Budget responses from the labour movement

Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary:

“The Chancellor billed this budget as one built on fairness, yet continues to hide behind the discredited argument that public sector pay is fuelling inflation as an excuse to drive down the wages of the people who keep this country running. The budget was a missed opportunity by the government to reach out to civil and public servants in recognising that they are the victims of inflation and deserve fair pay. With a quarter of the civil service earning less than £15,500 and thousands just above the minimum wage, the continued policy of capping pay to below inflation will create more resentment and anger as people’s wages are cut in real terms. The government can avoid the growing number of pay disputes across the civil service by recognising the injustice of their policy and by paying civil and public servants a fair wage.”

And from a man who won’t learn:

Tony Woodley, Unite the union joint general secretary, said the chancellor had gone some way to tackling the issues of fuel poverty but he had missed an opportunity to levy a windfall tax on the excess energy company profits.

“Of course we welcome the extra money for winter fuel allowances and the help for those on pre-paid meters but he could have gone further,” said Mr. Woodley. “Those price hikes are going to go through from those private companies alongside their multi-billion profits.”

Mr. Woodley also expressed his disappointment that with the forecasts for economic growth and low inflation there was nothing in the Budget to indicate a relaxation on the artificially low public sector pay limits.

“In the week that our low paid but high skilled defence workers have put in their claim for pay justice, we were listening for some positive news on public sector pay,” he said. “There was none but we’ll press the case for decent pay for public sector workers who contribute so much.”

Paul Kenny, gen sec of the GMB:

“The Chancellor has bowed to pressure from the multi-millionaire elite who run the private equity and financial institutions to enable them to continue to receive income as capital gains. He has missed the moral target of making this buccaneering elite, whose recklessness is a contributory cause of the turbulence in the world’s credit markets and the trouble that it will visit on ordinary citizens, pay the same rate of tax on their income as their cleaners.

His approach to public services pay and to those on incapacity benefit is sharply different. He wants to hold down public sector pay below inflation. This attempt to cut living standards will be met with resistance and will undermine morale.

His requirement that those on incapacity benefit must attend work capability assessments is based on the false notion that the high levels of claimants in some areas is due to the fact that these people to not want work. He fails to see it for the labour market issue that it really is. In areas with high employment rates, like Berkshire, there are low rates of people on incapacity benefits, while in places with low employment rates, in the former industrial areas like South Wales, there are very high rates of people on incapacity benefits.

The Chancellor needs to face up to the fact that in today’s labour market able bodied and fully fit workers get jobs ahead of those who are disabled and those not fully fit. The unpalatable truth is that the problem lies with the lack demand from employers for these workers. Why does the Chancellor think GMB put up such a fight to stop the Government sacking 2,500 disabled Remploy workers as they close 30 factories? Most of these Remploy workers will never work again.”

Unison‘s gen sec Dave Prentis:

“Chancellor Alistair Darling’s debut budget lacked the X factor. There were some flashes of colour in an otherwise dull budget, with a welcome green agenda containing new measures to penalise gas guzzling cars, more energy efficient homes and plans to phase out free supermarket bags.

“However, public service workers such as nurses, teaching assistants, dinner ladies, care workers, cleaners and nursery nurses are bearing the brunt of the squeeze on public services.

“The budget would have been an opportunity to boost morale by getting rid of the artificial pay cap, a move that would have demonstrated real fairness and paid dividends. World-class public services demand well trained, motivated staff, and sticking to a 2% pay limit will lead to a recruitment and retention crisis, as staff see higher pay increases in the private sector.

“Only last week, UNISON lodged its 40,000th equal pay claim, but there is no recognition in the chancellor’s budget that this blight on the public sector must be tackled. The government must ensure that local authorities obey the law and give them the means to deliver fair pay for women workers.

“Tackling child poverty is still an important part of the government’s agenda and the increase in tax credits and child benefit is a welcome plus to parents. Reducing charges for people using pre-payment meters is only a partial solution to fuel poverty. The chancellor should have gone ahead with a windfall tax on the outrageous profits announced by energy companies to help fund the fight against fuel poverty.

“Rising fuel bills are adding to the misery of low-income families and many public-service workers. However, the chancellor is right to recognise the plight of pensioners and raise the much needed winter fuel allowances.”

Mr Prentis welcomed moves to tax non doms. “This is a small step towards creating a fairer tax system which highlights the need for a wider public debate on the whole tax regime. For years the super rich have got away with not paying their fair share.”

