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From The Socialist newspaper, 7 May 2014

Prepare for almighty battles against austerity

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary
Half-million strong TUC demo, central London, 26 March 2011, against the government's cuts, photo Senan

Half-million strong TUC demo, central London, 26 March 2011, against the government's cuts, photo Senan   (Click to enlarge)

Capitalism is a system in crisis. It is delivering austerity for the majority and unimaginable wealth for a few at the top. Inevitably it is increasingly being questioned.

The best-seller status of Thomas Piketty's 'Capital in the Twenty First Century' is an indication of the growing search for a solution to inequality. This book argues that rising inequality could lead to revolution unless action is taken, and pleads with the super-rich to accept a graduated wealth tax in order to try to save their own system.

A campaign by economics students across 19 countries - including the US, Britain, Brazil and Russia - demands that they are taught Keynes and Marx instead of continuing with the old syllabus which lauds economists whose ideas were smashed by the start of the great recession.

These are early indications of a profound change in outlook that is taking place, particularly among the working class which has now suffered seven years of austerity. Over the last few years the capitalist media has published endless articles arguing that support for public services and the welfare state is on the decline.

In fact, the public are far to the left of all the establishment parties. The experience of capitalism in crisis has enormously reinforced opposition to the profit vultures of the private sector. Support for keeping public services public has strengthened, despite the avalanche of propaganda attempting to blame the public sector for the economic crisis.

Opposition to the private sector running the NHS stands at a massive 12 to one. Support for renationalisation of Royal Mail, rail and the energy companies is between 66% and 68%. Rent controls, one of the central demands of this year's Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) local election campaign, is supported by 56% of people, with only 33% opposing. This is despite rent controls, which were finally abolished by Thatcher in 1988, having being written off as 'outmoded' and 'counterproductive' by all three establishment parties for a quarter of a century.

This radicalisation terrifies the more far-thinking sections of the capitalist class. At this stage, however, they can comfort themselves that it has no viable outlet. This will change on the basis of experience, as workers strive to find a way to defend their interests.

Economy in crisis

N30: millions of public sector workers went on strike on 30 November 2011, photo Senan

N30: millions of public sector workers went on strike on 30 November 2011, photo Senan   (Click to enlarge)

Whatever the outcome of the general election, the next government will inherit a sick and crisis-ridden economy, dominated by the finance and service sector. Con-Dem pledges to 'rebalance' the economy have been swept aside in favour of continuing the complete dominance of the City of London, and the partial re-blowing of the financial and housing bubbles. The very bubbles whose bursting triggered the world economic crisis in 2008.

British manufacturing continues to decline. The productivity gap between Britain and other major economic powers is now at its highest level for 20 years. The pharmaceutical sector is one of the few parts of manufacturing in which British capitalism remains a world player. Yet the short-sightedness of British capitalism is summed up in the potential takeover of UK pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, by asset-stripping Pfizer.

Pfizer's record, of taking over pharmaceutical companies that have discovered new drugs in order to maximise profits rather than investing in drug development, sums up the bankruptcy of modern capitalism and the urgent need to democratically nationalise the pharmaceutical companies.

That bankruptcy is brutally expressed elsewhere. The talk of a recovery in Britain's sick economy is meaningless for the majority, and above all for the young. The pay of young people - between 18 and 25 years old - has fallen by 14% in real terms since 2008.

As we approach the 22 May local government elections, the absence of a mass party of the working class has left millions - angry with all the three capitalist parties - without any effective way to express that anger at the ballot box. A section, in desperation to kick the establishment, is even voting for the right-wing populists of Ukip. In reality, however, Ukip is the establishment's 'anti-establishment party'.

The endless media coverage for Ukip leader Nigel Farage is a semi-deliberate attempt by the capitalist class to find a safe outlet for popular anger. Nonetheless, a strengthening Ukip is dangerous for the Tories, but also for Labour.

