Britain: Fight-back! The only antidote to painful public-sector cuts

The Con-Dem coalition government is gearing up for a massive onslaught against the public-sector in the autumn. Meanwhile, local councils are pushing through harsh cutbacks in local services. This has to be met by determined action by workers and working-class communities. Socialistparty.net reports on preparations for the fight-back – with lessons drawn from the struggle of Liverpool city council and the anti-poll tax campaign.

There is no alternative to pain. This is the deafening drumbeat of the capitalist politicians and media across Europe. In Britain the threatened cuts of 25% have not been seen for over 80 years. If this government gets away with it, the clock of history will be unwound with levels of poverty returning to those in the 1930s.

But they will not get away with it. This government is deluded if it imagines it will be able to carry out its programme without meeting a tsunami of opposition. At the moment, it is true that many workers feel petrified by what is coming, and are hoping that, if they keep their heads down, they can avoid being pers onally affected by the cuts. Opinion polls even show that a large section of the population accepts the need for cuts. This is inevitable, given the endless torrent of propaganda from the media and politicians saying that cuts are vital. However, it is one thing to accept cuts in the abstract – when it is your job, pension, school or hospital it is a completely different matter. It will be when the reality of cuts bites that mass opposition develops.

Similarly, in Greece, when cuts were first announced the response of the working class was a stunned silence but, very quickly, workers realised that there would be no escape unless they succeeded in stopping the cuts programme. So far in 2010 there have been six 24-hour general strikes as the Greek working class tries to stop the government from carrying out its brutal cuts package. This massive strike movement is only a beginning in Greece. The government has not yet retreated but the working class is determined to step up the struggle to stop the onslaught. If the movement continues to grow it can win a significant victory, giving confidence to workers throughout Europe, including Britain. In Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland we have also seen mass strike movements. The governments of Europe are currently united in their campaign to make the working class pay for the economic crisis via vicious cuts. But, faced with a united movement, they could all be forced to retreat.

Southern Europe will spread to Britain. Understandably, many people at the moment can see the need to fight back, but do not believe that others will join in. ‘We should be more like the French or the Greeks’ is a common refrain. But workers in Britain also have a proud tradition of struggle. Last time cuts were carried out on this scale – with the infamous Geddes Report of 1922 – it was an important factor in bringing about the nine-day long 1926 general strike.

Militant struggle

Twenty years ago, the Tory prime minister, Maggie Thatcher – the Iron Lady – was reduced to iron filings by a mass movement as 18 million people refused to pay the flat rate tax (poll tax) that the Tories had introduced. That movement ended the tax and brought down Thatcher. It was led by the Socialist Party (sister section of Socialist Party Ireland, then called Militant). Such was the burning anger at the tax that, even if we had not existed, a mighty movement would have taken place against it. Our role was to play a critical part in organising and giving direction to the movement – which resulted in it being victorious. Today again, despite the seeming calm at the moment, mass struggle is inevitable and, with the right strategy, can be successful.

While it was the anti-poll tax movement which is most remembered by the labour movement – not least for claiming Thatcher’s scalp – it was not the only serious defeat that was inflicted on her government by the working class. Essential preparation for the poll tax was the struggle of Liverpool city council – in which Militant also played the key part – and again showed the power of the working class once it is mobilised in defence of its interests.

From 1983-87 the Labour-led Liverpool council fought against Tory government cuts. Militant supporters, then the Marxist wing of the Labour Party, played a leading role. For having the temerity to stand up to Thatcher we were vilified by the leadership of the Labour Party. Yet, even if another dozen or so Labour councils had taken the same stand, not only would the Tory government have had to abandon its cuts packages, it would have been swept from office.

Even though Liverpool was isolated alongside Lambeth council, and under attack from all sides, it was able to secure a major victory. In 1984 it won a ‘95% victory’ when it extracted an extra £30 million in funding from the government. This was not just a battle of the council but a struggle that engulfed the entire city with demonstrations of 50,000 and more and city-wide public-sector general strikes. Millions of workers across the country supported the movement. The results of the Liverpool battle still stand in bricks and mortar and include the building of over 5,000 council houses, six new nurseries, six sports centres and four colleges.

