Lindsey German on the Tory’s Universal Credit offensive and how our side needs to shift up a gear
Let this sink in. As a result of the cut in Universal Credit which came in last week ‘4.4 million households, with 5.1m adults and 3.5m children, will see their incomes fall by £1,000 overnight. For 1 million households that will mean an immediate loss of over 10% of their income as we take the basic rate of benefits to its lowest level since 1990.’ So says Torsten Bell, head of the Resolution Foundation.
There are around 28 million households in the UK, so that is around 15% of households. Around 1 in 7 now consigned to a considerable loss of income and nearly a quarter of those who are wholly reliant on UC in the direst poverty.
Yet this government, composed of people as mean as snakes, has got away with it and is consigning these millions to a winter of extreme hardship. There is often talk about poverty which says people will have to choose between heating or eating – but many will fail to do either adequately. The implications are horrific.
This comes at a time when the British government is incapable of dealing with a series of problems which are also going to have major implications for cost and quality of life – and as usual the poorest and most vulnerable will pay the highest price.
Government ministers know that things are going to get worse for the majority of people. Energy prices are at record levels, and already steep increases for gas and electricity are going to be followed by much bigger ones next spring. Price inflation is hitting food and other essentials. The extended supply chains to China in particular are hit by delays and huge price increases in the cost of shipping. The shortage of drivers and other essential workers is leading to queues at petrol stations, empty supermarket shelves and rotting food which cannot get to market.
Normally this would lead to a major crisis for government. But Johnson sailed through his conference without seriously addressing any of these questions, worshipped by the adoring Tory faithful. Johnson is greatly helped by the failure of the Labour opposition. Keir Starmer’s attack on the Labour left at his conference served to portray the party as divided. His speech which was months in the making sank like a stone, while Johnson’s jokey diatribe papered over his mounting crisis.
The Tories talk about rising wages in a cynical manner but have managed to outflank Labour on the issue. It’s quite a feat for Labour to allow the Tories to pose as the champions of higher wages – but this conference season has seen it happen. The shadow cabinet’s refusal to commit to a £15 minimum wage – despite an overwhelming vote at conference for one – was a terrible mistake. It is left to the Tories to argue that employers need to pay higher wages (counterpoising this to immigration in Johnson's usual divisive way) and that bosses need to recognise this.
You would not think that the Tories have presided over a decade of falling wages, and that any increase now is in response to shortages. We can see the true Tory view of wage rises from its 0% for teachers or 1.5% for lecturers. Yet Labour has disarmed itself by refusing to side with those workers – or indeed the nurses – for higher wages. It refuses to commit to the most minimal demands to improve workers’ lives, such as a higher minimum wage or nationalisation of the whole energy industry where huge profits have been made. It therefore cannot be surprised when it still languishes behind the Tories in polls and Keir Starmer remains as unpopular as ever.
It also has little to say about the pandemic, which is spreading in schools to the alarm of teachers, and where the increase of working in offices, colleges and other buildings is leading to one of the worst levels of infection in Europe.
All this poses huge challenges for the left. British workers are facing the worst attacks on their living standards for decades. There is no centralised coherent opposition, although there is widespread grassroots opposition to these attacks, as the People’s Assembly demonstrated in its protest in Manchester last week. There needs to be much more of this organisation in towns and cities across the country.
However workers also need to take advantage of this society wide crisis in order to take back some of what is owed to them and which has been systematically denied them over recent decades. The lorry drivers in Unite are planning a short tea break stoppage in November to demand higher wages and better conditions and this can be a hugely important breakthrough in an industry which has seen a race to the bottom on these issues while the big haulage companies rake in the profits.
There are a range of strikes going on across the country. University lecturers are balloting for strike action over pay and pensions. Every single one of these disputes can present a challenge to the government and employers.
The level of discontent over living standards and the pandemic is not reflected in the opinion polls, because they pose questions in very narrow electoral terms. But it is there and it needs to be channelled in a direction which can improve the lives of working people. Boris Johnson obviously thinks that scapegoating claimants, moaning about migrants and attacking strikes is a winning formula. We shouldn’t allow it to be.
Not least, sections of the British ruling class think that Johnson is a dangerous wild card who thinks only of his own short term gain and that he is damaging British capitalism as a result. Conflict looms with the EU over Ireland, and the shortages – with possibilities of power cuts and goods unavailable for Xmas – are likely to get worse.
There are already very real divisions with the Tory Party and the ruling class, but these can be papered over as long as they think workers will accept attacks on their living standards. As soon as we fight back that begins to change, which is why the most important thing to do at the moment is to organise and support those taking action.
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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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