Zoe Hennessy explores how an ideological war against the welfare state is turning the clock back on hard-won gains in employment and housing
In case you hadn’t noticed, 2015 is general election year — which means another round of vandalised Tory election billboards. But hopefully it also means that we are coming to the end of the current Conservative government — a government which has used the pursuit of so-called debt reduction to wage a war against working people and shore up profits for the super-rich.
They have been successful. The wealthiest 1,000 men and women in British society have doubled their wealth in the last five years, and are now worth a combined fortune of £519 billion.
The cost for working people has been huge, and has fallen particularly heavily on the young, people with disabilities and women. In his Autumn Statement Chancellor George Osborne announced a further round of cuts beyond 2015, which will take public spending down to levels not seen since the 1930s.
For the working class, the 1930s was a time of mass unemployment, private healthcare, minimal state infrastructure, insecure and low-paid employment, grinding poverty and private slum landlords. It was also a period in which the far right grew in popularity across Britain and Europe. There are many parallels with the political situation today.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the upcoming cuts would force a “fundamental reimagining of the role of the state.” I take this to mean that even by their own admission, austerity is ideological. It is a class war aimed at clawing back every gain working people have made in the labour and trade union movement since the post-war period.
The Conservatives may have a cavalier attitude towards staying on the road to a “stronger economy,” but the effects of their policies on working people point to a very different story.
According to a report recently published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 13 million people in Britain and Northern Ireland are currently living in poverty. Half of all people in poverty live in a working family. Reports show that we have seen the biggest drop in living standards for people in work since the 1930s.
As you would imagine, those on the lower end of the earning scale have been hardest hit by the changes.
Given the lack of council housing, many families and young people have been forced to rent in the private sector. In the last decade the number of people in poverty living in privately rented accommodation has doubled to 4.1m.
In Scotland the cost of renting privately has risen by an average of 11 per cent, and continues to rise at a faster rate than in England and Wales. In areas such as Aberdeen, rents have gone up by a staggering 40 per cent in four years. Given that 59 per cent of the British public supports rent controls, there is a good case to be made for their implementation.
However, if rent controls were introduced it wouldn’t address the root cause of the problem. What is fuelling the soaring rent and mistreatment of tenants is the huge lack of affordable social housing, poor legislation and greedy landlords who are able to buy up housing stock in order to increase their profits.
The Scottish government may have changed the law on the right to buy, but the damage has already been done and they are doing little to reverse it.
There are also record numbers of young people in their 20s and 30s forced to move back home with their parents. More than a quarter of 20-34 year-olds are living at home.
Across Britain, 1.4m adults — mostly women — are in part-time work because they can’t find full-time work. Around 1.5m adults are employed on zero-hours contracts, denying them guaranteed hours, sick pay or holiday pay and making it very hard for trade union members to organise.
With Labour’s leadership pledging to match the Tories cut for cut, it is clear that austerity will be an ongoing issue in the aftermath of the general election in Scotland and across Britain. The Labour Party in Scotland is facing a huge struggle in the coming months, made all the more difficult by the election of warmonger and zionist Jim Murphy as leader.
Recent polls are showing that the SNP will make massive gains on the back of the Labour Party being unwilling to effectively challenge austerity and working in alliance with the Tories and Lib Dems during the Better Together campaign.
However, it would be folly to think that the Scottish electorate are abandoning the Labour Party because voters are moving left, as some sections of the left in Scotland are claiming.
The truth is that the SNP, now Scotland’s largest party by far, continues to pursue the policies of austerity. They have implemented budget cuts worth billions since 2010, claiming that their hands are tied by Westminster. It seems that these claims are politically motivated, given that the Scottish government ended the year with a record £444m underspend.
The continued council tax freeze is leading directly to massive cuts in local government. Scotland’s government has voted against a living wage Bill for all public-sector workers. It has cut the budget for further education by £67m.
This is already leading to job losses and course closures across Scotland, and given that 20 per cent of 16-24 year-olds are unemployed in Scotland, this will be a huge blow to young people.
Despite these attacks on workers and their families, they pass by often unchallenged by the left, large sections of which continue to believe that the Yes movement, spearheaded by the SNP, is the only movement capable of challenging austerity.
However, only a united and organised labour movement can mount an effective resistance to and fightback against austerity.
The trade unions will have to work hard to project a left-wing analysis of the crisis and offer an alternative to austerity. They will need to recruit a new generation of young activists, who are mostly trapped in low-paid, insecure employment, and empower them to effect change.
The ruling class, in attacking workers so viciously, sows the seeds for its own destruction. We must take advantage of this crisis, to make the case for socialism. Our enemy is strong, and united. But our enemy is not invincible.
Zoe Hennessy is general secretary of the Young Communist League.