people attended to hear what a panel of speakers on the government's ideologically-blinkered austerity drive, and what we - the labour movement - should do about it.

The first speaker was inveterate activist Dot Gibson in her capacity as National Pensioners' Convention veep. Her contribution focused on the post-war settlement, which, she argued, was an outcome of the mass radicalisation that swept over a devastated Europe. Leading Labour Party figures were left in no doubt about the mood of the armed forces when they ventured out into the field. Likewise, Churchill and Keynes were packed off to Washington to ensure cash was readily available after the war to meet the rising demands of a working class unwilling to return to the miserable conditions of pre-war Britain. And so a bargain of sorts were struck - the Labour Party established the foundations of a fairer society in the hope it would buy social peace.

The Thatcherite 80s put paid to that. And yet, despite the crisis, the economy remains in hock to finance capital. The arguments about debt and deficit are ruses to justify a project that would see bits of the welfare state sold off, and what remains cut to bits. As working people and pensioners who will come to depend on it at some point in our lives, we are "all in it together", but not in the sense Dave understands it.

Simon Harris from Hanley Citizen's Advice Bureau went into the depressing facts of what the government are trying to do. He began with the observation that cuts to welfare will depress the local economy by £105M per year. When Stoke-on-Trent is hardly the northern Midlands' answer to Abu Dhabi, it does not have the strength to absorb such a shattering blow. He moved onto the Employment and Support Allowance benefit, which he characterised as "not providing either". Simon also went into the introduction of 'Personal Independent Payments', the benefit designed to replace Disability Living Allowance with a higher threshold and 80% of the present budget, and, of course, the much-trailed changes to housing benefit for the Under-25s. He also mentioned the move to Universal Credit, the benefit being steered through the DWP by IDS, which will see the collapsing of a number of individual means-tested benefits into one payment. Not only will this see tougher conditions and sanctions attached, it can only be applied for online - straight away cutting out those without internet access and basic computer literacy.

Jenny Harvey of Unison's North Staffs Community Health Branch tackled the effect the Tories are having on the NHS. Far from "protecting" it, their budget freeze is forcing through very real cuts in patient care and provision. And despite having some criticisms of Labour's management of the NHS, the expensive and unnecessary reorganisation is threatening to undo all the improvements made over 13 years of government. For Tories a hospital isn't a place for treating people: it's a cash cow to be raided by their wealthy backers in the private medical industry.

Roger Seifert gave a political answer to the problems set out by the preceding speakers. He argued we needed to diagnose the cause before we can apply the cure. The ills, he suggested, lie in Britain's imperial past and the ways being a hub of a global empire distorted and bent our economy in a particular way, tilting it toward dominance by finance capital. The relative openness of the British economy saw it significantly penetrated by American capital throughout the post-war period and beyond, leading to Britain being tied by a thousand and one strings to US foreign policy. This can be broken by an independent foreign policy, but economic sovereignty depends on nationalising the banks, heavily investing in industry, building homes and raising wages and pensions. These measures will out money in people's pockets and in turn drive further economic regeneration. Ultimately the state will have to be smarter about tax, dump costly projects like Trident (which, in Roger's view, is a means of funnelling tax payers' cash into American arms contractors anyway), turn our back on the EU and trade more with the emerging economies of the East and Latin America. I have to say I'd never heard the Communist Party of Britain's programme so eloquently put.

The evening's last speaker was PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka. Rather diplomatically, he suggested the weakness of the Labour Party was a problem, so it falls to the trade unions to provide leadership in the struggle against austerity. He noted the fiver year pay freeze on PCS members' wages had seen their purchasing power, and therefore standard of living cut by 20% since the crisis broke. He also mentioned the 1,800 NHS workers due to lose their jobs by 2015, the refusal to properly invest in infrastructure and, most scandalously, a £30bn cut to the welfare bill to provide for £30bn worth of tax cuts for the rich. Turning this around requires the implementation of many measures advocated by Roger, but an immediate aim would be the estimated £123bn in taxes that avoids the Treasury every year.

Moving on to Labour, he said he wished the party would provide an opposition, that they have to differ from the Tories and offer hope to the four million or so voters the party lost during the last government, and who didn't switch their support to others. Immediately, the best thing Labour can do is repudiate the public sector pay freeze. But if Labour doesn't move, the unions should. Mark called for a strong turn out for the October 20th demo in London, but also for it to be followed up with a series of strikes. If the labour movement meet the government with united opposition, it might be enough to move Labour on to ground similar to that it occupied in 1945.

There followed the customary questions and answers with the audience. We heard arguments against moves to regional pay in the NHS and elsewhere, the changing nature and status of care jobs, Tory lies over the deficit, the potential for cross-generational alliances (of which this meeting was an example), and the baleful role played by the LibDems in this most right wing of governments. Surprisingly, there wasn't too much in the way of Labour Council bashing (which is something of a past time in the local press). There was a little bit of silliness when former local Labour leader Mick Salih prefaced his comments on Community Asset Transfer by saying he was kicked out of Labour "for being too much of a socialist". The historical record remembers otherwise.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming message taken from the meeting was the need for the labour movement to stick together. The links forged in the organisation of this meeting certainly bode well for the future. But the elephant in the room was the political question of the Labour Party. As the one organisation in Britain that commands the affiliation of most trade unions, labour movement activists, and working class people in general, it is the place where a politically united movement against austerity can best be felt - and this is despite a programme that accepts some cuts and is administering them at the local authority level. The means are there for a politics that speaks to our people if it is grasped with sufficient vigour.

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