Lindsey German on the abuse of pension provision, ruling class paranoia and XR’s protests
I have been in something of a rage about the court decision on Thursday which has refused to reverse the iniquitous robbery of women’s state pensions. Women of my generation assumed that they would retire at 60, and made plans accordingly. This was all altered in the 1990s, when the first moves towards equalisation of pension age began. The coalition government (Jo Swinson anyone?) accelerated this process from 2011, so that women would have to work for years longer at shorter notice.
As Mike Mansfield, the QC for the women who brought the judicial review against the Department of Work and Pensions, argued, this would cost some women up to £47,000 in lost payments. It has resulted in real hardship for many women now in their 50s and 60s, and the very high employment figures in the British labour market at present are attributed in part to women of this age having to work for longer because they cannot afford to retire.
The decision of the government, reinforced by this case, is bad enough. It doesn’t take into account that women already suffer from unequal pay, are stuck in the lowest paid jobs (the ten lowest paid occupations are all female-dominated), take time out to have children and face disadvantage at work as a result.
Perhaps the most pernicious element of the case, however, is the assertion that women retiring earlier in fact discriminates against men. This is a self-serving argument. After all, ending discrimination does not require levelling up the retirement age. The government had a choice which could have resulted in an improvement in working conditions for men. But instead of lowering the age at which men retired to 60, the opposite has happened.
The argument that any positive gain or action for women must be deemed to discriminate against men is a denial of the oppression of women, which pervades every area of our society and which is reflected in widespread inequality in the workplace. So the court case has wider implications, and perhaps reflects the increased attitudes – not least among employers and managers – that women now have equality and do not need any special conditions.
Taken to its greatest extremes, this view argues that in fact women are now dominant over men – see Steve Bannon’s latest fears of threatening women posing a challenge to men, indeed of ‘taking charge of society’. If only.
In reality, women’s oppression is the major oppression within class society, affecting as it does half the population, yet it is all too often downgraded and the many battles that women feminists and socialists fought in the 1960s and 70s are regarded as having being won, and therefore no longer problematic.
The pressure on people to work longer – not just longer days or weeks, but many years longer than they should have to – has been intense over the past 30 years and this is one result of it. It is particularly galling therefore when issues like pensions begin to create divisions within the working class. There have been repeated attempts to create such divisions between the generations. Younger people face even longer periods until they can retire, and also face much worse levels of pension provision, since final salary scheme pensions have been all but eradicated.
However, it is a mistake for them to somehow believe the older generation had it much better, or that they should accept these attacks. I remember arguing some years ago that if the ruling class succeeded in worsening the next generation’s pensions, they would start attacking the existing generation of pensioners. That’s exactly what is happening now. No one should join in with this. People have the right to pensions and not to have to work until they drop dead. In reality, the British state pension is one of the worst anywhere in the developed world.
Rather than taking the attitude ‘if I have to work longer, why shouldn’t everyone else?’ we should be seeing the lengthening of the working lifetime as a major attack on our social wage and conditions.
Most of the people I know of my generation who receive the state pension also still do some sort of paid work – at least partly out of necessity. Many women find themselves having to live alone on a few hundred pounds a month if they rely solely on that pension.
But this is also about much bigger questions – work is central to our society but it should be shared so that all who can contribute do so, but not in an increasingly onerous way. Everyone should see their working lives shortened, and increase the amount of time devoted to other things. Pensioners, when they no longer work, contribute a huge amount – in childcare for grandchildren, in volunteering, in developing their own interests and abilities through education.
All of this contributes economically of course, but it also makes society a better place and one where people cooperate. That of course is anathema to the capitalist class, who see human beings only as sources of profit.
Many socialists, from Charles Fourier onwards, have argued that you can judge society by its treatment of women. Its treatment of women pensioners shows a callous disregard for them – and by extension for women everywhere.
Fear and loathing in the centre ground
One of the remarkable features of the present political crisis in Britain is how frightened ruling class is about the future. This isn’t the façade they put on but the fear surfaces frequently. From concerns about social unrest if a no deal Brexit happens, to the obsession with a Jeremy Corbyn government (even while we’re told this can never happen), to the desperate search by the extreme centre for a roadworthy political vehicle, there is a constant nagging worry.
That’s because we’re not in politics as usual. It’s also because governments and pundits keep calling it wrong. They did so with the Scottish independence referendum, which was a much closer call than they expected – and whose demand is now resurfacing on a massive scale only 5 years later. They did so spectacularly with the Brexit referendum and still fear that a rerun of that could still produce a leave vote. They did so over Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances in 2017, and – while their polls tell them Labour can’t win the forthcoming election, they have a nagging doubt about it.
They are right to be fearful, because every survey, every official published figure, every conversation with workmates, family and friends, shows levels of discontent with British society that are sky high. Moreover, few have confidence in the political system to deal with any of the major problems facing us. This is at a time of relatively high employment, even if people are often in stressful or unsatisfactory work. Economists fear that the labour market may be turning and that unemployment will rise in a situation where benefits are at record lows and wages still haven’t caught up with a decade ago.
That’s why Labour needs to be much more on the front foot about challenging the priorities of capital and breaking from the deadly parliamentary consensus which prioritises Brexit over all other issues. Instead, the opposite is happening. Far too many Labour MPs appear to want a second referendum before a general election. I have always been opposed to a second vote and still am because it is a complete denial of the original result. But to have it before an election is just completely undemocratic, and is a mechanism to delay (and hopefully, from their point of view, put paid to) a Corbyn government.
No one on the left should fall for it. Unfortunately some have, even arguing that Margaret Beckett could be leader of an interim government to push it through. This is exactly the kind of stitch-up which is so unpopular and which has led to such disenchantment with politicians.
Instead, we should recognise that the left’s ideas and policies can have resonance if we fight for them and if Labour’s left doesn’t just look like a parliamentary body. We should also recognise Johnson and the Tories’ weakness. A Scottish court heard that he would comply with the law by calling for an extension – obviously unable to find a ditch to die in. But now we hear he will squat in Downing Street if he loses a vote of no confidence.
It should be easy enough to deal with this sort of charlatan behaviour – but only if Labour resists becoming a Remain party and if it fights for left wing ideas. It was obvious from the Tory conference that even within their own ranks there is not exactly great enthusiasm or drive. If Labour does not take advantage of the Tories’ crisis and lack of credibility they will lose.
Protest and policing
I will be joining the Extinction Rebellion protests in London this week, as part of the XR Peace contingent outside the Ministry of Defence. The protests over climate are taking centre stage in many parts of the world, as they should. All the signs are that the police are cracking down on the protests with raids and arrests over the weekend. This will be on orders from the top and will go as far as Downing Street. The fear I talked about above will lead to increasingly repressive measures when people fight back. Solidarity with everyone protesting.
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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