Cuts, cuts and even more cuts. This is the message now being shouted by the leaderships of the Tories, the Liberal-Democrats and – disgracefully – Labour. Indeed they are all trying to outdo each other in presenting ever more severe programmes of public spending cutbacks as part of what has been called a ‘race to the bottom’ on the part of the three parties.
The national press has been awash with stories of the “crisis” in public finances and the need to get cutting. It seems that having been forced to hand over billions of pounds to prop up big business and the banks, we are all being invited to pick up the bill on their behalf. Meanwhile the banks are back at their old game of awarding themselves nice fat bonuses.
Despite all the talk by the Tories that they will protect core services and will not attack health or education, the reality is that they are all too keen, once safely in power, to set about slashing public services “in the public interest.” Naturally the huge hand outs to the rich in the form of tax breaks etc. will not be touched. They are already using words like “middle class welfare” as a means of preparing the public for the withdrawal of benefits such as free bus passes for the elderly and universal child benefit.
They have now been joined by the Liberal Democrats. Their leader, Nick Clegg has announced the need for “cuts, cuts that are savage and bold.” He too has talked about getting rid of universal child benefit and abandoning the promise to scrap university tuition fees. Vince Cable, the Lib Dem treasury spokesman has outlined the sort of figures they are thinking of with plans to cut public spending by £14 billion with no ring fencing of protected areas. No wonder Tory leader Cameron has been reported as saying of the Lib-Dems: “There’s barely a cigarette paper between us in all these areas.” All those silly middle class twits who came out at the last general election and said that they were voting for the Lib Dems as the only “radical” option should now be holding their heads with shame. Scratch a Lib Dem and you will always find a Tory underneath.
We should expect all this from the two main capitalist parties. Sadly, we have also come to expect this from the leadership of New Labour. First Blair and now Brown have gone against the wishes of party members, trade unionists and the many millions who voted Labour in three general elections, by promoting the interests of the City of London over the population at large. Brown’s statement at this years TUC conference to “cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets” should be translated as cuts to public services and cuts to benefits. In response, loyal ministers have started rushing out their own figures for cuts as the treasury begins the task of drawing up reductions. Ed Balls has been first off the mark with his announcement of two billion pounds in education cuts, with 3000 posts to be cut, ‘saving’ around £250 million a year. So much for “Education, Education, Education.” By the time you read this, other cuts will have been grandly announced.
How bad could things get after the next general election? A treasury document from this April has “assumed” a 9.3 per cent reduction in public spending over the next four years, starting in April 2010.
Meanwhile the Institute Of Fiscal Studies has outlined the sort of cuts they think the next government will need to carry out. These include limiting child benefit and child tax credits, cutting winter fuel payments to pensioners, freezing all welfare payments and – for good measure – raising VAT to 20 per cent and removing items such as childrens clothing from the VAT-exempt list. The advantage for big business of this tax hike is that it hits the poorest hardest whereas the rich will hardly notice it. No wonder the Tories have also floated this. Remember it was Thatcher who last pushed up the rate of VAT during her time in office. As usual the social consequences of such cuts are not considered, just the fiscal.
However it could get even worse. According to the Daily Mail (20th September): “Secret plans to slash public spending by up to 30 per cent, affecting public transport, the Armed Forces, schools, hospitals and welfare benefits are being drawn up by Whitehall Mandarins.” They go on to say that this will amount to cuts of £75 billion, “the biggest cut in British history.” What does this mean in reality? Well the Daily Mail has suggested that this will convert into cuts of 112,000 nurses and 129,000 teaching posts with public sector pay being frozen and benefits sharply cut. Now it can be fairly suggested that the Daily Mail is no friend of the public sector and may well have an ulterior motive in making lesser but still severe cuts sound acceptable. Certainly Whitehall bosses have been hard at work preparing the ground for public spending cuts – and such “doomsday” plans may be part of this strategy.
In passing we should also note that the pressure on public services has already increased as a result of the recession. The Local Government Association (LGA) has reported that one in five local authorities have noted an increase in demand for school places as children are taken out of private education by cash-strapped parents. 86 per cent of councils have seen an increase in housing benefit applications with 90 per cent reporting increases in residents seeking welfare or debt advice. Meanwhile the LGA have also noted that all this extra load is being handled by a local government workforce that has already lost 7,000 staff.
There is a concerted campaign by Westminster politicians and their friends in the media against the public sector and the working class as a whole. We are being required to pay for the bosses’ blunders. The fiction that all public sector workers are overpaid, do little useful work and to top it all have very good pensions must be challenged. Yes, the managers at the top do all right but most public sector workers are low paid and put in long hours because they believe that what they are doing is in the public interest. They should be treated better not worse. The attacks on benefits must also be challenged. This represents nothing more than a crude attempt to reduce the standard of living of the worst off in society and pass that cash to the rich.
Whatever plan is finally adopted by the next government it will be bad, very bad. The only response must be to fight. These cuts can be defeated if the might of the organised labour movement is brought to bear against them. Thatcher brought in the hated Poll Tax, she was defeated because people organised and stood up to the Tories. The bosses at Lindsey tried to break the union but they were pushed back because the workers remained firm. If you fight, you can win. Labour’s ranks must make clear their opposition to the cuts and demand a change of course by the leadership. The trade unions must start to mobilise and organise a united fightback against whichever government tries to bring in these cuts. Above all, it must be made clear that the responsibility for these attacks and the crisis which caused them lies with capitalism and capitalism alone. They must pay, not us. The struggle for a socialist programme which can address the root causes of the problems of society must now be at the top of the agenda.
This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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This post was written by Steve Jones