British Perspectives, March 2014 congress
British Perspectives, March 2014 congress
An array of flashpoints
40. Even while the blockage at the top seems immovable, the working class can find ways round it. Explosions can take place on all kinds of issues, sometimes of a seemingly secondary character, as workers search for an effective means of fighting back. The campaign against the bedroom tax has some features of this. Housing associations have reported widespread non-payment, with up to 50% of affected tenants paying nothing to cover the shortfall left by benefit cuts. Clearly the level of non-payment primarily reflects the impossibility of tenants finding the money to pay. However, it also appears that where anti-bedroom tax campaigns have been strongest non-payment levels are the highest. For example, in Glasgow, heartland of the anti-bedroom tax campaign, two thirds of the 7,350 tenants at the Glasgow and Cube housing associations have not paid or have underpaid. The pressure from below has forced a number of local authorities and housing associations to find ways to ameliorate the effects of the tax by reclassifying spare rooms and so on. In Northern Ireland, the Assembly has agreed £17 million to avoid evicting tenants as a result of the bedroom tax, possibly for up to four years. Nonetheless, it has left hundreds of thousands of the poorest in society in desperate need, as have the cuts in council tax benefit and other benefit cuts. The concessions that have been made can increase the feeling that it is possible to defeat the tax, and the struggle against any evictions that are threatened.
41. Initially, housing providers were generally very cautious about moving to evictions, fearing the movement that they could create. However, this is beginning to change, at least in some areas. The 'ring of steel' formed around the home of a fellow tenant in Kirby shows how anti-eviction armies can spring up if councils and housing associations try to proceed with evictions resulting from benefit cuts. Many of those taking part in anti-bedroom tax campaigns are not directly affected, but feel that this attack is 'the final straw' and something must be done. This will be added to by the revelation that around 40,000 suffering from the bedroom tax were not legally liable, including Stephanie Botrill, who tragically committed suicide.
42. The campaign against the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts still has the potential to become a focus to opposition, particularly if evictions are stepped up, comparable to the anti-eviction movement in Spain. There, campaigns against evictions due to mortgage arrears have prevented over 1,000 evictions and are enormously popular, with 89% support in opinion polls, despite regularly being slandered as 'terrorists' in the media.
43. Other issues could also explode. The destruction of the NHS has already led to huge local conflagrations, such as the 50,000 who marched in Stafford in April 2013 in defence of the local hospital. The national trade union demonstration on the NHS, despite very limited mobilisation by the union tops, was more than 50,000 strong and could have been the launch pad for further action.
44. We are likely to see clashes against the latest round of devastating cuts to local authority spending. By 2015 average local authority spending is due to be 30% lower than it was in 2008, with many working-class communities suffering far worse cuts. The most deprived fifth of local authorities have seen their spending power per head of population cut by an average of £270 a year since 2010. This has meant the complete destruction of swathes of local services. As we detailed in last year's perspectives document, Labour councils have dutifully carried out the cuts demanded by the government. These include some of the most inhumane measures, such as the 6,500 of Sheffield's poorest who were issued summonses to appear in court on the same day - for council tax arrears averaging a paltry £172. There have been a number of sizeable local protests against council tax benefit cuts, and we have to be prepared for a new rash, perhaps larger than previously, of local anti-cuts movements against this year's vicious local authority austerity. This can include local strikes, such as that by Glasgow care workers. The UNISON leadership nationally has persistently tried to hold back such action, especially when against Labour local authorities. It may not be able to continue to do so.
45. The 'Southampton Two', who have now joined the Socialist Party, have demonstrated in microcosm that it is possible to oppose cuts and win. The closure of the swimming pool which triggered their anti-cuts stance has now been reversed as a result of the local campaign which they led. The two moved an alternative budget which, if passed, would have enabled the Labour council to avoid all cuts for this year, without even setting a deficit budget. The council treasurer could not declare the budget illegal, even given the biased laws on council finances. Had Southampton implemented the two's budget it would have given the council time to prepare a mass campaign in support of the council. Instead the Labour council refused to even discuss it. But look how much support just two councillors have had from trade unionists nationally, and imagine how many workers would rally in support of even one council that was prepared to defy the government. The pro-capitalist character of Labour can be summed up, not just by the failure of Labour councils to defy the cuts, but in their determination to prevent the possibility of doing so even being discussed. The fighting history of Liverpool city council genuinely strikes fear into Labour councils up and down the country. Nonetheless, a handful of councillors have followed the lead of the Southampton Two.
46. The Greens' minority administration in Brighton has implemented cuts, including to refuse workers' pay and which resulted in strike action. Now they are putting forward a 'strategy' of calling a referendum to increase council tax by 4.9% in order to avoid around £2.5 million worth of cuts, a small part of the cuts being made. We should argue for a second question in the referendum asking the electorate in Brighton if they would rather the council defied the government and refused to implement the cuts, instead of choosing between tax increases and slightly smaller cuts or cuts alone. It is not only Brighton that have turned to council tax increases. A number of Labour councils have proudly declared '0% council tax rises' while carrying out eye-watering increases for benefit claimants.
47. The Socialist Party has consistently presented the environment as a socialist issue, putting forward a programme including nationalisation of energy companies, investment in renewable energy and a nationalised public transport system. Any campaigns and struggles regarding the environment should be linked to this programme and anti-austerity campaigns, as well as to one another. Local campaigns against shale gas extraction could be effective in drawing out local working class communities, worried about drinking water contamination and subsiding land, into struggle.
48. There is sustained and growing political discontent in the disabled community. Disabled people have been the target of tough austerity measures over the last couple of years. These attacks include unfair Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessments, the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with Personal Independence Payments (PIP), the attempted closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), the bedroom tax, and the cuts to local adult care budgets. The government's use of the French company Atos with no prior experience in this field to carry out incapacity benefit assessments has particularly angered the community. There is widespread recognition of its unfair practice and ultimate cost: poverty, humiliation, and in some cases death.
49. Women have already been to the fore of both community and workplace struggles against cuts. Women make up 65% of the public-sector workforce, and a huge three quarters of the local government workforce. At the same time the cuts in public services and benefits affect women most sharply.