Chancellor Rishi Sunak claims he is not “returning” to austerity. This while:
• All public sector workers outside the NHS get a pay freeze. And the government will not confirm that NHS workers will get a pay rise! It also seems it will cancel the planned 49p rise in the minimum wage in favour of something more like 19p.
• Councils are saying they need billions more just to avoid yet another round of even deeper cuts.
• The government refuses even to make its measly £20-a-week increase to Universal Credit permanent; it will be withdrawn in April.
Meanwhile the Tories have announced they will increase military spending by £16bn — just enough, as it happens, to cover these less-than-basic but “too expensive” social demands.
All along the line, the Tories are further reshaping the British state to cut back its social provision and support functions while strengthening its repressive and nationalistic ones. The chaos and regression of a hard Brexit will tend to strengthen this trend.
There is a clear ideological dimension. More “defence” spending projects a nationalistic narrative, trying to cement Brexit-inclined layers of voters in support of the government. Unlike popular policies which involve increasing social provision, this one goes with the grain of the Tories’ class commitments.
Two other items which indicate the character of Tory plans are floating a cut of £4bn a year from the foreign aid budget — and, in a grotesque footnote, giving £30m to a “Festival of Brexit”.
The Labour leadership, while saying little about social provision, has backed the increase to military spending.
The labour movement should fight against any military increase and for billions in emergency funding to block further cuts and begin to rebuild public services. Labour and trade union activists should build pressure on the Labour leadership to reverse course.
So outrageous is the Tories’ contempt for public sector workers that even Frances O’Grady refused to “rule out” strikes. Union and workplace activists need to seek every opening for launching fights about pay, as an essential part of pushing the wider movement into action!
Political campaigning against cuts and for more funding is also essential. We need much more of it.
The issue of welfare provision should be central. As the (Blairite-but-thoughtful) Resolution Foundation points out, free school meals are surely a help, but the much bigger problem is that Universal Credit pushes millions of people into poverty. In April, that will get even worse.
Council funding is also key. Councils have been on the frontline of cuts for a decade, and were in a catastrophic state before the pandemic. Even the Tory-led Local Government Association is now calling for an extra £8.7bn a year to ward off disaster. Far from vocally calling to reverse all the cuts — let alone campaigning seriously — the labour movement is largely asleep on the issue.
Croydon council in South London is now about to follow Northamptonshire as the second local authority declaring itself bankrupt and saying it will provide, essentially, less than a bare minimum of services. Who will be next?
Labour movement activists need to encourage and magnify every local struggle against cuts, and launch more, while finding ways to weave them together into a wider campaign to reverse cuts and restore funding.