Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/738/15523
A weekend of discussion and debate
London, 3-4 November 2012
Unless we fight back, Greece will be our future
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary, addresses the Socialism 2011 sunday rally, photo by Paul Mattsson
The cold cruelty of the British ruling class and the Tories, its traditional party, was revealed in all its viciousness at the Conservative conference.
David Cameron tried to claim that the Tories stand, not for the better off, but for the 'want to be better off'. Millions watching on TV will have laughed hollowly.
The big majority of the 'want to be better off' have no chance of becoming so in Cameron's Britain, no matter how hard they work, or look for work.
On the contrary, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that, if current policies continue, low-income families will be an average of 15% worse off by 2020 - even if pigs fly and the economy grows substantially! New IMF research shows that every £1 of austerity could cost up to £1.70 in lost GDP. Cuts are making the situation far worse.
Throughout Tory conference ministers justified protecting the rich, while proposing ever more ingenious methods of making the rest of us suffer.
George Osborne ruled out a mansion tax on properties worth over £2 million - because he didn't like to take money from people who had worked hard for their mansions.
His own Notting Hill pad, paid for as a result of inherited wealth, is worth around £3 million. The rental income from it is estimated at around £200,000 a year - after all he only earns £130,000 a year as chancellor.
The Tories have no problem, however, taking money from those whose hard work doesn't earn them enough to pay the extortionate levels of private sector rents (the average rent for a one-bed London flat is over £1,000 a month).
The delegates whipped themselves into a frenzy of excitement at the prospect of removing housing benefit completely from under-25 year olds.
Never mind that half of the under-25 year olds who claim housing benefit have children. Or that more housing benefit claimants are in work than are unemployed - this was supposed to be about taking money from the lazy, feckless undeserving poor.
For two years the government has pressed the growing ranks of the young unemployed to travel around the country to find work - now they are told that they have to live with their parents or sleep on the streets; both of which are becoming ever more common even before these latest brutal benefits cuts.
Britain's young are facing a desolate future of mass unemployment; further and higher education only for those who can afford to pay, and no prospect of ever having a secure home.
No return to 'normal'
Yet all the misery we have suffered is only the start of what the government has planned for the majority - both young and old.
Just over 20% of the government's existing cuts in public services have been carried out, and the Tory conference pledged to add another £10 billion in welfare cuts.
Already the number relying on food banks to feed their families had doubled, with four new centres a week opening to cope with spiralling demand.
To top it off the NHS faces the worst cuts in its history and local council services are being decimated.
When this crisis began many hoped it would be temporary. But Cameron says austerity will last until at least 2018.
There is no prospect of a return to what used to be 'normal'. Unless we fight back, the misery facing workers in Greece, Spain and Portugal - where youth unemployment is 50% or more - will be our future.
But there is an alternative. Many of the Tory party conference fringe meetings centred on bashing the trade unions, with demands to abolish 'facility' time (the time elected trade unionists can spend representing their members) prominent. This was not accidental.
The Tories understand that the organised trade union movement - involving six and half million workers - is a powerful force capable of mobilising the majority in society behind its banner and stopping the government's programme of endless austerity in its tracks.
No to all cuts
On 20 October Britain will again glimpse the potential power of the trade unions, as workers from across the country march through London in their thousands.
Without doubt though, this march could have been bigger - even larger than the 750,000-strong 26 March 2011 demonstration against cuts.
That it is not, results from the failure of some trade union leaders to conduct a serious struggle against austerity.
Last year, on 30 November (N30), 29 unions across the public sector struck against the government's attacks on pensions.
This magnificent action had overwhelming public support, not least because it was widely recognised that it was more than a strike against pensions - it was a strike against austerity.
If the trade union leaders had stood firm and been prepared to call further action the government could have been forced to retreat.
Instead the common front was broken as the leadership of the TUC and of Unison, the biggest public sector union, backed down from the struggle.
Local government workers won some concessions on pensions, but these were incomparable to what could have been won if the battle had continued.
For other workers the deal on offer was virtually identical to the insult that had been on the table before N30.
Unsurprisingly some workers are now unsure if it is worth answering the trade union leaders' call to march on 20 October, fearing they will be betrayed once again.
This is no reflection, however, of the mounting anger at government cuts, as was palpably demonstrated when 80,000 people booed Osborne at the Paralympics.
The Con-Dem coalition government is weak - riven by divisions on many issues. Faced with a mass movement it can be forced to retreat, just as the government in Portugal did when the population took to the streets against austerity.
In Britain, unlike many other European countries, there has never been a 24-hour general strike, and the last general strike took place in 1926.
