Within 72 hours of the Tories forming a majority in Parliament it became crystal clear they were salivating at the opportunity to further impose their political austerity agenda for another five years. Attacks on freedom of speech, protest, the Human Rights Act and the right to strike came swiftly. Threshold limits on industrial action ballots are proposed, with higher thresholds for those working in health, education, fire and transport services. This will push many disputes outside the law as the shackles tighten on lawful action, enabling employers to challenge ‘small and irrelevant technicalities’ in the Courts. Alongside criminalising those engaged in picketing it adds up to a thought through attempt to debilitate working people and remove the most powerful collective weapon we have, the human right to withdraw our labour.
Outside of the Westminster bubble people are already mobilising resistance. Numbers registering for the People’s Assembly demonstration on 20th June have soared, hitting 1,000 an hour at one point. Over 63,000 have said they will make their way into London such is the mood to challenge the mandate of this Government. People have taken to the streets in Cardiff and Bristol with large mobilising meetings in Newcastle, Nottingham and Manchester. The truth is austerity isn’t popular. Though the Tories form a majority in Parliament, they will hold an ‘emergency budget’ on 8th July to unleash the latest wave of cuts against our communities, with just 1 in 4 having voted for them.
But while austerity is not popular, we haven’t yet won the argument that austerity is not necessary. Paul Krugman recently wrote “The case for cuts was a lie. Why does Britain still believe it?”, saying that he didn’t “… know how many Britons realise the extent to which their economic debate has diverged from the rest of the western world – the extent to which the UK seems stuck on obsessions that have been mainly laughed out of the discourse elsewhere”. As a package, austerity is about more than just cuts – it is about wealth redistribution to the very top, lining the already bulging pockets of a wealthy 1% and an ideological drive to shrink the State - imposing deep and dangerous spending cuts and unleashing the wholesale privatisation of our public services; our NHS, education and social security provision.
Myths have been manufactured to shame those claiming benefits because of unemployment, disability or because work pay and hours are so meagre people don’t earn enough to live or even survive on. Three quarters of new housing benefit claimants are in-work. UK companies are paying their workers so little that we all top up wages to the tune of £11billion a year through tax credits and extra benefit payments. The four big supermarkets alone are costing just under £1billion a year as the ‘corporate welfare bill’ soars while profitable companies exploit fearful and often desperate workers as well as the taxpayer.
While the majority have struggled the top one per cent – just 300,000 people – benefitted from the cut to the top rate of income tax. Those at the centre of the 2008 economic crisis knew this was coming so delayed paying bonuses until the new tax year, costing us all an estimated £65 million in lost taxation.
Without public investment in strategic areas – such as housing, transport, manufacturing and communications – the slowest, and mainly consumer driven, economic recovery on record is now slowing down. A lack of investment has led to the hoarding of cash by the corporations – the real reason why we have poor productivity growth. As Geoff Tily, TUC economist has noted, there is no ‘productivity puzzle’; austerity means that private companies are not investing and upgrading their equipment.
Rather than invest, companies are slashing pay, reducing hours and attacking our trade unions to maintain profits, squeezing workers and creating the longest fall in living standards since the 1870’s. For all the rhetoric about new jobs in a growing economy, these jobs are concentrated in lower paid work. We have seen an explosion in zero and short hour contracts and a drive to create a more insecure, precarious workforce to more efficiently exploit people. The dreams of Thatcher made manifest. It is why over the decades the legal shackles on trade unions have tightened – and the latest attacks on the right to strike must be seen in that wider context; a move to crush the remaining vehicles of solidarity and unity that can mobilise and defend working people and our communities against the onslaught of austerity.
This is why the trade unions are, and will remain, at the heart of the anti-austerity movement. If we are going to drive up the living standards of all, protect and enhance our public services, provide dignity for those in retirement, we need to mobilise resistance industrially, in our communities and politically. We need to reach out to the precarious workers forced into false self-employment, onto zero or short hours contracts and low wages. We need to build a movement; organise and protest, inside and outside the workplace. Join us for the largest anti austerity demonstration we’ve seen to date on the 20th June, the opening salvo in our latest battle.
Steve Turner is the Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union and Co-Chair of the People's Assembly