Tyneside screening of Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ in 2016 Tyneside screening of Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ in 2016

Alex Snowdon on universal credit crimes and building the Cop26 protests

The Tories’ callous determination to cut universal credit is a reminder of what they are really like. It is a reality check for anyone who thinks austerity is a distant memory. Together with the hike in National Insurance contributions (a regressive tax that most affects the lower-paid) and the public sector pay freeze, it illustrates this government’s agenda of making working class people pay for the country’s economic difficulties. Austerity has not gone away.

A cut of £20 a week is devastating for many who rely upon such support. It can mean choosing between heating your home and feeding your children properly. It comes at a time of rising food prices and soaring energy costs.

Millions of people will be affected by the cut. A new report from the Legatum Institute estimates that 840,000 people will be pushed into poverty as a result. This includes 290,000 children. The Legatum Institute is not a left-wing think tank: its chief executive, Philippa Stroud, is a Tory member of the House of Lords who was an adviser to Iain Duncan Smith during his time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Boris Johnson had the nerve to repeat his claim to be ‘levelling up’ the country after announcing last week’s Cabinet reshuffle. Such rhetoric is exposed as hollow by social security cuts, pay freezes and regressive tax rises for working people (while calls for taxing the rich are rejected). The backlash over universal credit is such that even some Tory backbenchers are grumbling. This includes Iain Duncan Smith, who was central to developing Universal Credit.

This tension reflects a real dilemma for the government and a profound sense of unease in Tory and ruling class circles. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic prompted an unusual level of direct state intervention in the economy and financial support to keep business afloat and – to a lesser but still important extent – keep working class people out of destitution. We have now reached a stage where the dominant imperative for the Tories is removing such support and returning to pre-pandemic normality.

There are differences, however, over how quickly and drastically this ought to be done. Some Tories, and some elements of the ruling class, fear that austerity measures will suppress consumer spending power. Interestingly, Duncan Smith has appealed to the precedent of 1945, comparing the current situation with the immediate post-war period when the emphasis was on investment not cuts. There is also a political calculation for Tory critics that a savage cut to social security will be politically unpopular.

The prospect of universal credit cuts is especially alarming in the light of the latest news about the energy sector. Increases of up to £400 a year in annual household energy bills are being forecast. This is in response to surging prices of natural gas putting huge pressure on energy suppliers, a number of which have gone out of business. There is talk of millions of people falling into fuel poverty.

This issue is linked to climate change. It highlights how hugely dependent Britain remains on gas, with only slow progress in making the transition to renewable sources. Almost half of this country’s electricity supply comes from gas-fired power plants, so the effect on energy prices is severe.

An energy industry insider is quoted in the press saying “There’s nothing about this situation that wouldn’t be better if we were less reliant on gas”. There is a direct link between the government’s continuing reliance on fossil fuels and the economic costs of rising fuel bills, in addition to it accounting for the terrible failure to tackle the climate catastrophe.

Climate emergency

On Saturday I took part in a very good climate change demonstration in Newcastle. It was part of the build-up to protests at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November. There is a rich history of our political leaders uttering fine words on climate change while failing to take the necessary action to address it properly. There is a danger of Cop26 being yet another massive wasted opportunity, but it is also an opportunity for campaigners to influence its outcomes. We will need mass protests, in Glasgow and elsewhere, on and around 6th November.

It is essential that the climate movement formulates demands that are both concrete and sufficiently radical to genuinely make an impact. In recent years there has been a lot of good work on the Left in developing demands and policies – often called a Green New Deal, or a Green Industrial Revolution – that are egalitarian and make economic sense, as well as addressing a major ecological emergency. This pushes in a much better direction than the obsession with personal behaviour and lifestyle choices that still dominates mainstream discussions of climate change – and which can even be found among many activists.

However, this is yet another area where Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership is failing badly. The meekness and inadequacy of Labour’s approach to the climate crisis is symbolised by the controversy over a motion at Labour Conference later this month. Labour for a Green New Deal’s motion has been ruled out of order. This is on the basis that it addresses too many issues in one motion. What an indictment of the Labour leadership’s conservatism and poverty of thinking – the whole point about seriously dealing with the climate crisis is that it requires major policies across a range of areas.

Starmer may have previously remarked that Labour should “hardwire the Green New Deal into everything we do”, but it now seems that he wants climate change treated as a separate, discrete area of policy, not impinging on any kind of economic or social policy. More than anything, this expresses the enormous political retreat that Starmer’s leadership represents in comparison with Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader.

The motion is in fact very astute in grasping the links between the ecological crisis and the need to protect public health, jobs and livelihoods. It identifies privatisation as a major obstacle to having a major decarbonisation drive and calls for a just recovery (from the pandemic) that centres investment in ecologically friendly jobs that are also well-paid and secure. It calls for ‘public ownership of industries including energy, water, transport, mail, telecommunications’. 

The demand for well-paid, unionised green jobs in publicly-owned industries, with big investment in green technology, is exactly what’s needed – and it connects the ecological with the economic. It grounds the ambition of dealing with the climate crisis – which can often seem either remote or overwhelming to many people – in a radical but practical programme of social change. It can appeal to millions of trade unionists and to millions of working class people beyond the unions.

It is clear, though, that such demands will not be pursued by Labour leaders, except potentially under massive pressure from social movements and trade unions. We must instead focus on building mass movements to address both the climate emergency and the issues of economic justice highlighted by the advocates of a Green New Deal. Within these movements, it is essential that socialists relentlessly advocate bold demands that link climate with jobs, investment, pay and workers’ rights. These demands push up against the irrationality and chaos of the capitalist system that is the ultimate root of the ecological emergency.

Cop26 is a massive opportunity we cannot afford to miss. It must be greeted by a wave of popular protest that takes forward the struggle for an alternative to climate chaos. More immediately, the protests at the Tory conference in Manchester – in early October – will be a chance to highlight the links between these issues and put pressure on a Tory government that is generating widespread anger and revulsion.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).