The Green Party‘s female Principle Speaker Dr Caroline Lucas MEP:

“This Budget isn’t Green, it’s Brown. After spinning extensively that we were going to see the most environmental budget ever, the government have given us more of the same.

“It tells you all you need to know about the government’s attitude to the environment that Darling chose the section on climate change to reaffirm his commitment to expanding both Heathrow and Stansted airports. He claims he wants tougher carbon reduction targets, but if air travel expands in the way he wants, the only way to meet the cuts we need would be to sacrifice every other part of our economy.

“Under pressure from roads lobbyists, he has backed down on the already timid 2p rise in fuel duty, putting it back until autumn apparently due to high oil prices. If he really thinks oil will be cheap by October, his basic understanding of economics must surely be in doubt. Fossil fuel costs will remain high as long as demand remains high, and cowardly decisions like this will only make the problem worse, not better.

“The £20 increase in child benefit is of course welcome, but it falls well short of what is required to meet the government’s laudable targets for cutting child poverty. The £3.4bn that it would take to halve child poverty by 2010 is instead being spent on occupying Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 alone. We need a real commitment to spending on the things that matter, we need to insist that employers pay a real living wage, and we need to end the assault course of benefit traps and welfare blackmail that the government has set up on the border between benefits and work.”

The Communist Party issued this press release:

A BUDGET FOR TAX-DODGERS AND WAR

‘Chancellor Darling is like the boy standing on the burning deck, told to stay there looking heroic by his callous father’, Communist Party industrial organiser Kevin Halpin declared in response to today’s budget.

‘The budget was an exercise in deception using self-defined rules, elastic budgets, permanently revised forecasts and hidden financial liabilities’, he accused, ‘and it refuses to recognise the slide towards recession’.

‘Instead, Britain is to remain a haven for tax-dodging millionaires and multinational corporations, while public sector workers and benefit claimants are to be squeezed until the pips squeak’, Mr Halpin said.

‘The Chancellor will be raiding the £38 billion National Insurance Fund surplus to hand out more money to the banks and private contractors, while taxes on business profits are slashed and an extra

£2 billion is poured into the military supression of Iraq and Afghanistan’, he pointed out.

Pouring scorn on the Chancellor’s ‘puny’ measures to help low-income families and pensioners, he called for price controls and a windfall tax on energy and banking corporations.

‘Monopoly-dominated markets and the City of London will never solve huge problems of carbon emissions and road congestion’, Mr Halpin insisted, ‘what Britain needs are bold measures such as compulsory solar panelling of new buildings and a massive shift of freight from road onto a publicly owned railway system’.

And the Morning Star editorial:

Two views of reality
(Wednesday 12 March 2008)
MOST people know what words such as fairness mean and they are pleased when they hear that the government will tackle climate change and help hard-working families.

Their difficulty comes when they listen to the mood music and then compare it with the reality of economic policy.

Gordon Brown’s latest budget, delivered in the Commons by Alistair Darling, was a classic of its kind, promising one thing and then announcing policies that point in a different direction.

Business Secretary John Hutton had already given us a clear indication of how the government views fairness, pleading for the rich to be allowed to become even richer without risking punitive taxation.

He certainly had no problem convincing the Brown-Darling coalition, who plumped for the normal approach of subservience to big business and contempt for working people.

There was no word of a windfall tax on the utilities companies that have increased charges to consumers far above the rate of inflation even after seeing their profits zoom into the stratosphere.

The Chancellor had nothing to say about the failings of privatisation, as in the rail industry, where cowboy privateers continue to live off the fat of the land while service standards plummet.

Nor did he appear to have noticed the case made by rail union RMT to close the loophole whereby deferred tax of about £750 million over a five-year period, which had been marked for investment, was translated into shareholder dividends by train operators and rolling-stock companies.

But he had no difficulty in identifying the need for “discipline” over pay in the public sector as a means of guaranteeing “low and stable inflation.”

Mr Darling must know that penalising low-paid public-service workers by staggering below-inflation pay rises has little or no effect on the rate of inflation.

And he must also know that there is no point in playing to the gallery by announcing a showroom tax on 4×4 Chelsea tractors or proposing a flight tax rather than air passenger duty if these fly in the face of other government policies.

Caving in to the airline and construction lobbies by agreeing to concrete over much of southern England to increase Heathrow and Stansted airports exposes these proposals as ineffective fig leaves.

