Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives 2013: a Socialist Party congress document


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Benefits, Housing, NHS

22. In a shameful fashion Cameron has sought to split the working class on the question of cutting benefits.

Although the mood on this is just starting to harden against the government on this issue, up until now the Tories have unfortunately succeeded.

This has only been possible because of New Labour's complicity in the lie that benefit claimants are 'scroungers'.

Two days before voting that MPs deserved a 32% pay increase, the Con-Dems cackled as they passed the 1% cap on benefit increases, however, as these latest benefit cuts begin to bite - they will affect around 10 million households - there is likely to be a backlash.

Recognising this, New Labour for the first time managed to bring themselves to vote against a Con-Dem benefit cut.

However, they justified this by pointing out that 7 million of the households affected are in work, and combined it with a pledge to force the unemployed to take any job, no matter how low paid, thereby colluding with the idea that the unemployed are happily doing nothing while receiving generous benefits.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Only 2% of the budget of the Department for Work and Pensions goes on unemployment benefits.

New Labour bears responsibility for the puny level of the Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). When the Con-Dems came to power it was 64.30 a week, equal to just 10% of average earnings compared to 17% when Thatcher was in power.

It is one of the lowest in the developed world and is literally impossible to live on.

23. It is true that New Labour did increase many low-paid workers' incomes via the tax-credit system.

This was of course welcomed by workers, but is used by employers to get away with slave labour wages.

The way to cut the benefits bill is to introduce a real living wage of at least 10 an hour. The idea that the unemployed are mostly shirkers should be confronted head on: have a million more people become 'shirkers' since the onset of the economic crisis? The blame for mass unemployment has to be clearly laid at the feet of capitalism.

Britain's young people face a future more and more like the nightmare that exists in Southern Europe, where over 50% of young people are without jobs.

Youth Fight for Jobs has a vital role to play in the struggle against the scourge of mass unemployment.

It has already done good work but is likely to come into its own in the coming period.

24. There is an avalanche of other attacks on benefits taking place, including really inhuman attacks on disability benefits.

The Tories seem to think they can get away with anything, even threatening to cut the benefits of the overweight.

This might be more popular if they also cut local government minister Eric Pickles' salary to force him to, literally, 'tighten his belt'! The punitive 'bedroom tax' and the council tax benefit cuts are hitting some of the most impoverished sections of the working class.

There can be potential for a campaign on this issue, particularly demanding that Labour councils refuse to implement the policy.

25. However, as one Tory minister put it, it is the switch to Iain Duncan Smith's Universal Credit, which is the "disaster waiting to happen".

This is the biggest change to benefits in many years, and is taking place against the background of cuts to the Department for Work and Pensions.

It is likely that the government will have to delay implementation, but if they go ahead it will undoubtedly create huge administrative problems, and could even bring about a partial collapse of the benefits system.

Despite their desperation to cling to power for as long as possible, a benefits crisis is one of the fault lines over which the LibDems could find themselves bringing down the government, despite themselves.

While only four LibDem MPs had the backbone to vote against the 1% cap, a crisis in the benefit system could force them to take firmer measures than they want or can currently imagine, as they try to pose as being responsible for 'trimming the Tories worst excesses' in order to try and preserve at least some of their electoral base.

Housing

26. The slashing of housing benefit has already accelerated Britain's acute housing crisis. Blocked by the LibDems the Tories were unable to completely scrap housing benefit for under 25 year olds, but they still pushed through a whole series of cuts.

Homelessness has increased by 26% over the last two years and is set to increase further. While housing benefit is cut, the cost of housing is rocketing.

House prices have gone up 40 times since 1971 whereas prices in general have gone up tenfold. Home ownership is now out of reach for the vast majority.

Thatcher's so-called 'property owning democracy' has died. Home-owners now make up just 64% of households, and are likely to fall below 50% in the coming years, in London they are already a minority.

As a result, one in twelve families is now on waiting lists for social housing, the complete absence of which is allowing private sector landlords to increase rents.

The private rented sector has increased by 86% in three years. Rents have risen by an average of 37% since 2007.

Younger people are faced with a future living with their parents, sofa-surfing, or ending up sleeping on the streets.

Even the right-wing think tank IEA drew the conclusion that a mass house building programme could almost halve the 21 billion that is spent on housing benefits and mortgage relief.

However, their means to achieve this end was to get rid of even the current minimal planning regulation in order to allow the construction companies to shove up jerry-built substandard housing.

Our demand for a mass house building programme of high-quality, affordable council housing has never been more relevant.

27. Among the raft of repressive measures against claimants, students and the working poor, the 'bedroom tax' is currently a certain focal point for people's anger.

Thousands of people nationwide could lose their homes to this tax but a defiant mood is already building as people recognise that the only "winners" are private landlords. This could become a focus of struggle in some areas in the coming months.

NHS

28. The public sector was previously a relative haven of job security. No more. Over one million public sector jobs will have gone if the latest round of cuts is implemented.

