Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives: a Socialist Party congress 2012 document


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Public sector

49. But the primary battle of the whole of the Labour movement in the next period will centre on the public sector.

The pensions struggle is just the opening salvo in the coalition's campaign for privatisation. The whole of the NHS in England - employing more than one million people - and education are up for grabs.

Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, is under siege and it is not at all certain at the time of writing if he will succeed in carrying through wholesale privatisation.

If he does succeed, ironically, England will see a private health service installed, even while there are growing demands for a public health system in the US.

50. There has been a certain relief that privatisation of the NHS in England will not be implemented in Wales, but the NHS is still under threat.

While the whole service is not being privatised - yet - many areas of the health service have already been sent out to tender and, with the privatisation of health in England by the UK government, EU competition law in health will now apply to the whole UK.

This means that the Welsh government and Local Health Boards will have to open up the provision of health services to competition from private health companies.

51. The Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives have joined the British Medical Association in what the Financial Times called "outright opposition to reform" - read counter-reform.

Lansley merely denounces them as 'stick in the muds'. Incredibly, he accuses them of the same intransigent opposition as when the NHS was set up and the top doctors opposed Aneurin Bevan's plans.

There is, however, a slight difference between then and now. The doctors are attempting to save the NHS this time round, which was not the case when it was founded.

Then, they tried to strangle it at birth. Now, 60 years later, they see the advantage of a nationalised health care system.

Lansley is attempting what Thatcher herself hesitated to do, that is to privatise the NHS. The seriousness with which the present crew leading the Tory party have approached the task of destroying the NHS is indicated by the fact that Lansley has held the positions firstly of shadow health minister and now health secretary in the coalition government for eight years! He is the Nicholas Ridley - the minister under Thatcher who drew up plans to smash the miners before the Tories came to power in 1979 - of the present Cabinet.

52. High-stakes are involved here. Clegg and Cable will not be able to hide on this issue. Opposition in the House of Lords is being led by a member of Clegg's own party, Shirley Williams, in tandem with her SDP co-founder David Owen.

If the Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet line up with the Tories on this issue, they could pay a very heavy price, including an open split in their party.

If, on the other hand, the government backs away then Lansley will be thrown overboard.

53. A similarly polarised position exists across the public sector. On education, the Tory minister responsible, Michael Gove, has provoked widespread opposition from teachers and parents alike with his campaign for academies.

The 'Swedish model' is to be rushed through, which will fundamentally change the education system in Britain.

Something like 45% of secondary schools are already, or are likely to become, academies. Huge demonstrations of both teachers and parents have greeted Gove's proposals such as the one in Haringey, with thousands showing their defiance of the government on this issue.

The not-for-profit scheme promised for the companies setting up academies is now shown to be completely bogus.

The Observer has revealed plans for Swedish companies and others to colonise Britain's education system precisely on a 'for profit' system.

This will involve the full panoply of company structures - bent on making a profit - imposed on schools.

In the future, we could see schools like mini-Greeces weighed down and burdened with debt with some of them even facing bankruptcy.

Already, Gove has come out against the limit of 30 children per class. New Labour is in no position to protest against this as they opened the door in the first place with its support for academies.

Education is in the process of being taken out of the hands of local authorities, which will allow free rein to big business involvement.

54. All this is acting to nullify what remains of local democracy. A crackdown on the right to demonstrate, to advertise public meetings and to occupy public spaces has recently taken place.

This has been accompanied by a massive increase in surveillance, which makes Britain the most 'observed' society in the world'.

Such are the unprecedented powers concentrated in the hands of the state already that if a police state was established then it would not have to introduce new legislation because it would already be in place! This is not to say that we have arrived at the point where a police state exists or is possible.

The relationship of classes is against that at the present time but it is an indication of just how far things have gone.

Some of the most vicious local authorities in this regard are those controlled either by New Labour or coalitions with the participation of New Labour.

We will have to confront the blatant disregard of democratic rights by local councils.

55. One of the major issues that will come up in the next period is that of the election of mayors. This is another brainchild of New Labour, which the Tories have enthusiastically taken up.

The clear intention is for local mayors to bypass the democratically elected and accountable local councils.

The election and concentration of power in the hands of these mini-Bonapartes will weaken further the ability of local populations to influence decision making at local level.

The example of the buffoonish but vicious Boris Johnson is to be inflicted on other cities.

56. Already, the local councils in these areas have sought to insulate themselves against protesters with power being concentrated in a cabal, the council Cabinet, which takes the major decisions.

So unpopular have these bodies become in implementing savage cuts that in the promised referendums many workers may vote for the election of a mayor as a protest against existing councillors as well as the Con-Dem government cuts.

We oppose this and other attempts to introduce methods from the US to bypass local democracy. But if elections for mayors are held, then we would advocate that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) should stand.