There is no logic in the Chancellor’s attempt to attribute inflation around the 2 per cent mark, despite the trebling of energy prices since 2002, to the “success of the monetary policy committee and resilience of the UK economy.”

If manufacturing was still a substantial part of Britain’s economy, higher fuel prices would have a substantial impact, but it is not, because new Labour has turned its back on manufacturing, accepting the EU commission’s designation of this country’s main areas of economic activity as pharmaceuticals and overseas services.

The main reason for low inflation in Britain has been low global food prices and the huge influx of cheap manufactured products from China and other Asian markets.

And, far from this being the basis for stability in Britain, it is storing up problems for an economy that has grown on the basis of consumption funded by house-price inflation and, in the long run, unsustainable personal debt.

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More truth about the “white working class”

This article by Jonathan Rutherford is from the Compass website:

The BBC2 White series might be about whiteness, but it’s put class conflict back onto the agenda. Labour politicians have spent a decade dodging the issue. Our public culture shies away from it, warned off by the hatreds and condescending attitudes it provokes. It’s now getting harder to avoid. Talk about migration and race and you frequently end up talking about class and inequality.

One in six of the population leaves school unable to read, write or add up properly. Social mobility has ground to a halt. Despite the government gearing education to the knowledge economy, the fastest growing occupations are in low paid areas like data input, admin, face-to-face services in health, education and care. De-industrialisation has left millions economically inactive, working in casualised and temporary jobs, or threatened with the loss of their job.

Half the population share just 6 per cent of UK wealth, earning the median annual income of around £18,876 or less. The top 1 per cent of the population – 470,000 people – earn an average annual income of £220,000. They own approximately 25 per cent of marketable wealth. Within this group the top 0.1 per cent earn an average of £780,000.

Consumerism and the status seeking pursuit of positional goods recreates the old class conflicts. The shame of failing in education, of being a loser in the race to success, of being invisible to those above, cuts a deep wound in the psyche. Research has proven how this kind of humiliation dramatically increases vulnerability to disease and premature death. Violence is more common where there is more inequality because people are deprived of the markers of status and so are more vulnerable to the anxieties of being judged by others.

This is the culture of consumption that has shaped a new kind of class society over recent decades. It has been primed by the hard selling of cheap credit. Total UK personal debt stands at £1.4 trillion. £223bn is unsecured debt. It has created an indentured form of consumption as the capital markets lay claim to great tranches of future earnings. Cheap credit has fuelled the highly lucrative market in debt securitisation that generates the City bonuses of the super-rich. In 2007, despite increasing market failure, these totalled £14bn. Compare this to the £3-4 bn it would take to meet the 2010 child poverty reduction target.

Cultural difference is the prism through which large sections of the population experience and react to their insecurity. Migrant labour is used by unscrupulous employers and employment agencies to push down wages. Foreign workers are viewed as competition for housing and under-resourced public services. Political antagonisms and culture wars around race, gender and religion attempt to construct boundaries of identity which will define a sense of belonging and entitlement.

The dislocation, constant change and the decline in a sense of belonging herald the cultural destruction of traditional working class cultures. Life continues but the cultural symbols and institutions that once gave it meaning are disappearing. Those who flourished in the old class culture find themselves ill equipped to deal with the new uncertainties. For them the future becomes difficult to imagine. To lose a way of life is to lose a sense of hopefulness. It is this loss that is driving class back onto the political agenda.

And this one by Seamus Milne is from the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site:

You’d never know it from the way these things are discussed by politicians and the media, but most people in Britain – 53% at the last count – regard themselves as working class. And however hard it may be to agree on definitions of class, that majority is reflected across a range of statistical breakdowns of modern British society. Getting on for 40% of the workforce are still manual workers, for instance; add in clerical workers and you’re getting on for two thirds.

Yet despite the fact that class continues to dominate the country, it’s treated almost as a taboo by the political elite. Even when working-class life does make it into medialand, it’s typically in the form of contemptuous “chav” caricatures, as in the comedy show Little Britain. And when politicians do stray into class territory, they use euphemisms like “hardworking families” or proxies such as child poverty – the object of Alistair Darling’s best pitch to his own party in yesterday’s budget.

So the BBC’s decision to commission a series of programmes about the marginalisation of the working class in New Labour’s Britain should have been a rare opportunity to shine a light on the heart of modern life. Instead, under the banner of “The White Season”, the programmes have been focused entirely on the impact of immigration and race on the white working class, as if it were some sort of anthropological study of an endangered tribe.