Today, some have raised that Labour councillors need to be involved in the anti-cuts campaigns. We want the broadest possible campaign of those that are opposed to cuts, not just in words but in deeds. Where this includes Labour councillors we welcome their involvement. If any council was prepared to take the ‘Liverpool road’ and set a needs budget we would mobilise the biggest possible movement in their support. This has always been our approach. During the Liverpool battle we were prepared to carry out a major compromise on the tactics of the struggle (by agreeing to set ‘no rate’) in order to create a united front with other Labour councils led by such figures as David Blunkett, Ken Livingstone and Margaret Hodge. In the event, despite our united approach, they left the field of battle one after the other.

Unfortunately today, the chances of a Labour council being prepared to talk a good fight, never mind conduct one, seem extremely remote. So far there is no Labour council that has sided with the population and opposed the cuts. On the contrary the axe-men in the government have handed out little axes to Labour councillors and they are willingly wielding them.

Coventry’s Labour council is typical, except that there is one Socialist Party councillor, Dave Nellist, who is the lone voice against the cuts. Citing their ‘legal obligation’, the council responded to the Tory/Lib Dem government’s demand for £3.7 million worth of ‘mid-year savings’ by proposing cuts of £4.5 million. This was the start of a gigantic £146 million in cutbacks due over the next four years. Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors all voted for the cuts package. To give another example, in Waltham Forest, the Labour council put forward £37 million worth of cuts over the next two and a half years. Cynically, the Liberal Democrats and Tories voted against the cuts, leaving Labour to force the cuts through. The contrast with the heroic stance of Liverpool council could not be greater.

Role of a national demonstration

Every struggle has its own characteristics. Neither the poll tax nor Liverpool is an exact model for the battle against cuts that needs to be waged today. But the lessons of those struggles will need to be learnt if we are to succeed again.

The most basic lesson is also the most important. Working-class people potentially have enormous power. The seven million workers organised in trade unions represent a potentially very powerful force to stop the cuts. By taking strike action they could bring the country to a standstill. What is more, if a political campaign to oppose the cuts was conducted – explaining how the trade union movement was spearheading a campaign to defend public services for the whole population – the trade unions could inspire and mobilise much wider sections of the population.

The 20th century was full of demonstrations of the power of the working class to win victories. Unfortunately, they have not always been successful, in large part because of failures of leadership. There was one general strike in Britain in the 20th century – 1926. It failed only because of the cowardice of the TUC leadership. The difference with the poll tax and Liverpool was that the movements had a determined leadership armed with a correct programme.

We argue for the first step in the campaign against cuts to be a giant national demonstration, mobilising hundreds of thousands or more against the cuts. This would immediately raise the confidence of everyone who participated, preparing the ground for the next stage of the struggle. There is no dou bt that the trade union movement could mobilise these kinds of numbers on this issue. However, to do so would mean remembering the most basic lessons of the poll tax, of Liverpool and of innumerable other struggles. Organising a demonstration is not a matter of sending out an email and a press release. A massive campaign is necessary, with millions of leaflets, mass postering, workplace or gate meetings organised by every trade union branch, coaches booked from every town and village. Unfortunately, these most basic methods of building up a movement need to be relearned in big sections of the trade union movement.

Of course, a demonstration is only the beginning. For us it would act as a springboard for a one-day public-sector strike followed by a 24-hour general strike if the government does not retreat. However, an important aspect of successfully prosecuting a struggle is to be able to recognise what stage the movement is at, and what next step is therefore appropriate. In Greece, our sister section is raising the need to extend the general strikes. In Britain, where the cuts have not yet hit home, and battle is not yet engaged, a massive national demonstration is an important first step. Another factor is that different countries have different traditions. General strikes, for example, are far more frequent in Southern Europe than in most countries of Northern Europe, including Britain. Given Britain’s history, even a 24-hour public-sector general strike would terrify the government and the capitalist class and enormously raise the confidence of the working class.

