In thirty years time, school kids studying history will be asked to answer the following question: “How did the British Conservative Party transform a private sector crisis into a crisis of public spending?” However it is answered, the maddening injustice of what the Tories are trying to pull off will scream through the ages. An economic collapse caused by neo-liberalism is being “solved” with the most extreme dose of neo-liberalism yet. A catastrophe unleashed upon us by a deregulated banking industry is being used to hack further chunks off the welfare state established by the 1945 Labour government. A nightmare triggered by the greed of the wealthy elite is being used to kick working people and the poor.
Resistance to this project isn’t just a right: it’s a duty. The last time the Tories won an election was 1992. I remember it well: I was 7 years old. My teachers all came to school dressed in black. The Tories lost the 2010 election, despite the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and a ludicrously unpopular Labour Prime Minister. They won just 36% of the vote, and – in any case – they did not put their extreme policies before their electorate. The government has no democratic legitimacy for what it is trying to do, and it must be forced to retreat.
That’s the moral case for resistance, if you like. But the political case is equally compelling. Unless the Tories are stopped now, there’s every chance their policies will remain in place for a generation or more. As Thatcherism forced Labour to capitulate to its key tenets, Cameronism wishes to do the same. The political consensus will be driven even further to the right.
That’s why we can’t just sit around waiting for a Labour government to – hopefully – take office in four years time. We have to fight now to stop the Tories in their tracks. That’s what the French people did to Alain Juppé’s right-wing government in the mid-1990s when he launched attacks on the welfare state. They won. We can too.
So the debate shouldn’t be whether to resist, but how to resist. We’ve already had the first wave, led by the students in the winter. Students are often the first to move in times of strife: they have more time on their hands, less commitments, no careers to worry about, they’re encouraged to spend large amounts of time thinking about big questions, and there are thousands of them concentrated in each campus. But young people are in no position to take down the government.
What the students did achieve is to show that resistance is possible. They were the catalysts for others to fight back. Before last November, mainstream commentators said that strikes and mass protests wouldn’t come to Britain: that’s what the hot-headed French and Greeks do. No-one says that anymore.
On June 30th, the baton will officially pass from the students to the labour movement. It is unions that must take the lead in resisting this government. They represent 7 million working people: that’s more than 9 times all the other political parties put together. No other movement is even close to being as representative. And, crucially, unions have the capacity to bring the country to a standstill.
The strikes on June 30th are over pensions. This is, of course, an important issue. As even the Telegraph has pointed out, public sector pensions are entirely affordable. As its assistant editor points out:
What it shows is that even without the Hutton reforms, the cost of public sector pensions on the key measure of affordability (as a percentage of GDP) has already peaked and is set to decline markedly over the years ahead. That’s because public sector pensions have already been quite significantly reformed…
So-called “pension reform” is, in part, a tax on public sector workers to pay back the deficit. The idea they enjoy “gold-plated pensions” is a myth: as Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of civil servants union PCS, has pointed out: “In fact retired benefits officers, tax inspectors, court clerks, coastguards and others get an average pension of just £4,200 a year – about £80 per week.” As he also points out, while the government claims that “pensions” are unaffordable, it has already announced more than £25bn worth of business tax cuts.
But we should also be clear about why co-ordinated strike action is focused on pensions, rather than cuts, for example. The reason is that anti-union laws – the strictest in Western Europe – prevent workers going on strike unless they are in direct conflict with their individual employer. Strikes against government policy are illegal. Pensions is an issue that directly affects all public sector workers, and thus allows for co-ordinated strike action to take place.
So we should not see the coming waves of strikes as as only being about pensions, even though that will be the official reason given. This will be about the government’s illegitimate programme, and we must drive that point home.
The polls show that there is a strong base of support for unions taking strike action. According to Populus, 54% support strikes as a “legitimate way for unions to protect the pay and conditions of their members”; but, even more startlingly, 46% believe “strikes are a legitimate way for unions to protest against the general direction of government policy” – which is illegal in this country.
According to ComRes, 48% believe that “public sector workers are right to take strike action over maintaining their pension plans”, with just 36% in opposition. 43% — compares to 38% against — believe that “public sector workers are suffering an unfair decline in living standards because of the spending cuts.”
Unions have to build on this support. The government will attempt to play divide and rule – particularly turning private sector workers against those in the public sector. They will portrayed as mere sectional interests. So the unions have to drive home the message about standing up for users of public services; to emphasise that they are fighting against the government’s overall cuts programme, and to explain why. They must link up with a whole range of community groups and activists. We need the broadest movement possible.
Labour activists must support this resistance as wholeheartedly as possible. We need Labour members – and Labour party banners – on every picket line and every protest. We must show that we are on the side of working people fighting to defend their rights. That is exactly why we exist as a party.
The government has already shown it can be forced into retreat: whether that be forestry or the NHS (even though that is a battle that is still far from won). A co-ordinated programme of strikes, peaceful civil disobedience and protests – one which is committed to maintaining and building broad public support – can rock the foundation of this illegitimate government.
And who knows. In thirty years time, students may find themselves presented with the question: “Why did the Cameron government fall?” Maybe – just maybe — they will pinpoint June 30th 2011 as the beginning of the end.
This article first appeared at LabourList.