The capitalist parties are utterly incapable of cutting across the growth of Ukip. Only a real voice for the working class can answer the populist posing of Farage. How can the big three pro-austerity parties, all mired in the filth of the expenses scandals, effectively answer Farage - who himself has claimed over 60,000 worth of expenses? A debate with Dave Nellist - the national chairperson of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - who for nine years was a workers' MP on a worker's wage, would be a very different proposition.


Those on the left who think it is a good idea to organise joint campaigning with the pro-austerity parties against Ukip, are making a fundamental mistake. It is the pro-austerity policies of Labour that has left the space Ukip is trying to fill. But Ukip is a pro-cuts party whose backers include press barons and the aristocracy and whose few councillors have voted for cuts budgets. Only a political force committed to fighting and voting against cuts can cut across them. TUSC is beginning to create that voice standing 560 candidates in the upcoming local elections.

Whether Labour or the Tories, or a coalition, takes power after the 2015 general election all that will be on offer will be continued austerity and cuts to the public sector. The Labour leadership has made this clear repeatedly. At the 2014 Hugo Young lecture Miliband said that, "Labour would keep austerity" and "cut public spending" if it forms the next government.

However, under huge pressure to promise to deal with Britain's growing housing crisis, Miliband has put forward some minor measures to regulate the private rented sector. There are nine million people living in the private rented sector and their rent takes, on average, nearly half of their disposable income. Any measures that curb the greed of private landlords will be welcomed by tenants. But Miliband's proposals fall far short of serious rent controls, which could be implemented by Labour councils now, even before a general election.

Landlords would be banned from introducing more than one rent rise in a year. A limit to the size of rent rises - linked to average rent rises and/or inflation - would be introduced. While this may limit the excesses of the most money-grubbing landlords, it will do nothing to reverse the complete unaffordability of the private rented sector for the millions who have no other way to put a roof over their head. Miliband has reassured big business that he plans to discuss his proposals through and reach agreement with landlords, but has said nothing about discussing them with tenants.

Exceedingly limited as his actual proposals are, Miliband's talk about unaffordable rents is popular, and could lead to an increase in support for Labour in the opinion polls, as was briefly the case when he proposed a freeze on energy prices. That Labour is still only a few points ahead in the polls is because of its failure to show serious intent to take action to stand up to the billionaires and bankers in whose interests Britain is run.

Labour's record

Memories of Labour's record in office add to workers' scepticism, as does the experience of Labour-led councils implementing austerity. On housing, a mass council house building programme is clearly the way to solve the housing crisis but Labour is not proposing this.

During its 13 years in office Labour built fewer than 1,000 council homes a year, less than under Thatcher. Miliband has talked about building 200,000 houses a year by 2020, but nothing has been said about whether these will be in the private or public sector. As Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in the Observer (4 May 2014): "There is only one word for this [Britain's housing policy]: madness".

The madness is blind subservience to the so-called 'free market'. This means that in the current four-year spending period less than 5 billion of public spending has been allocated to building homes and 95 billion has been allocated for housing benefit. Compare this to the 1970s when about four-fifths of public spending on housing was used to build homes, with only a fifth paid out in benefits to assist people with their rents.

A clear break with the current market 'madness' and a pledge to build a million council houses a year would lead to a landslide victory for Labour, but the Labour leadership is terrified of adopting any policy which challenges big business, no matter in how limited a way. That is why on rail - despite overwhelming support for renationalisation - the Labour leadership refuses to commit itself, instead talking about the need to find an 'innovative solution'.

A Labour government acting in the interests of capitalism would not even carry out all of the incredibly modest measures it is proposing to improve workers' living standards. Faced with the outrage of the fat cats at even the tiniest pruning of their privileges, and completely unprepared to take the decisive measures of nationalisation needed to really end their control of the economy, Miliband will be forced to retreat. But in any case, the dominant theme of Labour's programme is to promise continued misery for the working class and the majority of the population.