 A programme for unity

Ultimately even more important than the organisational measures required, is the programme around which the struggle should be organised. Unity is strength, and the role of Marxists is always to develop a programme which aims to bring the working class – and those, numerous, sections of the middle class who will also be hit – together into one powerful movement. This was relatively straightforward in the campaign against the poll tax, because the whole working class and many middle class families were affected in the same way. Nonetheless, our programme strengthened and consolidated the natural tendency to unity linking, for example, the defence of public services to fighting the tax. Similarly in Liverpool the council fought for extra money for services while opposing big rises in the rates. The council also dramatically improved the pay and conditions of its workforce explaining clearly to the wider working class that high quality public services require decently paid staff. Only this approach – showing different sections of the working class and middle class their common interest – enabled both struggles to be successful.

The coming movement will be bigger in scope even than the poll tax. But the potential for greater divisions exists – between public- and private-sector workers, old and young, unemployed and employed. To cut across those potential divisions it is essential that the movement does not allow one section to be played off against another. We have to explain to private-sector workers that ‘cushy’ public-sector pensions are a myth. For example, excluding the very highest earners, the average civil service pension is £4,200 a year – hardly cushy! Nor are public-service workers on fat salaries: 80% of civil servants earn less than £30,000 a year and admin officers are paid 21% less than people doing comparable jobs in the private sector.

We have to explain that cuts in so-called ‘backroom staff’ will lead to devastating cuts in the ‘frontline’ services delivered. For example, civil service cuts over the last five years have led to 2,000 offices closing. It is a myth that excessive bureaucracy, rather than underfunding, is the main cause of inadequate public services. If the cuts are carried out services will not be ‘leaner and meaner’, they will be starved virtually out of existence.

We have to argue for opposition to all cuts in public services. We do not favour saving one hospital over another or cutting wages in order to save a local library. Down this road defeat lies. Only a determined and united movement will be able to stave off the onslaught that is coming. Weakness invites aggression. The ‘concession bargaining’ of the majority of the trade union leaders over the last 20 years – accepting some pain in the hope of staving off another attack – has never worked and will be disastrous over the coming years.

Of course, that does not mean that there is no waste in public services. After 30 years of cuts, privatisation and marketisation the public sector is already in a pretty sorry state. We favour kicking the profit-hungry private companies out of our public services. We oppose council and health trust chief executives taking home £200,000 plus salaries. But this money should not be cut from the public sector but be redistributed to help fund our overstretched public services. The best way to prevent bureaucracy is not to make cuts but to take control of public services out of the hands of overpaid unelected chief executives and give it to democratically elected committees that include representatives of the workforce and service users. The central slogans for the struggle need to be: ‘We will not pay for the crisis’; ‘No to all cuts: Defend all jobs and services’.

Build ‘anti-cuts unions’

Uniting the movement will need to have an organisational, as well as a political form. In both Liverpool and the poll tax Militant played a key political role. Contrary to the slurs against us by the capitalist media, however, our political leadership was not imposed on the movement or carried out by sleight of hand. On the contrary, we won the political arguments in the democratic organisations which were organising the struggle, within which we were in a minority. Both in the anti-poll tax unions and the Liverpool District Labour Party (which would be attended by 500 plus delegates – unimaginable in today’s moribund New Labour) tactics and strategy were discussed and debated at every stage of the struggle.

Such democratic workers’ organisations take different forms in different struggles. They reached their highest level in history in the workers’ councils (soviets) that led the Russian revolution of 1917. While not on that level, in any mass struggle there is a tendency for democratic organising bodies to develop that can play a vital role in leading the struggle.

Today, the Socialist Party is at the forefront of establishing ‘anti-cuts unions’ which are mushrooming up around the country. In most areas they involve representatives from local trade unions, tenants’ associations, pensioners’ organisations, Youth Fight for Jobs groups and others. Currently, these campaigns are disparate, with different names and different structures in different towns. This is an inevitable first stage of the campaign but, before long, it will be necessary to bring them together into some kind of national structure.

The same process took place during the building of the anti-poll tax movement. At first, the local campaigns in Scotland, where the poll tax was first introduced and the campaign began, were disparate without any central co-ordination. Then, at our initiative, in the West of Scotland 96 community organisations and anti-poll tax campaigns were brought together to found the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation, under the slogan ‘can’t pay – won’t pay’. Later the same idea was repeated across Britain. There were 2,000 delegates at the conference which founded the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation in November 1989.