Even a partial 24-hour general strike would electrify the country - giving enormous confidence to the working class.
Particularly if the leadership of the trade union movement stands firm, making it clear that a further 24- or 48-hour general strike would follow if the government did not retreat, a one-day strike would terrify the government and the capitalists.
The prospect would be raised of the government being forced to call a general election. Ed Miliband and Co would probably find themselves heading a majority government, despite their own aspirations being limited to a coalition with the Cable wing of the Liberal Democrats.
What does it say about the Labour leadership that they consider it a good idea to enter an alliance with Cable, a man who is proud of his pre-election warnings to his party that vicious cuts would be needed? Unfortunately, this desire to form a coalition with a party that has wrecked itself on the altar of austerity sums up the reality of Labour today.
At this year's Labour Party conference Miliband proved he can memorise a speech, but he promised nothing to improve the lives of working class people.
No wonder the director of the CBI bosses' organisation, described it as "a speech that reached out to business".
A picture of a future Labour government was drawn by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. He reiterated that Labour would not reverse the cuts, would continue the public sector pay freeze and would not pledge to renationalise the railways.
NHS under attack
Death stalks NHS market reforms, photo Paul Mattsson
If, thanks to Labour's complete failure to offer an alternative, this government was to run its full term and to succeed in implementing even half of its policies, Britain's NHS would have been destroyed, the benefit system smashed - with whole sections of society facing destitution, and mass unemployment will have rocketed. Labour is also unwilling to promise to reverse anything.
Even the pledge, under huge pressure, to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, is not, in reality, a pledge to save the NHS as it would not reverse the cuts or the massive privatisation (much of which began under the previous Labour government).
Five million people need social housing. If Labour was serious about solving the housing crisis it would pledge, not 100,000 affordable homes, but to immediately put the 100,000 unemployed construction workers to work to build a million high quality affordable council houses, as was done in the five years after World War Two.
Housing benefit payments - no longer handed over to greedy landlords - would fall immediately and dramatically.
But Labour is incapable of offering an alternative to austerity because it accepts the logic of capitalism.
Miliband adopting the Tory slogan 'one nation' reflects Labour's belief that the interests of the 1% and those of the 99% are one and the same.
It is only a question, according to Miliband, of encouraging 'responsible' rather than 'predatory' capitalism. But no amount of pleading will create a caring, sharing version of capitalism.
Worldwide the super-rich have £20 trillion stashed away in the world's tax havens, around half of which is owned by a mere 100,000 people.
This is greater than the national debts of all the OECD countries added together. No tax is being paid on this vast wealth.
In Britain alone it is estimated that £120 billion of tax is avoided or evaded by the rich every year.
Nor is this unimaginable wealth being invested in driving society forward by developing industry, science and technique - once capitalism's historical mission.
On the contrary there is £800 billion stashed in the bank vaults of Britain's major FTSE 100 companies - not invested because there is no profit to be made from doing so.
For a socialist alternative to capitalist crisis and misery
Capitalism is a system which puts the production of profit for the few, the millionaire and billionaire capitalist owners of industry and resources, before the social needs of the majority, the multi-billion poor and working class throughout the world. It is also a system based on crisis and misery.
Any government which bows to the will of the markets will continue to drive working class people into the dirt, just as Francois Hollande, elected as president in France on the basis of opposition to his predecessor's pro-rich policies, is now implementing his own vicious austerity against the French working class.
That doesn't mean we can't win victories. Alongside an industrial fightback workers need a political voice.
We need councillors and MPs who stand for the 99% instead of for the 1%. Around the country Labour councils are obediently implementing Con-Dem cuts, but there are exceptions.
In Southampton two Labour councillors took the unusual step of putting the interests of their constituents before the orders of the Labour Group and voting against cuts in public services.
For this 'crime' they have been expelled from the Labour Group but have won huge public support from the people of Southampton.
Some trade union leaders argue reclaiming the Labour Party is the way to create a mass party which stands in the interests of working class people.
Yet all the evidence indicates this effort will not succeed. While anti-cuts councillors are being suspended from Labour, at this year's Labour Party conference, which in any case no longer has the power to influence Labour's policies, the public sector unions did not even manage to get a resolution passed condemning the public sector pay freeze, instead the conference merely 'noted' it!
The Socialist Party is playing a central role in building the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
TUSC involves the transport workers' union (RMT) and other militant trade unionists. It provides a platform for trade unionists and campaigners to stand as anti-cuts candidates, taking their fight into the electoral field.
We see this as part of a campaign to create a mass workers' party that represents the interests of the majority.
