the youth are in the streets!
As I write this, March is drawing to a close. Hopefully, the traces of snow melting away are the last that we’ll see this year. Aside from being perfect fodder for climate change deniers, the bitter weather can only really serve to ensure all, apart from seasoned activists, will retreat to the (slightly lesser dis)comfort of their own home.
There, they can watch the television, or read newspapers which will drive them to one of three conclusions: a) It’s terrible the financial hardship you’re going through at the moment, but we’ve all got to make sacrifices for the good of the country. Anyway, the undeserving scrounger, courtesy of the Con-Dems, rightly has it worse than you; b) Call this austerity? The Tory axe isn’t nearly sharp enough. We need Farage, the heroic Templar Knight in shining armour to come to our rescue and kill off the welfare state (and all the foreigners) with a single blow of his sword, or; c) You are that scrounger, and your one meal a day, your use of the central heating in the freezing cold, your treatment for your long standing illness, your spare bedroom for your children you look after half the time, is living beyond the country’s means. Don’t agree? Tough. You’re on your own now. No one will stand up for you. Especially not the Labour Party.
But as April approaches, one cannot help but feel that the people have, at last, had enough. As Dr Osbourne prescribes us the placebo which will hit our pockets the hardest yet (it turns out he’s not really a doctor, but the CEO of a pharmaceutical giant), the myth that the cuts have anything to do with deficit reduction is clearly unravelling before us. The working class, for too long told there’s no such thing: either that they’re middle class or, if not, it’s because they’re not working hard enough; might finally see this for the cruel joke it is, and spill out onto the street, where they may at last discover others on the same sinking ship, and that, rather than rush to grab their own lifeboat for fear of being left behind, there is a sturdier, more stable one sailing by, that has room for us all.
Of course, this will require the sort of leadership and unity of action that has mostly been lacking in the left to date. The mantra of ‘look after number one’ has permeated the thought of Trade Union leadership, many of whom seem unprepared to act outside the legislation echoing this refrain, and take action beyond matters of their own pay and conditions. But for how much longer?
On March 20, as the Chancellor delivered his budget, PCS members were out on strike, braving the freezing temperatures. Jane Aitchison, President of Leeds Trades Council was unequivocal that her motivation went beyond the PCS dispute itself. ‘We’re here to protest… another budget by the rich, for the rich…This strike has been part of moving back against the austerity weapon that’s being rolled out against us, and arguing for the alternative.’
Also speaking that day was Dave Williams, Secretary of West Yorkshire Fire Brigades Union, who stressed the need for the recruitment of young, fit firefighters, rather than the cuts that had just been announced. Another activist later added that it wasn’t just the firefighters themselves who would suffer if they had to work longer. ‘I don’t want a 60 year old fireman pulling me out of a burning building. Do you?’
Joining the striking PCS members were Unite ambulance drivers on their lunch break, and who strike on April 2. Their dispute over a proposed £46 million of cuts has led the union to be derecognised by the Trust. But the action has been supported wholeheartedly by ambulance drivers in Unison, whose own leadership has so far been found wanting.
Yet, as the Health and Social Care Act – the top-down reorganisation of the NHS we were promised wouldn’t happen – comes into full effect, it’s difficult to see how health workers, struggling with the extra demand and seeing the effect on patients at the same time, will put up with the situation. One shouldn’t get too excited that the Daily Mail is filled with indignation about people not getting treatment, as juxtapositioning with stories about the ‘undeserving’ who do (a case of ‘Blame It On the Boob Job’), only serves to distract from what is really happening to the NHS.
Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) have sought to alert the public that the Act is simply a continuation of the privatisation process. Far from making the NHS more ‘efficient’, it will add further layers of bureaucracy, and allow private providers to cherry-pick the profitable parts and leave the rest to an underfunded public body, leading to a two-tier system where those can afford insurance will get the treatment they need. KONP have been supporting disputes (for example that of the Mid-Yorkshire Trust), lobbying parliament and party conferences (including attempts to pressure Labour into announcing the Bill’s repeal), building the April 6 demonstration, and leafleting outside Virgin’s stores, over Virgin Care’s takeover of GP surgeries. ‘It’s been difficult at times as people have not been aware of the reality of the NHS reforms in H&S Care Bill,’ Mark Renwick, an activist in Leeds KONP, told me. ‘But a great response whenever we have been active.’ He also told me how Unison have fought their efforts to ‘emphasise the protest element’, in June’s NHS anniversary celebration, preferring it be depoliticised (!)
