I can’t keep track of the number of media reports I’ve seen in the last few weeks calling for public spending cuts. This is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy, with well-paid journalists, right-wing think tanks and neo-liberal politicians all joining together in reactionary chorus.
A quote here from Reform, a grubby little outfit that claims to be “an independent think-tank whose mission is to set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity”. That’s prosperity for a handful of the super-rich then, I guess. Reform says that “in order to put Britain’s economy on the right path, public spending cuts must be considered and traditionally ‘unthinkable’ areas such as the NHS and defence cannot be exempt from the discussion”. Anyone who’s naïve enough to think that the Lib-Dems offer a progressive alternative to Labour or the Tories might like to note that Reform is launching its pre-Budget report with Vince Cable as the keynote speaker.
An even less subtle but equally grubby little outfit, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, is also calling for public spending cuts. The Taxpayers’ Alliance claims that there is “a very severe divide” opening up between public and private sectors, with state employees enjoying better pay, pensions and job security.
The bosses’ paper the Financial Times and the right-wing Daily Telegraph are going out of their way to promote this view, as are many other newspapers. Tory Shadow Chancellor George Osborne is happy to provide the politics these rags are looking for. Osborne told the FT that the 1.1% a year expansion in public spending planned by Labour is not sustainable. He has threatened to renege on the (very poor) three year pay restraint deals forced through by Labour, and says the issue of ‘gold-plated’ public sector pensions will be swiftly addressed by a Tory Government. Eton and Oxford wasn’t it, George? Good to know you’re in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.
And what about Labour? Subdued murmurs of massive public spending cuts have been going on for a long while now – way before the multi-billion bail-out of the banks, even. However, the Government’s got so few people left who actually support them, they don’t necessarily want to drive away the few voters who doggedly cling on hoping for something better. The BBC suggests that spending cuts will be announced in a future comprehensive spending review, rather than in the forthcoming budget – and any spending review will presumably be delayed until after the European elections in June.
We’re already seeing the softening up attacks from Labour, though. When Brown calls for reform of MPs’ ‘gold plated pensions’ this sounds remarkably like step one towards Osborne’s wider attack on ‘gold plated pensions’ in the public sector. Brown’s hatred of decent public sector pensions is an open secret. And the budget may well include other attacks – an increase in National Insurance contributions, an increase in VAT, the reduction of tax relief on pension contributions and so on. Who gets clobbered by these things? Ordinary workers, obviously.
We’re left with a bit of a dilemma then. One way forward for trade unionists is to accept that all we can do is tail Labour. That means doing as little as possible while the Labour Government desperately flails about in its death throes, with union leaders trying hard to look the other way while the NHS gets privatised, the public sector as a whole is decimated, and all workers are made to pay the price for the bosses’ crisis. My belief is that our big unions like Unison and Unite have made far too many concessions so as not to embarrass Labour.
The other way is to fight back. The claimed divide between public and private sector workers is a completely false one – a fake argument designed to divide and rule. It’s in the interests of ALL workers that we have decent public services. It’s very obviously in the interests of all workers that all of us have jobs, fair pay, and a pension that won’t leave us destitute in old age. Workers have never got anything for free – the lesson of history is that we get what we fight for. We’re now facing the deepest recession since the 1930s. If we allow the ruling class to get away with it, our side will pay a very heavy price. The need for militant trade union organisation has never been clearer.