Rishi Sunak in Westminster, September 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles Rishi Sunak in Westminster, September 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

The Nasty Party’s assault on our class has to be defeated, argues Lindsey German  

The government of no tax rises and commitment to the triple lock on pensions is preparing a smash and grab raid on working people and pensioners in the next weeks. Employees’ National Insurance contributions look set to rise by 1%, while Rishi Sunak is ending the triple lock (supposedly only for one year) because the figures are too favourable to pensioners and would give them a decent rise on what is one of the lowest pensions in Europe.

On top of this, as furlough ends at the end of this month, Sunak is also cutting £20 from Universal Credit, just as unemployment is likely to rise.

The excuse for all this is ‘we can’t afford it’. Covid 19 has meant huge amounts of extra expenditure. The NHS is desperately short of money and resources, the social care system is not fit for purpose and faces a staff shortage because of miserable pay and conditions. Yet there is no attempt to tax the rich or the corporations, despite the fact that the share of tax paid by them is woefully low.

We can forget all the hypocritical praise for nurses and key workers, forget the false humility from government ministers, and the claim that we’re all in it together. This is another onslaught in the brutal class war waged by the Tories on behalf of the employers and the rich and powerful – and we are all expected to pay the price.

The rise in National Insurance is particularly vicious. It hits all working people but does not extend to other forms of tax for example on rents received. It is capped so that once you earn more than a certain threshold you do not have to pay more commensurate with your earnings but you pay a much lower rate. It also does not apply to those working who are beyond pension age.

The fact that Keir Starmer is even thinking about supporting the N.I. rise tells you all you need to know about the non opposition of Labour. It appears the Labour leadership is too stupid to understand that not only does this put it in a worse position than some Tory MPs, it will also tie the party to further tax rises. The TUC has come out publicly against it as a regressive and unfair tax on some of the poorest. However we are going to need much more than lobbying to stop these growing assaults on working people who are already living with rising prices and stagnant wages.

The trade unions should be gearing up to fight these attacks across the board, including with strike action. This is a generalised attack and we need a generalised response.

What we don’t need is the kind of divisive argument that is appearing even from some quarters on the left which tries to argue that the N.I. increase is an attack on young workers to the benefit of better off pensioners. It is much more accurate to see it as an attack on the poor against the rich. Those who pay taxes on unearned income, plus those on high salaries, will notice very little difference, while those on the lowest wages will be around £200 a year worse off.

Trying to pit the old against the young is the latest divide and rule which in effect is arguing for worse conditions for all. The reason pension prospects are worse for younger people is not because older people denied them, but because governments have systematically raised the state pension age while holding down the value of pensions, and because employers have ended final salary schemes which result in higher pensions.

Older people are working longer and in greater numbers than ever before. There are 4 million more workers aged over 50 than there were in 2000, compared with 1.5 million more aged 25-49, and their employment has risen by 12% over that period. The popular images of pensioners and older people going on cruises, living in large houses and having very comfortable lifestyles is not the reality for the majority.

According to Age UK:

“Since 2013/14, the number of pensioners in poverty has risen by almost a third (31 per cent) from 1.6 million. Official figures show that a third of Asian older people (33 per cent) and just under a third of Black older people (30 per cent) in the UK live below the poverty line, compared to 16 per cent of White older people.”

There are now 2.1 million pensioners officially in poverty. Many others are barely above this level and that is usually because they are still able to work, often in insecure and casualised jobs. And while they do not pay N.I. on these earnings they do pay income tax at the same rate as any other worker.

What the false divisions between old and young do quite deliberately is to obscure the major social division we face which is between classes. Successive governments have held down wages, cut pay and pensions in real terms, created an unsustainable housing market which benefits landlords and developers, sold off council housing, and enabled wider casualisation in the labour market. The beneficiaries have been the rich and sections of the middle classes, at the expense of the mass of workers.

The strategy of the Tories is to drive down conditions for all by attacking one group after the other and then accusing those who haven’t yet been attacked of being ‘privileged’ or even ‘feather bedded’. No one should fall for it. As we face these attacks we need a united response which makes no concession to blaming other working class people. We have seen some revival of struggle and some victories but we also face employers who will try to worsen our conditions. The latest attack on occupational pensions is coming from the university employers and we need a sharp response to that based on strike action.

We need to prepare for these battles in the months ahead. As Bette Davis almost said in All about Eve: ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride’.

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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’.