Already 7,000 nurses' jobs have gone as the NHS faces the worst spending squeeze in its history. After two years of austerity, the money hospitals in England will receive for treatment in 2013 is a 4% cut in real terms.

The next year is going to see a series of hospital cuts and closures. In London seven out of 32 A&E departments are already marked for closure by 2020 and the remainder will have to cover an extra 120,000 people on average.

The chief executive of the Health Federation, Mike Farrar, has declared that the public must accept 'the closure of many hospital units and live healthier lives if they want the NHS to survive'.

The public, however, show no signs of doing any such thing! In November around 10,000 demonstrated in the pouring rain against the closure of Lewisham hospital's A&E department. Many more such demonstrations could take place in 2013.

29. Alongside cuts the NHS in England is facing wholesale privatisation. As we predicted the big majority of GPs surgeries are not being run by consortia of GPs but by private companies.

Virgin Care is running 27 doctors surgeries in Leeds and the whole of Devon's children's services, despite the latter decision being ruled unlawful! NHS Trusts in England can now sell 49% of their services privately, a major step towards the government's goal of complete privatisation of the NHS.

This has been combined with a wholesale assault on the pay, terms and conditions of NHS workers, attempting to end national bargaining, a necessary pre-condition to make the health service 'attractive' to private investors.

In the South West of England, 20 NHS Trusts have formed a 'cartel' and plan to increase workers' weekly hours with no extra pay, cut shift payments and reduce sick pay and annual leave.

One trust in Northern England has threatened to sack 5,500 staff and re-engage them on worse employment contracts!

30. Faced with this onslaught the leadership of UNISON are once again trying to limit resistance to holding up a very battered 'dented shield'.

If workers accept some cuts to pay and conditions, UNISON argues, it may be possible to save national pay bargaining.

As if national pay bargaining is of any use in itself if it is not used as a means to defend workers' conditions.

However, mid-Yorkshire UNISON, led by Socialist Party members, have shown in practise the huge support that would exist across the NHS for strike action to defend pay, conditions and the health service itself.

At the time of writing the branch is in dispute to protect pay and conditions. Four days of strike action led first to a derisory offer of between one and three months extra protection.

When this was rejected, it was increased to 18 months for some workers. One hundred and fourteen workers attended the report back meeting and voted unanimously for further strike action.

Two hundred have joined the union since the strike started. Such is the enthusiasm of workers for the strike that regional officials, initially resistant to balloting, have now been swept up in the mood.

Prior to the strike action in Mid-Yorkshire the Socialist Party held hundreds-strong community meetings against the cuts taking place to the NHS locally.

If health workers were to take national strike action, and make it clear to the public they were fighting to save the NHS, it would receive massive public support.

However, even if the UNISON leadership temporarily manage to prevent this, they will not be able to stop massive local campaigns against NHS cuts, which in turn can give the workforce confidence to fight.

31. In the race to privatise, Gove is in the lead with the mad dash to academies in England, which were first initiated by New Labour.

More than half of secondary schools and many primary schools are now academies or have plans to convert.

There are now more than ten times as many academies as there were in May 2010. Gove's latest assault, demanding that head teachers act to dock the pay of teachers who take part in industrial action, shows his vitriolic determination to smash effective trade union organisation in schools and to move to performance-related pay.

However, the successful strike at Stratford Academy in East London against a head teacher doing exactly what Gove has demanded demonstrated that teachers will respond to these reactionary changes, and in doing so can win the support of a majority of parents and pupils.

What is needed is to mobilise for a similarly resolute campaign of strike action at national level. It is not yet clear that the NUT leadership are prepared to do this, as they appear to be hesitating in the face of the onslaught on their members' rights.

If the teachers' unions do not fight back their ability to organise effective action will be in jeopardy. However, the government can overreach themselves and provoke a reaction from below.

Employment rights

32. Workplace rights are also under concerted attack. The government is attempting to reverse the individual employment rights acquired over the last thirty years.

In the workplace there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence of a more aggressive management style, with shop stewards tied up with an increasing number of disciplinaries in a workplace climate of bullying, intimidation and workers fearing losing their jobs.

Yet employment protection relating to unfair dismissal and the right to make compensation claims to Employment Tribunals are under concerted attack.

In the last 30 years many trade union leaders have accepted the false notion that individual employment rights, many emanating from Europe, could compensate for the weakened collective bargaining position of the trade unions, and be an alternative to militant industrial action.

In the coming period workers will rediscover the essence of trade unionism, and the necessity of militant action as the only effective way to defend their pay and terms and conditions.

Higher education

33. Many higher education students are now paying 9,000 fees, which remains an enormous source of anger.

However, this is likely to surface over 'local issues' as students who have paid a fortune for their education, face cuts in courses and facilities at their universities.

The right-wing leadership of NUS is acting to hold back an effective struggle against both fees and cuts.

This has led to growing discontent with the NUS among students. However, at the same time that discontent has also had an echo on NUS's conference floor, as some students fight to move NUS to the left.


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