To take on and defeat a government requires a nationally co-ordinated movement. However, it will not work for a few individuals to declare that they have founded the national anti-cuts movement. What will be necessary, again as in the poll tax, will be the coming together of the struggles on the ground to form a democratic national body with weight and authority.

The priority in the immediate period is to build the authority and roots of the local campaigns. The issues they will concentrate on campaigning on will vary. For many the immediate issue is the huge cuts being carried out by local councils, often Labour-led. In London, compulsory redundancies in the fire service are going to be a huge issue unless management retreats. The anti-cuts unions will need to take up each individual campaign, including mobilising support for industrial action by the public-sector trade unions – fire-fighters, transport workers, teachers, civil servants and/or local authority workers. At the same time, they will need to link the individual campaigns to the slogan ‘no to all cuts’. Many of the methods of the anti-poll tax unions and of Liverpool council will apply. Regular public meetings, protests, demonstrations, window bills and badges declaring membership of the anti-cuts unions, all these methods and more will be used.

The PCS civil service union is currently having a campaign of lobbying Liberal MPs to demand that they oppose the ripping up of civil servants’ redundancy rights. This kind of actions, appealing not so much to MPs’ better nature as to their fear of losing their seats, can also be an important aspect in general mass campaigning.

The anti-cuts campaigns will need to exert particular pressure on the ‘little axe-men and women’ to whom the government has given the task of implementing cuts. Every council meeting that is implementing cuts should face mass lobbies from local anti-cuts bodies demanding that they refuse to carry out the cuts and instead put forward a ‘needs budget’. This demand does not only apply to councils but also, for example, to school governors who are proposing that their school becomes an academy, or the vice-chancellors executive groups of universities that are planning to close departments. In every case we should aim to conduct mass campaigns explaining the alternative to accepting the role of butchering public services. Solidarity should be offered to those who are prepared to stand firm against the cuts, while making it clear that they will face a determined mass opposition if they take on the role of butcher.

Political representation

Given all the capitalist politicians’ support for cuts, the question of a political alternative to the axe-men is bound to emerge during the anti-cuts campaigns. For some, the question of achieving political representation for the working class may be seen as a problem for a later day. Nonetheless, there will be a growing demand for workers to have their own anti-cuts, socialist candidates. Closely following the poll tax victory, Tommy Sheridan stood in Glasgow Pollok in the 1992 general election as Scottish Militant Labour (then the name of our sister organisation in Scotland). He had never stood in a general election before and yet received 6,287 votes – 18% of the total. Six Scottish Militant Labour councillors were elected in the same period. Had we stood candidates in England and Wales during the anti-poll tax movement, there is no doubt we could have had similar successes.

It is not possible to predict exactly how the anti-cuts movement will find a political voice. However, the ground has already been partially prepared. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) – involving the Socialist Party, other socialists and, crucially, an important layer of militant trade unionists – stood in 41 seats in the general election. Over the next period we believe that TUSC can come into its own and, as a part of the anti-cuts movement, can act as a catalyst for the development of a new mass party of the working class.

Role of the trade unions

Thatcher made another major error in the poll tax movement. She confused the lily-livered attitude of the leadership of the workers’ movement for the attitude of the working class as a whole. There is no doubt that David Cameron & Co are making the same mistake again. Before the general election, Tory Philip Hammond, then shadow treasury secretary, said there would be no mass trade union protest under a Tory government, as union leaders were only doing their job when they “came out and rattled their sabres” at the TUC congress. Behind the scenes, he said, the shadow cabinet had established “cordial relations” with them.

Unfortunately, it is all too likely that the majority of trade union leaders see the best way of defending their members against the government as establishing ‘cordial’ – that is, supine – relations with it. This was also the case when Thatcher came to power. Her government responded to the trade union leaders’ friendly overtures by launching an onslaught on the union movement and workers’ rights.

If the whole of the trade union movement, from top to bottom, was to launch a serious struggle against the cuts it would be impossible for the government to implement its programme. However, the experience of the poll tax demonstrates that we cannot rely on the trade union leadership to provide such a lead. As today, trade union activists played a crucial role in the struggle. But, at national level, opposition to the poll tax remained in words, and was never translated into action.

