Mass fightback needed to win the support we need

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Editorial of the Socialist issue 1107

“You know what some people call us: the nasty party,” said Theresa May to the Tory party conference in 2002.

The vote against school-holiday free meals in England brought their cruelty into full view.

The coronavirus crisis is raging on. Thousands of children are suffering as parents lose income and jobs. And Boris Johnson and Co repulsively chose to snub the meals campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford.

Children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, likened the debate to the depiction of hunger in the 19th century Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Others added that at least Oliver Twist was given a first serving of food – even that’s being withheld by today’s callous Tories.

Tory MP Ben Bradley summed up the right-wing ideology behind their abhorrent stance, calling a vote for free holiday school meals a promise to “roll out a huge expansion of long-term state dependency to millions, when a large [percentage] of those on [free school meals] are not impoverished and don’t want or need it.”

All this is in the face of plenty of warnings of increasing hardship. In June, a food strategy report commissioned by cabinet minister Michael Gove said: “The wave of unemployment now rushing towards us is likely to create a sharp rise in food insecurity and outright hunger”.

Yet only five Tory MPs broke ranks to vote against their leadership’s ruthless stance, while a number of others merely expressed discomfort or regret.

“We have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here”, said Tory MP Bernard Jenkin. “I think the government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons”.

They realise that a few tens of millions of pounds on meal vouchers would only be a small addition to the £210 billion spent by the government during the pandemic so far, and not worth more backlash.

Chancellor Sunak was compelled, under pressure, to change course three times and increase the winter support package being offered to businesses and some workers. Like then, the government may make some kind of climbdown on the meals issue – as it did before, under pressure from Rashford’s campaign, in the summer.

This time, instead of vouchers, it is considering some inadequate additional funding to local authorities. This is despite initially claiming that £63 million ‘extra’ already given to councils to help people in hardship is enough, along with a paltry increase in Universal Credit.

The Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland administrations have introduced their own extensions to free school meals. And around 80 councils in England have created various stop-gap food measures for the half-term break. However, the limited extent of these measures illustrates yet again the burning need for Labour councils to enter into a battle with the government for a level of resources that can really meet people’s needs.

The £63 million cited by government ministers, even if it is increased a bit, is a drop in the ocean in local authorities’ pandemic-related spending needs, especially after nearly £16 billion in funds were snatched from them over the last decade. Even funding to councils for public health has been viciously cut.

In delaying the imposition of tier three restrictions in Greater Manchester to argue for more money, Labour metro-mayor Andy Burnham displayed a glimpse of departure from the longstanding pattern of local Labour leaders delivering government funding ‘restraints’ without any significant resistance.

But the scale and depth of the shortfalls is such, that attempting a firm negotiating stance with the government will not by itself enable basic protection for wages, jobs and services. It only gained Greater Manchester a highly insufficient £5 million over the government’s initial gambit – £1.78 for every resident.

Mobilise a mass campaign

Nevertheless, even the limited stand taken by Burnham attracted widespread interest, and raised the idea of whether Labour councils could go further, as the Socialist Party has called on them to do for many years. The funding demands must be backed up by mobilising a mass campaign to force the government’s hand, as the Militant-led Liverpool council did in the 1980s.

In London, rather than turning to such a path of defiance, Sadiq Khan has threatened to reduce transport services as a response to the government’s refusal to provide the crisis funding needed.

The UK has the highest number of Covid deaths in Europe. Added to this, a recent study by investment bank Credit Suisse found that household wealth in Britain has fallen more than in any other large economy, with young workers, women, and people from minority backgrounds, among the worst hit.

This massive assault on lives and livelihoods requires a similarly massive response from the workers’ movement: starting with drawing a line against workers being made to pay for the crisis, and a drive to remove the weak and divided Tory government. The latest poll on its response to the pandemic showed approval at a record low of 29%.

For as long as this government is in office, it will seek to extract every last drop of private profit for its big business backers – including through promoting ‘public service’ firms like Serco. The corrupt self-interest at the top is brazen; Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, for instance, had boasted about ‘helping to secure’ £25 million for his own constituency, Newark, from a pool of money meant to go only to the most deprived areas, a category that Newark wasn’t in.

Councillors must take a stand

Any mayor or set of councillors who decide to take a real stand against inflicting more austerity would attract massive support from the working class in their area, enough to give their stand real muscle. A local conference could be organised, for democratic discussion between workers, trade unionists, students and others in the community, on what resources must be fought for to respond fully to the health crisis and to defend living standards.

While the campaign is being built, borrowing powers should be used to deliver needs-based budgets. Linking together with other fighting councils would lead to an opposition movement of millions. Likewise, the trade union leaders have the potential to mobilise the millions of trade union members, by demonstrating that workers’ interests can be protected through strength in unity and struggle.

A recent declaration, initiated by the Unite union and signed by around 125 labour and trade union movement figureheads, called for “a comprehensive financial package of support to protect jobs and incomes, in the way France, Germany, Spain and others are doing, including an extension of the job retention scheme with 80% wage support … increasing the level of statutory sick pay, and enabling all to claim it, and equipping our public services with the resources they need”.

The capitalist governments in France, Germany and Spain are giving nowhere near enough protection to jobs and incomes, and those three countries presently have a higher unemployment rate than Britain.

Another shortcoming is that 100% wage support is needed, not 80%. But crucial for even achieving what is outlined in this declaration would be a determined fight on a mass scale.

Anger towards the government across workplaces, local communities and education institutions has been growing; there will not be a shortage of willingness to fight back.