To do this fully means fighting for democratic socialism. A decade ago most people in Britain hoped that their children would grow up to have a secure and pleasant home, a job that pays a living wage, and later on the right to retire on a decent pension. Now those hopes lie in tatters.
Socialism could easily provide these very modest aspirations and far more, by the planned use of all the resources of society for the benefit of all.
By socialism we do not mean the old dictatorial regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which were dominated by a privileged caste of bureaucrats, albeit with a planned economy.
We stand for international socialism, based on mass participation in the control and running of industry and society.
The last five years have demonstrated what capitalism means for the majority. The fightback against austerity has begun in earnest; in the coming years we will also see millions begin to fight for socialist change.
Agree? Come to Socialism 2012
If, as the Socialist Party demands, the TUC was to use the 20 October demonstration as the launch pad for a 24-hour general strike against austerity - involving workers from both public and private sectors - it would ignite all of that anger below the surface of British society.
By coordinating their ballots much of the trade union movement could participate in the strike - even within the straitjacket of the anti-trade union laws.
With a date set, many workers who had not been balloted, including non-union members, would undoubtedly decide to join in alongside students, the unemployed and small business people.
The very fact that this year's TUC congress, lobbied by up to 1,000 workers under the banner of the National Shop Stewards Network, voted overwhelmingly to "consider the practicalities of a general strike" is a sign of the phenomenal pressure the trade union leaders are under to take part in further coordinated action.
Unfortunately, so far no discussion on the general strike has resulted on the TUC general council. That is why the Socialist Party is organising a major campaign in the trade union movement to organise and add to the growing pressure from rank and file trade unionists to demand that the TUC names the day.
It's time to take over the banks
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary talks about an aspect of the struggle for socialism
Working people in the UK and across much of the globe are facing horrific attacks on living standards.
These attacks are supported by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Central Bank and a whole plethora of supposed experts on economic matters.
But, far from delivering prosperity, George Osborne has simply managed to deliver a long running double-dip recession.
Debates around austerity and on economic issues have become the central political issues in Britain and internationally.
Working people want economic security and a decent future for the next generation. Increasingly, these issues raise questions about what sort of economy and what sort of society we want.
The trade unions have rightly engaged in this economic debate, challenging the austerity agenda of the Westminster coalition.
There has been some excellent work done on the issue of taxation and the billions of tax unpaid by the ultra rich and by big business.
But, of course, the truth is that the rich will always avoid paying their tax. It is also true that businesses and the rich will tend to move their operations to countries where the tax regime is less rigorous and where tax rates are lower.
So we should be discussing in the labour movement the need for working people to find ways to take control of the economy.
The tax issue is very important but without also starting to address the real levers of economic power it will be left as a utopian dream.
The majority of people know that those at the top are not suffering. Top bankers are still being paid disgusting levels of bonus and billionaires are still avoiding paying their share of tax.
People also know very well that the worldwide economic crisis was sparked by the banks.
So we need a debate on how we can really challenge the power of the banks as part of challenging the austerity agenda and as part of fighting for a different type of economy altogether.
At the Trades Union Congress, the FBU successfully moved a motion calling for the public ownership of the banks.
This was the first time ever that such a motion has been carried at the TUC. We hope it will be debated in other unions and by other workers discussing the case for an alternative to the policies of the coalition government.
We know that others in the movement strongly disagree with us on the issue and the TUC policy as a whole is rather unclear, since it also supports an alternative approach of improving the regulation of the banking system and increasing competition within the sector.
The experience of the privatised gas, electricity and rail industries show that greater competition does not in any way guarantee improved services to consumers.
We are not claiming that public ownership of the banks alone will resolve the crisis or shift economic power into the hands of the majority.
Nor are we suggesting that this (or any single) measure in the UK alone would resolve the challenges we face.
The events of the past few years have demonstrated very clearly how interlinked the world economy is and consequently the need for much greater unity and collaboration between workers internationally.
But we are saying that taking over the major banks has to be central to any realistic strategy to protect jobs, living standards and public services.
Kick out the Con-Dems
Build a 24-hour general strike
6.30pm Saturday 3 November
Friends Meeting House, Euston Road
Bob Crow, RMT transport union general secretary; Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary; Hoshoko Letshoba, a South African miners' leader; Keith Morrell, Southampton 'rebel' councillor; and more
Tickets from www.socialism2012.org.uk
Rally for Socialism
Hannah Sell, Socialist party deputy general secretary; Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary
3pm Sunday 4 November
Friends Meeting House, 173 Euston Road, NW1 2BJ
In The Socialist 17 October 2012:
Fighting the cuts
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party youth and students
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
The Socialist Party