Britain: The Deficit, the Councils, the Unions and the Tories

It was only a few months ago that public anger against the banks and an unprecedented crisis of capitalism seemed to have an almost revolutionary tone. Public consciousness and official opinion seemed to have shifted decisively to the left. Yet this rage seems not to have effected any political change at all and somehow the public debate (i.e. the editorial line of the press and the rest of the media) has swung far to the right. But the anger and opposition to bank bailouts has not disappeared, it has only been driven underground because it is no longer on the media’s agenda and the lack of any political change has obviously disappointed protestors.

Now the Tories, with the backing and encouragement of the media, especially the Sun, have taken the initiative in calling for massive public cuts to finance the state deficit. There is a clear concerted effort to justify handing the bill for the crisis and the bailout to the public, in particular the poorest sections of society. Understandably some on the Left are despairing at the dominance of this agenda, and have incorrectly identified the Tories lead in all polls as a sign of the reactionary nature of the public.

The Economist makes it clear that the intention behind this is to provide the ‘popular’ mandate for savage cuts when in power: “the question now is whether [George Osborne] has said enough for the Conservatives to claim credibly, if they win power, that they have a mandate to do not only the nasty things he mentioned but also a great many that he did not.” Clearly the Economist, an openly Tory magazine, thinks the Tories are simply laying the basis to cut far more than what has recently been stated, “this programme is far from the full deal. The changes Mr Osborne outlined would only save £7bn a year, a drop in the deficit ocean.” But what kind of mandate is this, when absolutely no alternative has been posed by Labour, who in fact are also proposing cuts?

The fact that the Tories, at best, poll around 40%, a minority of the population, indicates that their policies cannot have popular backing, their poll lead merely representing disappointment with Labour. For members of UNISON and other public sector unions, there is a clear logic in Tories seeking to attack and, they hope, defeat the unions with these tactics which means that, whether we like it or not, we will be forced to battle and battle hard. Tim Montgomerie, who was Iain Duncan Smith’s Political Secretary when the latter was leader, who has been described by the Independent as "emerging as a major player in Tory politics" and who has been used as an expert on internet campaigning by Conservative Central Office, makes this tactic explicit on his website ConservativeHome:

"The Tory leadership should be under no illusions, however, as to the threat posed by the public sector unions...The Tories need a plan to tackle the unions:

"1. They should maintain dialogue - always appearing and being reasonable to mainstream union members and to the general public."

"2. They need a clear mandate from the electorate so that the unions are seen as acting undemocratically if they attempt to thwart the Conservative manifesto. The manifesto must therefore be transparent about intentions"

"3. The Conservative movement needs to mobilise taxpayer and public service users who are the victims(!) of union practice. Examples of union privileges and the extent to which they are damaging the public interest need to be catalogued."

"4. The public sector unions cannot be tackled on every front at the same time."

This strategy, which represents a serious threat to the public sector and its unions, is dependent on accepting the apparent ‘grim air of inevitability’ which pervades the so-called ‘post-recession’ (yeah right!) period, an attitude the Labour and Trade Union leaderships have completely succumbed to. Put it this way – if the Labour and Trade Union leadership completely accept this Tory agenda, they are totally undermining our ability to fight it, if and when it comes into effect, since their lack of effective opposition is what will allow the Tories to win and claim a ‘mandate’ to cut!

The UNISON and TUC leaderships excuse themselves with the worn-out argument that they mustn’t rock the Labour boat, otherwise we really will get the Tories in. What meaning does this have when Brown himself is proposing the same sort of cuts, only more timidly, and New Labour’s policies have all but laid the basis for the likely victory of a vicious Tory government anyway! Brown is a dead man walking! Now is precisely the time for UNISON and the other public sector and Labour affiliated unions to abandon their passive support for Brown and the New Labour project. For some time now Dave Prentis, like Brendan Barber, Derek Simpson et al, has been making mild criticisms of Brown, but has refused to actually do anything. Passivity in the face of the greatest post-war recession spells disaster.

The position of most labour movement leaders seems to be that the deficit is ok and has no serious consequences in itself, as if this position will convince any current leading politician. They are arguing that the immense deficit and its corresponding speculation boom, which gave birth to the deficit, the deficit essentially being an attempt to sustain this bubble, pose no serious problems for British capitalism (since they haven’t criticised or in any way opposed the system that produced the mess, this must be their position) and we can all continue as before, warts and all.

Certainly the Labour Movement must oppose the massive cuts that the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse for. But it is impossible to do this on the basis of capitalism, since the deficit itself is evidence of capitalism’s grave crisis. The Tories are trying to present this deficit as proof that we were simply living "beyond our means" as a whole, that we’ve been too greedy and that somehow we’re all in this mess "together" and are equally to blame - funny how they never say this when the profits and the bonuses are being dished out. Yet at the same time, we are told that the problem is a lack of demand, an absurd situation which has given rise to nearly three million unemployed, which in turn has created a desperate need for (i.e. demand) for jobs, more housing, education and healthcare. Since, before the recession, it is estimated that British industry could only profitably operate at around 80% of capacity which in the recession has now fallen to around 60%, we have clearly been living substantially under our means, at least from the point of view of social need and industrial capacity. This is the real cause of British society’s ills of lack of housing, poor education and poverty.

What then were the limits that were being transcended during the so-called boom? Since the excess of the boom and the subsequent recession are clearly problems of realising profit, the only limits the boom transcended were those of capitalism. The capitalists had overstepped the limits of their market in the asset price and speculation boom. Now they are simply stealing from the public as a way of guaranteeing the continuation of this failed system.

Not only does the deficit, i.e. the debt ‘owed’ by the public to the banks (bizarrely, in order to bail out the banks, the government borrowed, in the form of government bonds, from these very same banks!) threaten UNISON’s workers on an unprecedented scale, but it also completely undermines local councils’ legal (and moral) obligations to house the homeless, and the state’s ability to educate society and provide necessary healthcare. Many of these obligations will become impossible to meet, provoking a crisis in society as a whole. This is the real essence of David Cameron’s ‘broken Britain’.

UNISON must prepare its members and the public for a massive, fighting campaign to defend public services and demand that Labour (whom UNISON and the other unions are now virtually the sole funders) nationalise the banking and finance system along with the big monopolies, re-nationalise what was privatised, and embark on a massive house-building programme, using our immense pool of unemployed skilled workers, all this to be funded by cancelling the deficit, paying back small bond holders on the basis of proven need only. The wealth of society has been produced by the many for the few. The bosses take the profits when things are good and now it seems public sector workers must take the blame when bad times arrive. It is time this arrangement was reversed so that this wealth is used for the common good. The massive campaign of action proposed here is both essential and necessary to defeat the coming attacks.

Click here to read more about what the leaderships of the three main political parties are 'promising' on the cuts front.

Click here to read more about the attacks the Tories are planning on the public sector.