Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak at Westminster, November 2022. Photo: Number 10/Simon Dawson Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak at Westminster, November 2022. Photo: Number 10/Simon Dawson

Lindsey German on strategies against poverty and the return of Dickensian housing   

The Tories’ budget statement was brought to you by a chancellor – Jeremy Hunt – worth £14 million. That’s peanuts compared to the prime minister who along with his wife is worth around £750 million. These are the people telling us that it’s going to be tough for everyone in the next year or two. Clearly tougher for some more than others.

We – working-class people and lots of the middle classes as well – will suffer a 7% drop in living standards in the next two years as a result of the budget. That’s a big hole in incomes and will mean for many people real difficulty if not destitution. Already with food inflation rising even faster than the overall rate, and with energy prices trebling, the poorest are being hit hardest. That’s because, guess what, they are not spending on holidays, cruises or expensive cars but on food, heating, rent and travelling to work.

Their hardship will be compounded by a budget which is raising taxes for everyone over the next couple of years, which is decreeing that council housing rents rise by 7%, and insisting that workers especially those in the public sector stick to pay limits which are a fraction of the level of inflation. Schools, hospitals and council services are already cut to the bone, but they are going to be on at best life support given the refusal to fund salary and cost increases.

This budget was meant to reassure the markets after the Truss/Kwarteng disaster that offered tax cuts for the richest while attacking the poor. Hunt and Sunak are much more careful to be seen to tax the rich a little bit more, and to delay some of the worst impact on incomes and public spending – austerity by stealth as it has been called. We should be under no illusions why: the Tories realise how unpopular the last budget was, they fear the electoral consequences and they want to hide their attacks on working-class people. They also have to make token gestures about taxing the rich and the energy companies.

They know that they face growing resistance. The extra money for education is because the teachers are balloting to strike. When even the Royal College of Nursing votes for strike action, this underlines the scale of opposition. There are growing numbers of trade unionists striking, balloting to strike or taking other forms of action. This week alone will see two days of strike action involving university academic and research staff, Scottish teachers, and posties in Royal Mail, all over pay and conditions.

There is talk of coordinated strike action across a number of unions in the new year – which is the very least required given the attacks on us. We need a much more unified class-wide fight back if we are to defeat the Tories. The Tories are in disarray. The budget tax increases are creating widespread discontent on the party’s right, especially the ERG, who saw little wrong with Truss’s plans and who are reluctant to back Sunak and Hunt.

Luckily for the latter, Keir Starmer is accepting the basic premise of the budget, that there is a £55bn black hole in the economy which necessitates these attacks. There isn’t, as a number of economists have pointed out. He refuses to support cost-of-living increases for the public sector. One of the latest landmarks in his quite remarkable witch-hunting of the left within Labour is the expulsion of Unison president Andrea Egan. He sees the strikes by Labour supporting unions as an embarrassment rather than a totally justified means of defending working-class living standards.

Yet the success or otherwise of these strikes will determine the shape of the class struggle and should also mean a shift from Tory to Labour – but Labour’s shadow cabinet seems only dimly aware of this fact. To me, the Tories are so badly damaged that they will suffer very badly electorally. And the worst is still to come as we face a grim winter. But the election is Starmer’s to lose and no one so far has lost any money betting on how bad he could be.

The central focus for the whole working-class movement needs to be building resistance – through the strikes, protests such as those around climate and austerity, demos like the People’s Assembly march recently in London. These protests need to be larger, the strikes more prolonged, and the whole movement needs to reach out to whole new groups of people who are just beginning to see the impact of Tory policies on their lives.

Twisted landlords

I was reminded today of Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, forever dramatised in my mind by the David Lean film made shortly after the Second World War, and which symbolised the hopes of the postwar generation that there would never be a return to the bad old days of the Victorian workhouse.

It was triggered by a report on the death of Awaab Ishak, the two year old in Rochdale whose cardiac arrest was found to have been caused by toxic mould in his parents’ flat. Ventilation in the flat was poor, with no window in the bathroom and that in the kitchen opening up into a hallway. The landlords, a local housing association, tried to blame the parents’ lifestyle for the mould.

All this would be bad and tragic enough, as would the refusal of the head of the housing association to resign until he was sacked, but there’s worse.

Government guidance will allow this sort of approach with impunity. According to an article in the Observer, new guidelines will mean council workers inspecting accommodation ‘will be formally instructed to examine residents’ behaviour when deciding whether to take action against landlords over dangerous conditions.’ These include finding out whether tenants are heating and ventilating the property. They are also to consider whether they are failing to heat because of a ‘stoic and often embedded attitude’ to cold.

This is blaming the victims for the appalling state of much rented housing. It will allow landlords to get away even more with terrible conditions and lack of health and safety measures. And it will exacerbate a housing crisis where many are living in conditions not fit for human habitation,

This brought me back to Oliver Twist. Especially the scene where the beadle and poor law guardians are scoffing a luxurious meal, while the children beg for another bowl of gruel. The workhouse system decreed that poverty was the fault of the poor and that work was the remedy to it. And here we are, nearly two centuries later and in an incomparably richer society, seeing it all again.

The Tories, landlords and employers want to blame everyone else for their failings and to scapegoat those living in the worst conditions because of these failings. We can’t let it happen.

This week: I’ll be on strike and picketing with UCU members at the University of Hertfordshire – the first for several years so quite exciting, especially since other groups of workers are also striking this week. I’m also looking forward to talking about the Communist Manifesto at Counterfire’s Marxism in a Day event in London. So if you can join us there, please do.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.