The capitalist crisis means a Miliband government would become incredibly unpopular, far more than any Labour prime minister in living memory. The dramatic drop in support for French President Francois Hollande is Miliband's future. Without doubt mass movements will develop, as the working class finds a way to fight back against austerity.

The preparation for that is taking place now. For two consecutive years the TUC congress has left the question of a general strike against austerity 'on the table', but has not taken any concrete steps to organise one. The right-wing trade union leaders hoped that any serious coordinated action could be put off and that their members would be prepared to wait in the hope the Con-Dem government would be 'swept from power' at the general election.

But the continued intensity of the attacks on the working class - particularly the cuts to public services and the public sector pay freeze - make this extremely difficult. The government's claim of an 'economic recovery' while simultaneously promising ever more austerity, has also increased workers' anger.

It is also difficult to build too many hopes in a Labour government coming to the rescue when Labour councils are slashing public services, and the Labour leadership insists that they would continue to squeeze the public sector. Nonetheless, there is bound to be a section of trade unionists who are 'hoping against hope' that Labour would be better. Many of these workers also recognise, however, that a serious fight to defend pay and conditions before the election is necessary to put pressure on the next government, whatever its stripe.

The RMT transport union is engaged in a heroic struggle on London Underground against the attacks of vicious employers. All the weasel words of London Tory Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London managers about their respect for the late Bob Crow are shown for what they were by the renewed attempt to try to break the RMT.

But workers cannot expect any support from Labour when they struggle. The Times (5 May 2014) reported that Miliband condemned the planned 72-hour walkout by the RMT and said he would consider proposals for a 50% threshold for strike ballots. "He told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: 'The Tube strike is wrong and it shouldn't be going ahead'."

Firefighters in the FBU are also striking again, and teachers in the NUT voted for further action at their Easter conference. Alongside these unions even the right-wing leadership of Unison is being forced to propose action against the pay freeze imposed on its members. Socialists have to argue for each individual struggle to be conducted seriously, not just with token action, but in a battle to win.

Coordinate strikes

But we also have to argue to coordinate the strikes. The TUC is planning a national demonstration in October to demand a pay rise for Britain. This could form part of a serious struggle, but it is not the most important element of it. Coordinated action of the unions already involved in action before the summer could be a building block towards a 24-hour general strike against austerity.

The ground is being prepared for a new stage of workers' struggle in Britain, which will dwarf what has gone before. This year's London May Day demonstration, honoured the lives of Bob Crow and Tony Benn as well as celebrating international workers' day. Larger than in recent years, it was around 10,000-strong and dominated by militant trade unionists, particularly from the RMT.

The case for a general strike, but also for a political alternative to the austerity parties, was widely accepted among the crowd. Groups of workers even heckled some trade union speakers at the rally, calling for a general strike. This is an indication of a new generation of workers' leaders that will develop, steeled with a determination to fight in the interests of their class, and therefore for socialism.

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Coronavirus crisis - Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
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In The Socialist 7 May 2014:

Socialist Party election campaigning

Fight cuts, Back strikes, Vote TUSC

More local news coverage for TUSC, but BBC downplays council elections

Join the TUSC Thunderclap

Defend the right to campaign

Why I'm standing for TUSC

Housing crisis: TUSC candidates demand socialist policies

Election appeal 2014 - 4,278 raised so far

Socialist Party feature

Prepare for almighty battles against austerity

International socialist news and analysis

$15: Seattle shows what a movement can achieve

Socialist Party news and analysis

Schools - Would things get better under Labour?

Private sector rents and Labour

Care homes abuse scandals

Pfizer takeover bid

Them & Us

Socialist Party workplace news

RMT forces London Underground to back down

Striking against Land Registry cuts

Care UK workers start 14 days of strike action

CWU conference - time to build Broad Left

Workplace news in brief

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

We can scrap zero-hour contracts

No support for zero-hour contracts

RMT turns out in strength for May Day march

May Day rallies in Swansea and Ipswich

Battling the cuts: when push comes to shove

Freedom riders on a storm

Leeds protest against privatisation of student loans


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