Unison’s leadership appears to be a definite stumbling block. Jane said the main reason her members were out on their own that day was other unions dragging their feet. ‘Many of [them] would have liked to have been on strike with us today, if they had a leadership like [PCS].’ How much, Unison members, faced with the cuts ahead, can force their leadership to lift their feet remains to be seen. It has occurred to me that left-leaning PCS are so because many of their members, as civil servants, are insiders to what the government is really doing, and their justifications for doing so they can see as fallacy. Take their ‘attempts’ to increase the tax take. As one unnamed source in HMRC told me, the cuts leave them ill-equipped to investigate major tax evaders, whose crimes easily dwarf any ‘benefit fraud’ taking place. And, as those working in the DWP are acutely aware, the numbers thrown onto the dole will only increase the welfare bill, no matter how much blame is passed onto the jobless themselves.
The workfare scheme is another prime example of this. Instead of getting employers to take on workers on a proper wage (which can be taxed and spent), the taxpayer is subsidising, companies – who despite (perhaps even because of?) the recession, rake in huge profits – to get the free labour of people who haven’t chosen to work there, for only their Jobseekers’ Allowance (a sure-fire way to an eager workforce), with no promise of a job at the end of it.
In thick snow, I went along with Leeds Unemployment Action Group (LUAG), outside some of the culprits’ shops. The warmth of the shopping mall was short-lived: when leafleting Poundland, we were told we couldn’t protest there, as it was private property. Another great advantage of the capitalist utopia, where everything migrates from high street to mall. (Incidentally, I watched the film Brazil the other night and noticed, in the scene where Jonathan Pryce visits the slums, a billboard reading: “HAPPINESS: WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER”.) LUAG are part of the national Boycott Workfare campaign, which via protests, letters to participating firms, and online campaigning, has already managed to get the likes of Wilkinson and Superdrug to pull out. They are currently focusing on charities in the scheme.
It is essential that the Trade Union movement does not forget about those, such as the unemployed, the underemployed, benefit claimants, who the capitalist class try and convince those lucky enough to be in full-time work to divert their anger toward. Hence I took great heart at the thunderous applause given, at the PCS rally, to Liz Kitching from Hands Off Our Homes (HOOH). She explained her defiance of attempts to get her to pay the Bedroom Tax: ‘It is not about housing. It’s not about reducing the benefit. It’s a big fat lie. It’s about divide and rule. It’s about getting us to hate each other.’
The following day, a visit by HOOH to a Little London council estate seemed in vain, until we were invited in by a woman who was on the verge of suicide after she received letters telling her she had to find an extra £127 a month from her benefits (she was in her sixties and had severe lung problems). I was glad we found her. She seemed very upset and as though she felt completely alone. She kept asking why the most vulnerable were being picked on. She was particularly bemused by the advice given to a HOOH meeting by Alison Lowe, Labour Councillor for Armley: if you can’t afford to pay, make sure you save up some money (!!!) for when we evict you. As we left, her mood was more one of defiance and anger, mostly toward politicians and the upper classes.
The fact is there are no one bedroom council flats for people to move to. This attempt to intimidate people out of their own homes is also an attempt to break the social housing sector, and force those that remain into for-profit housing. As Gideon announced Right to Buy Mark II, it is worth noting that a third of those sold under Mark I are now being let out by private landlords.
There is definitely tension in the air, and months of protest look inevitable. Whether this can be channelled to good effect, and by whom remains to be seen. Any attempts to make Labour a party of the working class again are about as constructive as taking a whip to your Tesco frozen beef burger. The already 5,000-strong Anti-Austerity Assembly in June shows some promise. What is clear is that the task cannot fall to party or Trade Union bureaucrats. It is the workers themselves who must be at the heart of this.
By Simon C, LUU Revsoc