In the Houses of Parliament serious debate is a distant memory. On every crucial issue the three main parties are in almost complete agreement. With a few exceptions MPs accept the policies of neo-liberalism as an article of faith.
Their belief in the necessity of privatisation and cuts to the public sector show just how far they are removed from the lives of ordinary people, who are overwhelmingly in favour of a turn away from the policies of the last 20 years. But the lack of a mass socialist alternative to the endless stream of sameness that pours from parliament, leaves millions knowing what they are against but as yet unsure of whether an alternative is possible.
In an article in The Guardian entitled Coalition of Dreamers, journalist Polly Toynbee ridiculed the socialist challenge for the 2001 general election. Describing Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist as a "sincere and decent man - but more vicar than politician", she commented on the programme he had put forward:
Toynbee, as a right-wing Labour Party member, unsurprisingly writes off socialist policies as utopian. But why can't these modest demands be achieved? Modern capitalism has created riches beyond the wildest dreams of our grandparents and great-grandparents, with the potential for far more. Yet we are constantly being told that we have no choice but to accept the erosion of our quality of life, increased poverty, worsening public services and longer working hours.
But why? Humankind has developed science and technique to a level that was unimaginable to previous generations. While still very limited, our understanding of everything from the stars above us to the secrets of our own bodies and minds is unparalleled. Humanity is capable of space exploration, has mapped the human genome, can modify genes and clone animals, yet we cannot feed the world on the basis of capitalism.
For most of human history it has not been possible to satisfy even the most basic human needs. Now, as a result of the labour and ingenuity of working people, the potential exists to eliminate want forever. The barrier to achieving this is the capitalist system itself. Based as it is on the private ownership of the productive forces (factories, offices, science and technique), capitalism creates immense inequality and deprivation when the potential exists for providing the material components of a decent life for all.
There is no lack of wealth in Britain. In one year, from 1996-97, Britain’s richest 500 people increased their wealth by £16.3 billion. That means that when New Labour was swept to power the collective fortune of those 500 added up to about £87 billion. That was £14 billion more than the combined annual expenditure on child benefit for seven million children, disability payments for 6.5 million people, and eleven million pensions.
The reason that the lives of working people have continued to worsen under Blair is simple - New Labour accepts every dictat of the ‘free market’ with just as much enthusiasm as the Tories did before. From birth to death our lives are hampered and distorted by the capitalists’ drive for profit.
There are 6,000 nurseries in Britain. Only 240 of them are run on a ‘not for profit’ basis. On average the cost of pre-school childcare for two children is £6,000 per year, more than the average family spends on housing. Childcare in Britain is the least regulated, hardest to obtain and most expensive of any country in the European Union. Lack of decent childcare means that increasing numbers of parents, in particular women, do not have the choice of going out to work.
Others are forced to rely on unqualified child carers. New Labour’s solution has been to introduce the Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) and some parents are able to struggle through with this. In total, the government spends around £5 million a year on helping pay for childcare via the WFTC. This provides a minimal level of help but much more is needed.
New Labour has recently promised more money for nurseries, but these will not be publicly owned. Instead of handing money over to private nurseries, it would make far more sense to spend the money building and directly funding free, publicly-owned nurseries, after-school and holiday clubs, with fully qualified, decently paid staff.
After five years of underinvestment New Labour is now promising £7 billion extra for schools. This is welcome but it will not solve the problems. Spending on education will still fall below the 7% of national income that even Mandelson has admitted is really needed. And the £7 billion will not be used to improve the general standard of education.
On the contrary, it is being linked to the complete destruction of comprehensive education and the wholesale reintroduction of selective schools. Comprehensive education, based on the development of all-round skills, was an attempt to partially overcome the greed and anarchy of the market which, of course, favours the children of the rich. Despite the limitations of the comprehensive system, its abolition will be a severe step backwards.
New Labour is replacing what remains of it with a system where ‘successful’ schools will be rewarded with more money. Meanwhile, the schools at the bottom of the league tables, in the areas of greatest poverty, will get no extra funds and could even be threatened with closure.
New Labour is inviting big-business companies, like McDonald’s, Shell and Schweppes, to make profits from our schools. If New Labour’s plans are fully realised, tens of thousands of working-class young people will be condemned to second-class sink schools that 'teach' students how to work in burger bars or petrol stations.
The £7 billion New Labour has promised could be used differently. It would be enough to pay for the training of the 27,000 extra teachers needed just to return class sizes to the level they were at ten years ago. Instead, New Labour is concentrating on increasing the numbers of very low-paid, unqualified classroom assistants who are being expected to do the work of qualified teachers.
The government is actively discouraging people from entering teaching. New Labour’s education minister, Estelle Morris, even declared that teachers are "potty" for wanting to work a 35-hour week – hardly an incentive for going on a teacher training course!