This is our intention in the upcoming vital election for the Greater London Assembly list. If a workers' representative was to take a seat in the GLA, it would be a landmark development.

57. Councils are choosing to attack the 'soft options' first, amongst which they include libraries, youth services - despite the fact that this was one of the factors in the riots in London - environmental services, adult social care, etc.

At the same time they have chosen - where the situation requires it - to put the boot into 'troublesome' trade union militants.

This is being done, particularly in the London area, with the connivance and behind-the-scenes support of rotten trade union officials.

Unison officials are usually behind this campaign. This has become so widespread in London that it is not difficult to conclude that not just trade union fighters in general are under attack, but specifically members and sympathisers of the Socialist Party.

These officials imagine that because they rest on a base of nominally 1.2 million members - and with new members joining largely because of the need for protection in the changed situation in the workplace - they are safe from any challenge to their undemocratic and bloated powers and privileges.

Sid Weighell, late general secretary of the old National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) - now the RMT - thought the same thing.

He was removed because he did not accurately reflect the views of the NUR within the Labour Party. The struggles in the workplace are much more important that this for the average trade unionist.

Pressure will be exerted within Unison against the present collaborative leadership. A backlash is inevitable - maybe beginning in the bureaucracy itself - to this sell-out position, which leaves union militants completely exposed to the vengeful attack of the bosses.

58. This is clearly a preparatory step - removing all obstacles within the working class - to savage attacks, including privatisation of council services.

This not only impacts on council workers themselves. The very fabric of life is being undermined with the Chief Executive of the Institute of Environmental Health, referring to the "golden age of public protection now over".

There has been a ninefold increase in the number of councils no longer offering pest control services and this is expected to grow.

This, together with the growth of health inequality as the result of poor and deteriorating living conditions, has seen an explosion in pests.

The latest estimate put the UK population of brown rats- not all of them are to be found in the ranks of right-wing trade union officialdom - at between 10 and 20 million.

All kinds of horrible diseases can arise from this, such as Lyme disease. And deteriorating incomes mean that both councils and individuals have less to spend on preventative measures.

In the bicentenary of Dickens's birth, we have a return of all the horrors which he detailed and attacked in his books! Some hospitals spend less than 1 per meal, allocating less than 5 a day on breakfast, lunch and dinner, for each patient.

Thus the conditions of the Third World, where families are compelled to bring in food daily for the sick - because the hospital food threatens to make them even more ill than when they entered - threatens to be reproduced here, a supposedly 'advanced' industrial country.

59. And this is just a 'taste' of what is to be expected in terms of cuts in the coming year. The government and the capitalists seem to have won the first round.

If the trade union leaders capitulate on the pensions struggle, truly eye-watering cuts are in the pipeline. 94% of departmental cuts and 88% of benefit cuts are still to come.

In the past year, the government has been able to rely on the acquiescence of local councils - including New Labour councils - passing on the coalition's brutal cuts; 300,000 public sector jobs have gone.

A high proportion of these include workers who have taken early retirement, either because they lack confidence in the trade union leaders' ability or appetite to resist the government or they vainly hope that the promised economic upturn will provide them with further job opportunities.

They are likely to be disappointed. But the council workforce now consists of people who do not want to leave, in the main, see a future of joblessness outside of the present workforce and therefore are open to fight.

This means that there will be a more serious struggle in the coming year. There is every possibility that our anti-cuts work will begin to take off.

60. The work around the National Shop Stewards Network assumes even greater importance in the next period.

The anti-cuts conference at the beginning of the year - called by PCS Left Unity and effectively built for by the NSSN - is an indication of what is possible.

The sheer sectarianism of the SWP in setting up another rival 'rank-and-file' body in opposition to the NSSN will not succeed.

The best of the trade union militants - including some left trade union leaders - well understand the role that the SWP plays.

However, some, for their own reasons wish to play them off against us. There is only one answer to this and that is to dig roots within the working class and in the workplaces which can give the NSSN a firm base within the trade unions themselves.

61. The current battle on pensions is vital, given that it is the one issue that has been able to unite the working class and the trade union movement in the titanic struggles of the last year.

More workers came out on strike on 30 November than on any day since the general strike; it was maybe bigger than the numbers who came out on any single day during the general strike.

This is of enormous symptomatic importance; things will never be the same again. But it is one episode - a mighty episode, it must be conceded - one battle in the war which will not cease in intensity because of the economic and social situation created by the crisis and the measures of the coalition government. This crisis is not of a conjunctural character but systemic.

62. Cameron and Osborne attempted to split public-sector workers from private-sector workers - arguing that the former were privileged and had "gold-plated pensions".