This is not explained away because taxation is not directly a ‘workplace issue’. A large element of the Tories’ aim in introducing the tax was to undermine democratically elected local councils and pave the way for the privatisation of public services. This had hugely detrimental consequences for local authority workers. It was in the interests of every public-sector trade unionist to make sure the poll tax was defeated. Unfortunately, however, when it came to organising mass non-payment, not just as an idea but in practise, the leadership of the trade union movement ran a mile. Nor was it prepared to put the case for non-collection of the tax by public-sector workers. At one stage, the Scottish TUC proposed an eleven-minute strike but that was the limit of the action it was willing to call! It was left to the Militant, alongside other trade unionists and socialists, to lead the struggle for mass non-payment of the poll tax.

Since that time there has been an increased tendency in the leadership of the trade union movement towards accepting the ‘logic of the market’ – that is, the logic of cutting workers’ pay and conditions! Many trade union leaders have become used to administering defeat rather than leading a struggle to defend their members’ interests. This is the role the leadership of the Irish trade union movement played in the first round of the struggle against cuts at the end of 2009. Faced with pay cuts for public-sector workers of between 15% and 19% the Irish TUC was under enormous pressure to call action, and it did call a 24-hour public-sector general strike which was fantastically supported.

Far from using it to lead a serious struggle, however, the ITUC leaders merely hoped to bring the government back into talks. When that failed they put forward the treacherous proposal that public-sector workers take two weeks extra unpaid leave each year – in reality, a major pay cut. Inevitably, this self-inflicted defeat has led to bitterness and anger, and a certain temporary demoralisation among Irish trade unionists. But it is not the end of the story. The cuts are continuing and a second round of struggle will develop. At the same time, a new generation is beginning to learn from the experience and draw conclusions about the need to get organised in the unions to fight for them to act in their interests.

These experiences do not mean we ignore the official structures of the movement. In the battle against cuts today the trade unions are likely to play a more central role than during the poll tax, because the struggle to prevent cuts in the workplaces will be so central – against job losses, pay freezes, and the smashing of public sector pensions. But even in the poll tax struggle, while largely ‘unofficial’ due to the abdication of the trade union leaders, nonetheless, at every stage, trade unionists did all they could to pressure their national leaderships to act.

Generalised action

In addition to the local and sectional strikes which are already developing as workers fight to stave off the particular attacks they face in their sector or locality, generalised action will also be needed. The anti-trade union laws will be raised as an obstacle to this. The most repressive in the European Union, and left intact by New Labour, there is no doubt that they complicate the situation. However, even with the existence of these laws, it would be possible to co-ordinate the sectional action that different unions will be taking in order to create a serious step towards a public-sector strike. It will be necessary to go further, however. In reality, if all public-sector unions defied the anti-trade union laws to take simultaneous strike action, the government would be powerless to stop them and, in the process, the anti-trade union laws would be broken asunder.

There are unions which have fighting left leaderships, such as the RMT and PCS. They have a vital role to play, not only in leading the struggle of their own members, but by acting as a poll of attraction to galvanise the trade union movement as a whole. But, even in the most right-wing led trade unions, in the end it is the members who are their power source, and whose dues that pay the leaderships’ wages. Even the most right-wing union leaders have been forced to lead action under pressure from their members. Feeling the pressure of his members, Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary, has promised that the government “won’t know what has hit them” if it attacks the public sector, and that Unison is “ready to fight”. This is to be welcomed. We need to build the widest possible alliance against the cuts. However, it will be in practise that the fighting talk of Dave Prentis will be tested.

The most effective pressure on the trade union leadership is to show that a mass movement is possible by starting to build one. Today, initiatives like the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) lobby of the TUC Congress – demanding it leads a real fight-back against the cuts – play an important role not only in putting pressure on TUC leaders but also in giving confidence to workers that a movement is possible. The NSSN, which has been successfully linking together militant trade unionists for four years, is likely to come into its own as a means of co-ordinating the workplace fight against the cuts.

At the same time, there will be stages where the community campaigns – against cuts and closures in local services – will lead the way and help to give confidence to the workforce to fight back.

With a correct strategy it is possible for the working class to succeed in forcing this brutal Con-Dem government to retreat from its cuts programme. This would be an historic victory, which would have an immeasurable impact in lifting confidence for future battles, including the struggle for working-class political representation.