Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Budget 2010 and the intensification of the class war

Entering Westminister today, Alastair Darling crossed a picket line staffed by PCS members. As they fought to against plans to make sacking civil servants cheaper, he delivered a pre-election budget promising £20billion in public sector cuts. Despite this, the Daily Mail dubbed this a "class war budget." They were right - but not in the way that they intended.

According to the Mail, Darling's plans "soaked the rich as Labour set the stage for an election in which it will aim to portray itself as the party of the ordinary majority while the Tories represent the wealthy." Clearly, the paper didn't like this one iota, pouring continuous scorn on any measure which could be perceived to hurt the rich. Conversely, the 2.2 percent increase in the minimum wage was dubbed "irresponsible" and "excessive," despite the fact that the "massive" 22% increase since 1999 still means that bottom earners have to work 45 hour weeks to meet minimum living standards. The Mail was not the only voice calling for harsher measures against the poor and more leeway for the rich.

David Cameron has called for more immediate cuts to the public sector than Darling has planned, saying "the risk to recovery is not in dealing with the deficit now, it's in not dealing with the deficit now." No doubt those who lose their jobs as a result of this "bold action" will see it somewhat differently.

Nick Clegg has claimed that Darling is "in denial" about what was needed. Both Labour and the Tories lack "the courage to come up with details of the cuts we will need in the years ahead to tackle Britain's deficit." This suggests that, contrary to the commonly-held idea of the Liberal Democrats being a better alternative to the two dominant parties, their "honesty in spending and fairness in taxes" promises to be even more brutal on the working class than Margaret Thatcher.

Of the three main parties, Labour appear to be the best of a bad bunch. But nobody should be fooled into taking this as a reason to vote for them. The difference in levels of anti-working class viciousness is marginal, as the attacks we have already suffered demonstrate.

In the budget report itself (PDF), the chapter ironically titled "Protecting Public Services" offers us one insight into what the poorest can expect in a new Labour government;
  • action to control public sector pay, including confirming a one per cent cap on basic pay uplifts for 2011-12 and 2012-13, saving £3.4 billion a year, and a new Code of Practice on senior pay-setting, with greater use of independent Remuneration Committees and escalation of decisions to ministers, or audit and regulatory bodies, where there is a proposal to pay above agreed norms;
  • £11 billion of operational efficiencies and other cross-cutting savings, to streamline the centre of government;
  • further detail on £5 billion of savings from targeting and prioritising spending, as announced at the 2009 Pre-Budget Report;
  • reforms to the welfare system to increase fairness and improve work incentives, further reducing social security spending over the next five years on top of the existing forecast saving of £1.2 billion;
  • rationalising regional structures and removing burdens on local government, including giving local authorities new discretion over £1.3 billion of funding that is currently ring-fenced; and
  • plans to manage assets and property more effectively by creating new strategic property vehicles by April 2011, to help realise savings of £5 billion a year in property running costs and £20 billion savings in asset disposal by 2020. The Government will also relocate 15,000 civil service jobs out of central London within five years.
As PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka notes;
Today’s budget of so called efficiency savings, makes it clear that the reason the government is ripping up the contracts of loyal civil servants is to make it easier and cheaper for whoever wins the election to cut them.

It is ludicrous to think that efficiency savings can be somehow pulled out from down the back of the sofa and have no effect on services. Those on strike today know that efficiency savings are cuts which will damage frontline service delivery. The strong support for today’s budget day strike demonstrates that civil and public servants are willing to stand up for the services they are proud to deliver.

Holding down the pay of low paid public servants will result in real term pay cuts for the people who keep this country running. They shouldn’t be made to pay for a financial crisis not of their making. Pay cuts in real terms will take money out of the economy and potentially undermine the recovery.

The government needs to recognise that they can’t force civil servants out of a job if they unable to relocate. Relocation needs to be done with the consent of the workforce, not forced through and with proper equality impact assessments carried out.

As the experience of the relocation of the Office for National Statistics shows, relocations need to be based on a sound business plan and recognise the impact on the diverse nature of the civil service in London.

It is scandalous that the government is scrabbling around like an episode of ‘cash in the attic’ and selling off the family silver to pay for the failures of the City.

The government wants to appear to be tough on tax evasion, but when it comes to the causes it falls short.

If it was serious about clamping down on the £130 billion worth of tax that goes uncollected, avoided or evaded, then the Chancellor would have signalled his intent to put extra resources into revenue and customs. Cutting 25,000 tax jobs and closing 200 tax offices will do nothing to close the tax gap and tackle the tax cheats.
And public servants are far from the only people affected. For example, as the recent passage of the Welfare Reform Bill demonstrated, the unemployed will suffer greatly from "further reducing social security spending over the next five years on top of the existing forecast saving of £1.2 billion."

Despite all of this Unite, Britain's biggest trade union, offered an overwhelmingly positive response to today's budget;
The starting whistle for the election has been blown and it's 1-0 to Labour. The last budget before the election shows leadership and responsibility during difficult times. Alistair Darling has focused on support for the young, growth, investment and jobs when Tory doom-mongers who spend their time talking Britain down would rather slash and burn our public services and leave working families to sink or swim.
This stance only betrays the moral bankruptcy of the mainstream unions who cling to the Labour party even as it decimates the working class as thoroughly and as surely as the Tories did. Though the Lib Dems and Tories are undoubtably a worse alternative, using this as an excuse to support Labour is facile. Offering unreserved support as Unite have done is to sell out to the ruling class. Especially after Gordon Brown declared the British Airways strikes "deplorable" and Labour Ministers crossed today's picket lines without a second thought.

Fending off the attacks on the working class cannot be done through electoralism, nor by hoping that union support for a party can outweigh big business money and lobbying. Any credible fightback must begin in the workplace and on the picket lines.

The likes of the Mail are calling the current strike action a "Spring of Discontent." We need to give the bosses exactly that. Only by building the neccesary democratic structures at a grassroots level and organising to financially support workers during long-term action can we hope to succeed where single-day actions will inevitably fail.

Attacks against our class will only intensify in the coming year, and we need to have a response to that. As The Commune suggests, we "should seize every opportunity to fight back and unite struggles, from strikes to resisting stock transfers (now spreading like wild fire in Wales), supporting migrant workers, resisting fascists and supporting environmental protests. Uniting industrial and community actions, and diverse strands on the left, is the key to re-building a real workers movement, and hence massive resistance to capitalism in its time of crisis."