If we ever thought that we could rely on Labour to oppose cuts, Balls and Miliband have made clear this isn’t going to happen. So we need a broad, grassroots, organisation to take up the fight argues Lindsey German
It is hard to think of the right phrase to describe Ed Balls most recent political intervention. I guess ‘Balls-up’ is the most obvious contender.
What made Balls think that an increasingly impoverished and embattled working population were gagging to hear him say ‘Labour will support the government’s proposed wage freeze in the public sector”? The succour this gives a Coalition which is implementing some of the most vicious cuts and which is delighting in waging a class war against the majority of people in Britain is incalculable. It guarantees that every strike action carried out in defence of living standards and condition will be greeted by Tory calls for Labour to denounce these actions – calls which will no doubt be acceded to with alacrity.
Even worse, Ball’s Balls-up creates the (misleading) impression that there is no opposition to austerity and that all that can be done is to take the unpleasant medicine and hope things will get better. This abandonment of opposition in the face of the enemy will have severe consequences for the movement.
As every student of labour history knows, Ramsay Macdonald abandoned his Labour past in 1931 to join with the Tories to form a National Government. This betrayal of his previous principles (around the question of cuts and austerity in the face of world economic crisis) saw Labour left a rump through most of the hungry decade of the 30s, not to return to power until 1945, after the experience of slump, unemployment and world war. Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 was an explicit rejection of the previous policies and a demand for full employment and a welfare state.
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are no Ramsay Macdonalds. Remembered now only for his treachery, Macdonald was earlier on the left of the party, an extremely able speaker and campaigner who won his popularity inside the party precisely because of these abilities. Miliband and Balls have no such credentials.
But in past weeks they have achieved one thing; to bring about what is effectively a National Government in Britain again. We already had a coalition, with the Libdems breaking promise after promise and having to take ‘difficult decision’ after ‘difficult decision’ in order to hang on to office. But now there is effectively no opposition at a parliamentary level. Labour has accepted the cuts, but merely raises caveats about how far and how fast they are happening. Ed Balls has now made it clear that Labour will not oppose the government’s pay freeze of 1% on public sector workers. The talk about saving jobs as an alternative to getting decent wage increases would be laughable were it not for the fact that unemployment is rising fast, especially among young people at the same time that wages stagnate or fall. Precarity, short term employment, under employment, are all features of work in Britain today.
Miliband and his advisers wonder why they are not doing better in the polls. Here are a few possible reasons why.
Trade union members - and their leaders who have done so much to fund labour and most of whom backed Miliband for leader - find themselves under attack from the Tories and receive little or no help from the party which has traditionally supported working people. There have been major strikes over pensions, yet the government boasts that it has conceded not an extra penny in the heads of agreement which Labour-affiliated Unison has led the way in signing up to. Miliband denounced the strikes. Now labour can be expected to do the same when trade unions take action to defend wages across the public sector.
The cuts are hitting the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. Those with disabilities, the old, those living on benefits, are all finding themselves under attack. While there are many vibrant campaigns going on, these cuts are going through and being implemented without a broad political opposition which labour could and should provide.
Housing is shaping up to be a disaster, with the Tories intent on extending the right to buy for council homes, even though many experts consider that this has been one of the main policies responsible for the present housing crisis. Benefits are cut and poor families forced to move out of much of London, adding to pressures on schools and infrastructure in some of the poorest areas. The private landlord, driven underground for many years by rent controls and security for tenants, is back with a vengeance. There are no constraints on them or the rents they charge, indeed they are subsidised by tax payers through housing benefit.
Those in work are seeing falls on their living standards through increased fares, utility prices, food prices, pension contributions and tax. Only the top earning bands are seeing their living standards rise. And at the very top, the bankers and businessmen continue to see their bonuses rise.
Education and health are subject to increasing deregulation and privatisation, to the detriment of those who work in these areas, and of those who use them as services.
Because there is no fundamental opposition to these policies in parliament and because all three parties sound so similar with their mantra that we all have to share the pain, the Tories have been emboldened to carry out further attacks on working people. If we do not resist there will be more to come in the future.
Resistance is not, however, futile, as they would have us believe. The concession that the Tories have made have all been the result of pressure of strikes, demonstrations and protests. We do not know the final direction of the pensions dispute, although the unseemly rush to give Tory ministers a happy Christmas by signing up to the heads of agreement in the dying days of December has helped to weaken the broad united union campaign which struck and demonstrated to such effect on November 30.
But we do know that there are many groups who still want to fight - whether trades unionists, anti cuts campaigners, NHS workers and many more. We also know that if we do not fight the consequences in only a short space of time will be grim. The pay freeze may also have a unifying effect, as it has done in the past. Pay freezes have the effect of generalising the impact of lower living standards across the working class movement, and of symbolising many other grievances which working people feel.
But we need action now – strike action where we can get it over issues such as pensions and pay, but also another national demonstration which unites the trade unions with the broader movement, as we did on March 26th last year. Now is not the time for slogans about what should ideally be done, but for getting together all those who want to fight against government policies, and against the effect of the recession Europe wide.
If we ever thought that we could rely on Labour in opposition to do that for us, Balls and Miliband have made clear this isn’t going to happen. So we need a broad, grassroots, organisation to campaign against all cuts and austerity, for finding the money from cutting wars and Trident and taxing the rich and the corporations, and for a fully funded and expanding public sector. That’s what the Coalition of Resistance aims to do.
From the Coalition of Resistance site
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’.
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