In reality, PCS members 'enjoyed' in the main a measly average pension of about 4,000 per year. They wish to drive down the conditions of local government workers and civil servants to the level of private pensions.

63. But workers with private pensions have shown their hostility in strikes in Unilever recently because of the "pension robbery" that has been undertaken by the bosses.

Unilever is the third largest consumer goods company in the world with billions of pounds worth of profits yet it wants to reduce pensions by between 20% and 40%.

Unilever's Chief Executive Officer pocketed a massive increase of nearly 50% in his remunerative packet - 285 times that of the average worker! Over the years, private-sector employers have 'temporarily' robbed pension schemes - remember Maxwell? They also resorted during the boom to 'pension holidays'.

Now, they are all resorting to the same methods - even where they enjoy a 'healthy' financial situation.

The oil giant Shell has just arbitrarily terminated its pension scheme for new employees. They are motivated by sheer greed because they can afford to pay pensions under the existing agreement but have chosen to withdraw the scheme because of the overall favourable situation to them of government backing.

The Financial Times correctly described Shell's actions as "the end of an era in which private-sector workers could be confident of a guaranteed income throughout their retirement".

64. If the government is successful in facing down the unions on the pensions' battle, this will have consequences, not just on pensions but on workplace rights and conditions.

We must add that it is unlikely that the trade unions as a whole will bend the knee to the government on this issue.

At the very least, left unions like the PCS could be involved in a protracted struggle involving sectional strikes along the lines of the local government battle in Southampton.

This is not our preferred method of struggle nor that of the left as a whole. It involves sustaining just one section of the workforce in strike action with the support of workers who are not on strike themselves, with financial contributions, etc.

Such action is difficult to sustain for any length of time. However, a rearguard struggle of this character can have a certain effect and force the government to the negotiating table.

For instance, in the Revenue and Customs section of the civil service, because of the actions of up to 20,000 members of the PCS in protest at the appointment of private companies to handle trials in two contact centres, the government announced that taxpayers who missed the deadline for filing their returns will not be fined! This shows, in one sense, the power exercised by workers when even one section comes out.

65. Pay is likely to be a crucial issue for organised workers. Pressure is building, particularly in the public-sector, following George Osborne's announcement of a further two-year pay cap.

This has led to some public-sector workers' pay falling behind inflation every year since 2006 and there has been a pay freeze in local government for three years.

This has put pressure on even right-wing union leaders to threaten industrial action to reflect pressure from below.

Any action on pay in the public-sector will put union members into direct conflict with not just the coalition government but also the leadership of the Labour Party, whose support for capping the pay of public-sector workers has led to a big increase in the number of motions to GMB conference critical of Labour Party affiliation.

66. There has also been a rise in the number of private-sector disputes. Most significant is that of the construction electricians and other skilled workers employed under the JIB and NAECI schemes, where nationwide protests and unofficial strikes have taken place against the employers' attempts to scrap agreements and re-employ workers on worse pay, terms and conditions.

The significance of this struggle is that it has been led by the rank-and-file electricians themselves and has been successful, acting as inspiration for many in the private sector, frightening the bosses and showing the power of a struggle of this character.

Their determined resistance has pushed Unite into backing the strikes with official ballots and the promise of financial backing.

Other smaller strikes have taken place in transport, including amongst drivers in the bus, tanker and haulage industries.

Now we have seen the first lockout in 58 years in the commercial print industry at the Mayr-Melnhof Packaging (MMP) plant in Bootle, Merseyside, with workers occupying their factory from noon on 18 February, leading to management prepared to talk about redundancy payments.

This shows increased confidence by workers to take militant action, the clear class conflict and demonstrates the speed with which events are taking place.

67. There is no question that conditions in workplaces have become worse. Bullying has reached epidemic proportions because the big bosses believe they now have the whip hand.

The Daily Mirror reported in January that British staff "are among the most bullied in the world - with 70% claiming they had been harassed at work".

Moreover, longer hours take their toll. Overtime leads to a 60% higher risk of heart disease, a recent report concluded.

Even before the economic crisis the UK had the longest working hours in Europe. Official figures revealed that more than 40% of lost working days are caused by depression, anxiety and stress.

Working excessive overtime is associated "with an increased risk of major depression". Yet capitalism is a machine for stretching workers to breaking point.

Harassment of trade union representatives is on the increase with the threat to reduce or completely abolish facility time.

68. Deterioration in working conditions is not inevitable. Trade union action in Jobcentre Plus call centres involving up to three days of industrial action in 2011 pushed management into conceding some improvements in flexible working and other conditions.

However, under capitalism, there is constant pressure by employers to take back gains and attacks will continue.

Trade unions play a crucial role for working people and demonstrate that it is possible to organise workers in new workplaces such as call centres.


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