The message was unmistakeably clear in the series trailer, where a shaven-headed man’s face is blacked up with writing by brown hands over the words: “Is white working-class Britain becoming invisible?” White working people were being written out of the script, we were given to understand, and multiculturalism and migration were to blame. But in reality, it is the working class as a whole, white and non-white, that has been weakened and marginalised in the past two decades. By identifying the problems of the country’s most disadvantaged communities as being about race rather than class, the BBC has reinforced stereotypes and played to the toxic agenda of the British National Party.

It’s also wrong. Of course, mass immigration in the past few years – overwhelmingly from eastern Europe – has had a disproportionate impact on working-class communities: in housing, public services and pay. The government has deliberately used the unregulated European Union influx as a sort of 21st-century incomes policy, and employers have ruthlessly exploited migrant labour to hold down wages. No one should be surprised if demoralised and powerless people reach for the nearest scapegoat – and it’s no coincidence that some of the worst racism is found in the most economically deprived areas.

But it wasn’t immigration that ripped the guts out of working-class Britain, white and non-white. It was the closure of whole industries, the rundown of manufacturing and council housing, the assault on trade unions, the huge transfer of resources to the wealthy, the deregulation of the labour market, and the unconstrained impact of neoliberal globalisation under both Tories and New Labour. Almost none of that has had a look-in so far in The White Season.

Hopes that Gordon Brown would take the government in a different direction look increasingly forlorn. Labour MPs who invested heavily in Brown are now concluding that Brownism is little more than Blairism without the glitz. Diehard Blairite ministers such as the new work and pensions secretary James Purnell, and business secretary John Hutton, have been given free rein to promote an aggressive pro-corporate and privatisation agenda. Hutton’s declaration this week that Labour should celebrate “huge salaries” and individualism was almost a parody of the early days of high Blairism. But Brown himself went out of his way on Monday to commit the government to accelerated privatisation in health, education and welfare.

Meanwhile, Darling’s budget confirmed his watering-down of the plan to tax the non-dom super-rich and his retreat on capital gains tax under corporate pressure, while Brown has resolutely resisted demands from trade unions and Labour MPs to give equal rights to agency and temporary workers as a way of relieving some of the worst abuse of migrant labour to undercut existing pay and conditions. The prime minister will only allow the issue to be considered by a commission with an employers’ veto. Corporate lobbying has also seen off the threat of a windfall tax on the grotesque profits of the energy companies – which could have given Darling some of the cash he would need to halve child poverty by 2010.

With a gathering economic crisis likely to deliver lower growth next year than Darling predicted and a continuing squeeze on public-sector pay, the political price of Labour’s failure to deliver for its core voters can only grow. The New Labour outriders used to argue that working-class voters could be taken for granted because they had nowhere else to go. Since the 2005 general election, that can no longer wash. Of the four million votes Labour lost, the largest number were from the working class, north and south, white and non-white. As Jon Cruddas, who ran a powerful challenge for Labour’s deputy leadership last year, points out: “Those voters didn’t go to the Tories, they went to the nationalists, the BNP, the Liberals and Respect – or they stayed at home”.

Blairites who insist Labour must once again concentrate on swing voters in southern marginals and “run up the flag” to pacify the rest are, he argues, 15 years out of date and threaten the social coalition needed to win – which can only be rebuilt by focusing far more on housing, insecurity at work, inequality in public services and public-led investment in deprived areas. This is the faultline that is now emerging in the parliamentary Labour party, with the revived centre-left around the pressure group Compass increasingly making the running and Brown tilting unmistakeably towards the Blairite right.

The next test of where this is leading will be the local elections in May, when the BNP, among others, is expected to make significant gains. Unless Labour is prepared to represent the interests of increasingly angry working-class voters, others will certainly fill the vacuum – and the ever narrower three-party stitch-up risks blowing up in the faces of the whole political class.

Mehdi Kazemi and the long battle for gay liberation in England

The case of Mehdi Kazemi demonstrates the hypocrisy of the British government when it comes to gay rights…

No doubt when the US/UK coalition goes to war against Iran, it will be under the bloodstained “humanitarian” banner and lip-service will be paid to the oppression of gay people and the necessity of liberating them, while plans are made to liberate Iranian natural resources for the big oil comanies.

