The Conservative Party, or Tories, has never really forgiven the British working class for demanding and winning the creation of the “welfare state”. Gains won included such things as free health care, council homes at affordable rents, and care for the elderly and vulnerable.
From the Tories’ point of view, these are all things individuals should sort out for themselves. The modern state should provide the same level of social protection as was available to Queen Victoria’s subjects in the 19th century.
In the 1980s, Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government destroyed much of the British manufacturing industry, introduced large scale privatisation of major parts of the economy and relentlessly attacked public services.
Thatcher shifted the terrain of political debate sharply to the right. When the Labour opposition retook government in 1997, up until it lost it again in May, it refused to make a definite break from Tory style neo-liberalism.
The result was a disastrous deregulation of the banking system. When the global financial crisis hit, the dying Labour government felt obliged to rescue failing banks by pumping £200 billion of public money into them.
During the campaign for the May general elections, Britain’s three main parties — Labour, Tories and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) — all agreed on the need to make severe cuts in public spending. The only differences were over by how much and when.
On the big question of whether working people should pay for the banking collapse and recession, there was no dispute.
The end result was a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, in which with the Lib Dems actas the Tories’ willing accomplices. (The double act is often referred to as the “Con Dems”).
The irony is many people voted for the Lib Dems because the party was seen as being broadly progressive.
It was seen as being opposed to the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. It also tended to have better positions on civil liberties than the Labour Party, which had let its most authoritarian ideologues have a major say in criminal justice matters.
Many Lib Dem supporters discovered within a couple of weeks that the party they voted for was committed to propping up a Conservative Party with a greater right-wing bias than even during Thatcher’s reign.
In the cabinet, 23 out of the 29 ministers are millionaires. It is a government by the rich for the rich.
Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasurer) George Osborne, the man overseeing savage cuts in public spending, is worth £4.6 million. In his position, he is responsible for the impoverishment of tens of millions of people.
Prime Minister David Cameron has a family home worth £2.7 million and his constituency house is valued at £1million. The combined wealth of the parents of Cameron and his wife is estimated at £30 million — of which the couple can expect to inherit a big chunk.
When Cameron and Osborne tell a population whose median income is £407 per week that “we are all in this together”, it’s a tribute to their acting abilities that they can keep a straight face.
Osborne unveiled the millionaires’ government’s Comprehensive Spending Review to parliament on October 20. This made clear the scale of this government’s anti-working class offensive.
It had already announced £8 billion worth of cuts for this fiscal year. In the four years starting from April 2011, the government aims to make an additional £81 billion of cuts and earn an extra £30 billion worth of taxes.
As you would expect from a millionaires’ government, cuts in welfare were at the heart of the announced program: single mothers, people with disabilities and people on housing benefits were targeted.
For example, an unemployed person whose rent is paid through the housing benefit will be between £10 and £20 a week worse off. That may seem small for those in line to inherit millions of pounds, but for someone on welfare, it is the difference between hardship and utter misery.
A briefing prepared for councillors in the London borough of Brent set out what some of this means for working class families: “Some of Brent’s low-income households face being worse off by up to £10,000 per year (based on increase in rents and loss of benefits).
“[There will be a[ 12% cut to the Education non-schools budget. This may involve cuts to areas such as Early Years, support for disabled children as well as grants for free school meals.
“Additional income for Adult Social Care will not respond to the increase in demand for the borough’s services.”
The Con Dem strategy is a transfer of wealth from the very poor to the rich, the end of the local and national state as a welfare provider and the smashing of the post World War II settlement won by the working class.
What has the response from our side been like?
The kindest thing you could say is that it has lacked the boldness and strategic vision of the Con Dems.
Despite knowing that whichever party won the election severe cuts were bound to happen, the national union federation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), is not calling a national demonstration until the end of March next year.
The extent of the TUC’s visible activity so far has been to set up a quite good website providing detail on the cuts. Utterly absent is any hint that the TUC might have some responsibility for leading a fight against them.
Some smaller unions, such as the Rail Maritime and Transport Union the Fire Brigades Union are currently involved in defensive strikes. There is speculation that these unions may call a demonstration in December.
The far left has behaved in a manner that brings it little credit. For practical purposes, there are three national anti-cuts campaigns, two of which are, in effect, wholly owned party building front organisations.
A useful contrast is the relatively united response the entire left had to the Iraq war. In that case, every significant organisation got involved in the Stop the War Coalition.
The campaign group that has had most success in pulling together a genuine network of independent activists and prominent labour movement figures is the Coalition of Resistance.
It describes itself as “linked to no particular political party, but committed to open working in a non-sectarian way with all organisations seeking to co-ordinate resistance; and is dedicated to supplementing, rather than supplanting, trade union, student, pensioner and community opposition to austerity measures”.
The founding national conference of the coalition is set for November 27. A leadership will be elected that should reflect the diversity of the emerging anti-cuts movement.
Now that the program of the Con Dem government has been spelled out, millions of working-class people have realised they are going to be worse off for the rest of their lives if they don’t fight back.
Locally organised meetings drawing thousands of new people into politics are happening every week, students are joining demonstrations and flash mobs are blockading the shops of tax-dodging companies.
The class struggle in Britain is going to start getting lively and the stakes are enormous.
[Liam MacUaid is the editor of British publication Socialist Resistance, www.socialistresistance.org.]