New Labour came to power proclaiming that its priority was "education, education, education". It then abolished all student grants and introduced tuition fees. Now one in six students drop out of college as a result of poverty.
Increasingly, the children of working-class families simply cannot afford a university education. Those who struggle through have to work long hours to fund their studies and still end up with the millstone of thousands of pounds worth of debt around their necks.
Total applications for university fell by 2% in 1999/2000, with the reductions coming overwhelmingly from the poorest sections of society. Mature students have also been hard hit. In the same period, applications from men over 25 years old fell by 6.5%.
The introduction of fees is the top of a slippery slope. The Russell Group, made up of the vice-chancellors of the 19 'most prestigious' universities, wants to add its own 'top-up' fees to the current tuition fees. If they get their way, universities like Oxford and Cambridge will charge £16,000 a year – moving towards the levels of fees charged by their US equivalents, Harvard and Yale.
Education should be a right for all, not just for a privileged few. Under capitalism this has never truly been the case, but reforms that were won in the past – such as the student grant – vastly improved the opportunities of working-class students. We are now moving back towards the days when 'high quality' education was only for the elite.
The cost of abolishing tuition fees, reintroducing a full grant for all students comparable to its 1979 level (around £4,200, before 21 years of cuts began), along with the reintroduction of the right to claim benefits outside of term-time, would be about £3 billion a year. To put the figure of £3 billion into context it is equal to the profits of BP for the last six months of 2000 alone!
In 2000 there were over 410,000 people recognised as homeless in England. Millions of people are forced to live in substandard, overcrowded, private rented housing – a return to the extreme exploitation and extortion of the Rachmanite landlords of the 1950s-60s.
Council housing, which was built to provide an alternative to the hovels of Rachman and his ilk, is being systematically privatised. Once transferred out of council control, tenants lose their secured tenancy agreements for less protected, 'assured' tenancies. On average, rents immediately go up by £10 a week.
There is a desperate need for a large increase in the amount of affordable, pleasant and good quality social housing. Yet New Labour has not reversed Tory policy. Instead, it has stepped up the council house sell-offs. Government spending on housing has fallen dramatically.
In 1998 prices, the government in the 1970s spent an average of £10.2 billion a year on housing. In the 1990s that had fallen to £7.2 billion. From 1999 to 2001 only 400 council houses were built in the whole of Britain! This compares to 28,000 other types of ‘social’ housing, almost always run by commercially orientated housing associations where rents are more expensive.
What social housing does exist is increasingly expensive. While Prince Michael of Kent has been able to find a bargain five-bedroom home in Kensington Palace for a mere £69 a week, the rest of us would have difficulty finding a bed-sit for that amount. In the last ten years council and other social landlords’ rents have virtually doubled, while private-sector rents have increased by 90%.
Lord Best, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, summed up the situation:
Merely lifting the ‘ring-fencing’ restrictions – the Tory policy which prevented local authorities from spending the money from council house sales on social housing – would provide an extra £6.5 billion. Even using the 25% that New Labour has legally released from ring-fencing would be enough to provide at least 100,000 new or refurbished homes, although that would only be a fraction of what is needed and possible. After all, from 1949–54 an average of 230,000 council houses were built each year.
A repetition of this would be a significant step towards solving today’s housing crisis. And as a by-product, housing benefit costs would be slashed. In the last ten years housing benefit payments have doubled to £11.2 billion per year. Most of this money is stuffed straight into the pockets of private landlords in return for expensive and often substandard accommodation.
Of course, a socialist government would have to take the protection of the environment into account when building housing. At the moment the big construction companies build purely for profit with little concern for the environment, the standard or affordability of the housing.
A mass house-building programme would mean careful planning to ensure the protection of green spaces. In many cases, it would be possible to build on fully decontaminated brownfield sites (abandoned land formerly used for industrial purposes). Moreover, pleasant and safe homes for all forms part of a decent environment.
As factories and steel plants have closed or had their workforces cut to the bone, all the government has done is to stand aside and wring its hands. In the past, even Tory governments intervened in the economy occasionally. Tory prime minister, Ted Heath, for example, nationalised Rolls Royce in the early 1970s. Clearly, the Tories were acting in the interests of big business, propping up industries before selling them back to the fat cats at rock bottom prices.
New Labour, however, is so opposed to public ownership that it is unwilling even to do that. The failure of Railtrack, as a result of its catastrophic mismanagement of the rail system, forced the government to step in and reluctantly partially renationalise the railways, yet it is continuing with plans to privatise London Underground.
In order to get big business to invest, a guaranteed annual profit of 15% is being promised, even if the service deteriorates. New Labour is totally opposed to any government intervention in industry. This means it is prepared to stand and fiddle while the remnants of British manufacturing burns.
Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money are being spent picking up the pieces in Dagenham, Birmingham, Wales and all the other places where factories have closed or jobs have been slashed. The cost comes from the loss of tax and National Insurance income, the increase in benefit claimants, and the unquantifiable social costs such as the extra strain on the health and welfare system.
Rather than spend that money dealing with the aftermath of cuts and closure, it would be far better to invest it in keeping the industry concerned alive and, if necessary, developing new, more socially-useful production. For example, there is no need for all car plants to continue with their current production. Workers should be asked what the best use of their skills would be.
Options might include environmentally friendly cars, buses or trams. In the mid-1970s, workers at Lucas Aerospace, the weapons manufacturer, produced an alternative plan of production. They worked out that their production lines could easily be altered to produce kidney machines, electronic wheelchairs and a number of other products far more useful to humanity than weaponry.
But such huge public investment should not be yet another subsidy to private companies’ profits. Government intervention and public investment should be matched by public ownership and control. It would then be possible for workers in individual plants, together with representatives of workers throughout industry, could draw up a new plan of production to better meet the transport needs of the whole of society.
New Labour insulted pensioners in 1999 with a pathetic 75p increase in the pension. Since then the government has adamantly refused to restore the link between pensions and earnings. Pensioners should receive an immediate 50% increase, and this should be extended to all state benefits.
The link between pensions and earnings should be restored. These measures would cost around £15 billion a year. In addition, pensioners, having contributed to society all their lives, should be entitled to free housing, heating, telephone and travel. This could be easily paid for.
There is currently an £8 billion surplus in the National Insurance fund. Reversing the changes made by the Tories to the National Insurance paid by companies would raise another £5 billion a year. This, together with reallocating New Labour’s proposed £3.5 billion increase in defence spending, would raise enough money.
A constant battle
These examples prove the lie in ‘Prudence’ Brown’s messianic belief that New Labour has no choice but to prostrate itself before the ‘free market’, and therefore accept the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
This is demonstrated in the starkest terms in a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which calculated the effects of a modest redistribution of wealth and income which could return the situation to where it was in 1983. That was four years into Thatcher's reign, hardly an egalitarian society.
Nonetheless, it would prevent about 7,500 deaths a year among the under-65s. In addition, the report stated that ending long-term unemployment would prevent another 2,500 premature deaths annually, and that achieving the government's supposed target of eliminating child poverty within a generation would save the lives of 1,400 children under the age of 15 every year.
Such modest improvements could be achieved relatively simply but capitalism is incapable of implementing them fully or lastingly. Under this system we have to battle constantly for every single improvement in our lives. Capitalism means that as soon as we let our guard down the bosses try and take every concession back. Because capitalism is based on the drive for profit – and profit is, in reality, the unpaid labour of the working class – every improvement in our living standards, every wage increase and improvement in the welfare state results in lower profits for the capitalists.
That is why the ruling class would have us believe that it is utopian romanticism to dare to imagine that we can achieve even the basic proposals of the Rowntree Foundation. Real equality will only ever be achieved on the basis of abolishing capitalism. Until we succeed in doing that we will face a ceaseless and unrelenting struggle to defend our standards of living.
Alice in Wonderland
From a ‘rational’ point of view capitalism is a crazy way of running the world. Even though unemployment is relatively low at the moment in Britain (although this will change as recession hits the economy), there are still vast tracts of mass unemployment. The reality is far bleaker than the official figures suggest. In the North of England, Wales and Scotland, the destruction of manufacturing means that jobs are hard to come by.
Even in the South, in the inner cities up to a third of young black people are unemployed. The real number of people looking for work or on government training schemes is probably closer to three million than to one million. (And even in areas where unemployment is currently low, it has been replaced by a massive increase in part-time, temporary work.)
Every unemployed person ‘costs’ around £10,000 a year in benefits paid and taxes lost. The Cambridge Journal of Economics shows that one million jobs could be created for £17 billion. This means that, at current taxation levels, an extra £10 million could be raised or saved! Economists also calculate that each employed person annually contributes, on average, around £22,000 to the economy. Therefore, each unemployed person, given a real job, could produce £22,000 worth of production - potentially around £60 billion.
At the same time as we have unemployment, four million workers in Britain work an average of 48 hours a week. This is the lunacy of capitalism. By introducing a 35-hour week with no loss of pay - in other words, sharing out the work - it would be possible to dramatically reduce the number of unemployed whilst simultaneously improving the quality of life for working people.
If this were combined with a massive increase in public services it would be possible to eliminate unemployment. This would allow us to develop a vastly better public transport system, build public housing, and hire more teachers, nursery staff and health workers.
But for the capitalist class profit comes before anything else. So the development of new technology does not mean, as it could, a shorter week for all, but rather longer, backbreaking hours for some and unemployment for the rest.