Seyed Mehdi Kazemi came to study in England in 2005. When he discovered his boyfriend back in Iran had been arrested, he knew it wouldn’t be safe for him to return. The UK government didn’t seem that concerned about the plight of this gay teenager, however. Kazemi was detained and facing deportation to Iran – so he fled to Holland. Having failed to gain asylum there because the British government want him back (if only to deport him to Iran) Kazemi’s life is now in danger.

A protest is planned for Saturday March 22nd to be held at 2pm opposite Downing Street. (For more details, see Middle East Workers’ Solidarity, the Hands of the People of Iran site, and Save Mahdi Kazemi) He must be allowed to stay in England, where thanks to decades of activism and labour movement lobbying, LGBT people have won significant rights.

As Patrick Orr writes in the latest issue of Socialist Appeal, the battle for gay liberation in England has been a long one, and it isn’t over yet:

Last year saw the fortieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales – it took over a decade for Scotland and Northern Ireland to catch-up.

Gay people had won the right to have sex: as long as you were both over 21, the curtains were shut, the doors closed, there was nobody else in the house and you weren’t in the armed forces. Oddly enough heterosexuals have never had to fight for this very limited privilege. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was the first victory for a nascent gay rights movement, but there were still many battles to be fought. Gay people could still, perfectly legally be refused service in a pub or shop, kicked out of their house by the landlord, refused a hotel room or turned down for a job on the grounds of their sexuality. What’s more, gay people faced abuse and violence if they were ever to be open about their sexuality and lack of interest by the police if they were to ever report problems. These are all issues that have been faced by countless minority groups throughout history. All of them have won change by organising and fighting for their rights, and where they have achieved most success is when working with the labour movement.

This is where we see the history of the struggle for gay rights is markedly different from other civil rights movements. The Black Civil Rights movement in the USA won the most concessions from the ruling class by mass organising for strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience. This was a tactic not really open to the gay rights movement as gay people were not born into their own communities as racial minorities are, and therefore don’t have a majority in any area in which they can exercise economic power. So the movement quickly got entrenched in holding pride marches: a tactic that held some power but that could not really effect genuine change on its own. Without the option of exercising their collective labour power to improve their legal rights, the gay rights movement never had an obvious reason to make meaningful links with trade unions. There are some examples where gay rights have been furthered by links with the labour movement, such as implementation of sex education including of sexual minorities by the Greater London Council in the 1980s (a policy that was quickly scrapped by Thatcher’s section 28). But in general the lack of links, due to both the circumstances that the gay rights movement had to work within and the homophobia present in the left, was of detriment to the struggle for gay rights.

Legal equality

Although the government has made several key steps towards legal equality, in the shape of equalising the age of consent, civil partnerships and equal rights in work and in providing goods and services, it still fails to tackle the key places where homophobia takes place and often ruins people’s lives.

While parliament preaches about equality and respect working class gay people suffer continual discrimination and harassment in their local community, at work, at school, in the pub or even in their own houses. It is a horrible thing to have to worry about strangers’ reactions when you are walking down the road with another man or woman, or to have to grin-and-bear homophobic comments at school, work or just out at the cinema or in the pub. These are huge problems facing gay people today. The gay rights organisation Stonewall has said that homophobic bullying is “endemic” in Britain’s school, and although some well-meaning teachers try to combat it through education, schools tend to turn a blind eye to it. Little is done by schools and very little by the politicians. The bare truth of the matter is that bigotry serves to divide working class communities.

The constant presence of homophobia can easily create a feeling of isolation and fear, even if there is no direct threat or harassment. This can lead gay people into almost segregated lives in which their main social interactions, apart from work, are with other gay and lesbian people in gay pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants. Self-imposed social isolation of this type breeds further divisions and resentment among working class people, which only creates further hatred and perpetuates this cycle.

The labour movement is becoming increasingly aware of issues effecting LGBT workers, with several unions including UNISON sponsoring pride marches, the TUC highlighting the issue of discrimination at work, and most importantly, fighting for the rights of gay workers. The most notable case of which was UNISON and AMICUS among others lodging legal action against the government over pension rights for gay couples.

Discrimination because of someone’s sexuality, as because of their race, gender or nationality, can only divide the working class and play into the hands of the bourgeoisie. Gay and lesbian people must organise their own fight for rights, but this can only be successful as part of a labour movement fighting for a socialist transformation of society. And only with socialism can come the complete disappearance of homophobia and realisation of full and equal rights for gay people.