On 27th May, the Queen announced, on behalf of the new Tory government, the latest vicious attacks on workers, youth, and the poor that can be expected in the coming period: a raft of cuts to benefits, particularly aimed at young people; the depletion of the publicly owned housing stock, relied upon by those most in need; and the most serious assault on trade union rights in decades. The scene is now set for an intense class struggle in the period ahead.
The Queen made her annual speech while sitting atop a golden throne, wearing a crown made entirely of jewels, surrounded by people wearing cloaks trimmed with ermine. Such is the grotesque pantomime of British “democracy”.
It is striking that the royal crown worn by the Queen yesterday was made in 1937 for her father, George VI. When George first wore that crown it was as imperial ruler over a quarter of the globe - he sat at the head of an empire on which the sun never set. Now the Queen who wears that crown represents the rotting corpse of British capitalism: she reigns over a crisis-ridden economy built on gambling and speculation; a society experiencing growing inequality and unrest; and a United Kingdom that is sliding towards break-up, and potentially isolation from Europe also.
With Labour - the official opposition in Parliament - in disarray after the election, the Tories are seizing the day to press on with their savagery against the most vulnerable in society. Confident - and perhaps complacent - thanks to their unexpected majority, the Tories are wasting no time in launching into another five years of savage cuts and austerity.
There will be a freeze on working age benefits, income tax credits and child benefit payments for two years, in a move which follows freezes and cuts that have already taken place over the last five years. Moreover this measure is going to hit women hardest as they are the recipients of 80% of income tax credits, meaning they will bear the brunt (around 75%) of this cut.
The total amount a household can claim in benefits in one year will be reduced by £3,000. Of the households hit by this benefit cap, 60% are single parent families and 70% have children under five years old.
Meanwhile, automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18-21 year olds is to be scrapped, in a move that housing charities have described as “disastrous” and which is sure to lead to a spike in homelessness, even after an increase in rough sleeping of 55% since 2010.
At the same time, the Tories plan to sell off housing association stock in a move they claim will increase the housing stock and solve the severe housing shortage. But it does not take a genius to work out that selling off publicly owned housing stock does not solve the fundamental problem that there are not enough homes for people to live in. If we want to solve that problem then we need a government to expropriate the land from those who refuse to build on it, and expropriate the money from the rich who refuse to invest it on the housing that we need.
In addition, the National Housing Federation has warned that this latest Tory announcement will deplete housing association stock, and the household benefit cap will at the same time make houses unaffordable for families with two or more children.
All of this comes after rents have been rising relentlessly and, particularly in London, ordinary people are being pushed out of their neighbourhoods by the cost of living. Already, an estimated 50,000 families have had to leave London due to soaring rents and cuts to welfare. The anti-gentrification riot in Brixton is just a taste of the explosion being prepared by these Tory measures.
Attacks on workers: divide and rule
The Tories have also announced that they will be tagging people awaiting deportation with satellite tracking devices, as well as giving the police the ability to seize wages paid to people who don’t have the correct paperwork for working in Britain. These measures signal an intensification of the anti-immigrant rhetoric with which the ruling class is seeking to divide workers.
As promised by the Tories within days of the election, the Queen’s speech also contained a pledge to severely restrict the right to strike, on the grounds that strike action up to now does not have a sufficiently democratic mandate. As a result, unions will now be required to win the votes of at least 40% of their members, with a minimum of a 50% turnout, in order to take strike action. The irony of a completely unelected Monarch (speaking on behalf of a government that only a quarter of the electorate voted for) announcing this measure will not have been lost on trade unionists.
But, as we noted before, the further restriction of legal avenues for industrial action, combined with an ever-increasing pressure on working class living conditions, means that something has to give. As the saying goes, "one cannot squeeze blood from a stone." The result is an increase in the likelihood of illegal strikes, walkouts, and occupations, beyond the control of the trade union leaders. And, at the same time, the seemingly endless attacks on union members will only serve to increase the turnout of those voting for strike action.
No detail was given anywhere in the Queen's speech about the proposed “British Bill of Rights”, nor was the repeal of the Human Rights Act announced, despite Tory promises to do so. This is an indication of division in the Tory ranks over this question, as well as of the mood among ordinary people against such a move, which has rightly provoked much anger, despite the best efforts of the capitalist press to make the case for this attack on democratic rights.
Elsewhere, the Tories made much of their promise to clamp down on tax avoidance during the election campaign. Unsurprisingly this measure made no appearance in the Queen’s speech. That no one is surprised that the Tories lied about this in order to get elected is an indication of the clear understanding among ordinary people of whose interests the Tories defend, as well as of the contempt with which most people hold such politicians of the Establishment.
Where is the opposition?
While this broadside against the working class was being launched by Cameron and the Queen, the hopeful future Labour leaders have descended into a farcical debate about “aspiration”. The main task these so-called leaders seem to have set themselves at the present time, far from providing any opposition whatsoever to the government, is to offer cringing apologies to the ruling class for daring to support any of the Miliband policies that had even the slightest left-wing hint about them.
The union leaders, meanwhile, have also been notable by their absence when it comes to launching a fight back against the new Tory government. Len McCluskey, for example, in his statement on the Queen’s Speech “urge[d] the government to reconsider” its attacks on the working class. Rather than calling for mass action to fight back against the most serious threat to his members for decades, McCluskey has resorted to mild-mannered appeals to the Tory government, calmly suggesting that they might not be pursuing the best available approach.
Instead of appealing to the Tories, McCluskey and the TUC leaders should be mobilising for the mass national demonstration against austerity on 20th June, and using this as a mandate to call for a one-day general strike. Such a display of strength, in turn, would galvanise the labour movement and pave the way for a wave of militant industrial action in all sectors.
McCluskey, and other similar leaders of the labour movement, however, are still clinging to the idea that these attacks are a question of ideology, and that union leaders such as he can change the government’s mind through moral or clever arguments. But, in reality, such austerity and attacks are not merely the product of the “nasty Tories”, but of a rotten capitalist system that has reached its limits and needs to be overthrown. The cupboard is bare, and there is no room for half-measures any more.
The real beginning of an opposition to the Tories and their austerity was on display on the streets of Westminster yesterday evening. Thousands of young people demonstrated and marched against the government with a militant mood and a revolutionary attitude. Far from being demoralised and downbeat, as Labour and the union leaders appear to be, these young people are furious, radicalised, and ready to fight.
As we build up to the demonstration on 20th June, we must look to the energy and revolutionary zeal of these young people - with their desire the overthrow the whole rotten system - as the spark which can set the working class movement alight.