After Fightback Thursday, a general strike?

The News Line has it right – well, up to a point, I cut out the last two paragraphs…

TENS of thousands of teachers, college lecturers and civil servants are striking today against government-imposed pay cuts.

As a result of the action by the 270,000-strong National Union of Teachers (NUT) about 7,500 schools will be closed, colleges will shut their doors as a result of the walk-out by 27,000 University and College Union (UCU) members and 100,000 civil servants from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) will strike.

Ahead of today’s strike, the NUT’s Acting General Secretary Christine Blower said: ‘What we’re saying to the government is, if you really do value teachers, then make sure that they’re paid at least at the level of inflation – which we take to be the RPI (Retail Price Index), which is 4.1 per cent.’

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government is imposing a 2.45 per cent increase on teachers this year, and 2.3 per cent in 2009 and 2010, which is a pay cut in real terms. This follows cuts in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

College lecturers are in a similar position. The UCU put in a claim for six per cent with other unions (UNISON, UNITE, GMB, ACM and ATL) whose members work in Further Education. They have been told by the Association of Colleges that they will get only 2.55 per cent for 2007-08.

The PCS is demanding pay rises for its members of at least four per cent. In response, the government is imposing an average two per cent pay rise on civil servants. This is once again a pay cut, a reduction in the living standards of PCS members.

The prices of the basic necessities of life, like food, housing and energy are rocketing, as a result of the leap in world food prices, the ever rising price of oil and the collapsing exchange rate of the pound.

The official inflation figures, not only the government’s preferred CPI (consumer, Price Index) but even the RPI, does not measure the rate of inflation being experienced by working-class families. The PCS has calculated that food prices have increased by 7.4 per cent, petrol by 20.5 per cent, water by 5.5 per cent, gas by 12.9 per cent and electricity by 7.9 per cent.

It is clearly time for the trade union movement to draw up its own cost of living index and the unions must win pay awards that compensate workers for the loss in purchasing power of their salaries and preserve living standards, by pay being index-linked to the trade-union, cost-of-living index.

Members of the NUT, UCU and PCS are taking coordinated strike action today and holding joint rallies in cities and towns throughout the country because they confront the same problem – pay cuts imposed on them by the Brown government.

More than a million members of staff in the National Health Service (NHS) and another million workers employed by local authorities are in the same position. UNISON members in the NHS are already balloting to reject a pay cut, the prelude to taking strike action.

After today’s magnificent united strike action, the five million workers in the public services must demand their union leaders organise an extended public sector general strike, coordinated through the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The Labour government demonstrated at the beginning of last year that it would not back down on its pay-cutting policy as a result of a one-day strike by 2.5 million public service workers.

During the extended general strike, public sector workers must tell the government they will not return to work until their unions’ pay claims have been settled in full. Brown’s claim that the government cannot afford to pay public sector workers will deceive no one after this week’s decision to hand over £50bn to the speculators running the country’s biggest banks.

If the Brown regime does not concede, it must be brought down and be replaced with a workers’ government, based on councils of action formed in every area, drawing their representatives from the unions, community organisations and working-class political movements.

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Was there really a U-turn on tax?

I give you, the Morning Star’s editorial:

A squalid little retreat
(Wednesday 23 April 2008)

THERE will be some Labour Members of Parliament congratulating themselves on Thursday over their great victory in challenging the government and winning concessions on aid for those hit by the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

And there will be ministers congratulating themselves on averting a damaging collision with MPs in the house which they could not have won and which would have materially damaged their party’s election prospects.

Both of those self-congratulatory groups will be 100 per cent wrong. And both of them have done themselves and their party no good at all.

For what has really happened in Parliament?

The government has climbed down and accepted that it has to do something to remedy a cock-up that it shouldn’t have perpetrated in the first place.

And Frank Field MP has withdrawn his amendment on the flimsiest of promises of totally inadequate measures to reimburse victims of the government’s incompetence months late and not even all of them at that.

Mr Brown in Parliament and Mr Darling, in a letter to the rebels, mentioned adjustments in the minimum wage to offset the harm done to low-paid young people.

But it is highly unlikely that they will abolish the discriminatory lower level of minimum wages that his government now supports at big business’s insistence and which has done even more harm to young people than his latest error with the 10p rate.

And, should he do so, that would still only help those working on the absolute minimum wage, doing nothing to help young people even slightly above it, but still below the £18,000 benchmark.

He has also mentioned using winter fuel payments to help those of the elderly who have been affected.

Quite how any supplement to this payment will be made to exclusively aid those hit by the 10p cut is not made clear but, if it was used, it would have to involve some kind of means-testing to this hitherto across-the-board benefit.

As for changes to tax credits, this hideously complex system already suffers from up to £1.2 billion lack of take-up due to means-testing, so in what way that will benefit the poorest is beyond the wit of man to imagine.

And any changes are to wait until the autumn anyway, leaving the poorest people in the country short of a significant element in their income for months on end, while the fuel supplement isn’t paid until nearly Christmas – and that is a one-off payment only, which still leaves unasked the question of compensation in further years.

As far as ministers rejoicing over having avoided a damaging confrontation in Parliament, with all the electoral problems that this implies, don’t they realise that the damage has been done already?

The initial arrogant refusal to even consider that they had been wrong has done damage that cannot be repaired and the fact that it took the threat of a parliamentary defeat to force even these insubstantial half-promises out of them can have been missed by nobody.

In short, the changes are an ephemereal, quite probably unworkable and unprincipled bodge.

Mr Field has done the poor no favours in his precipitate withdrawal of his amendment and has failed to have the courage to tough it out in the face of pressure from the whips.

All in all, a squalid little performance from a party which is rapidly losing all credibility with the voters, and with good reason.

After St George’s Day, after Britain

Comrade Mark Perryman has this article up over at the Compass website and I think you should read it:

The first three terms of a Labour government have been constitutionally dominated by devolution. Whilst the English, at the outset of this process, mostly took a take-it-and-leave it attitude, the impact in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been much more profound.

So much so that in May 2007 nationalist parties became a central part of government in each of these parts of our once united Kingdom.

Gordon Brown finally became Prime Minister just as Britain appears to be entering an irreversible drift towards some kind of separation. Although the time-scale remains uncertain, any idea that the moves towards devolved power will be reversed is an untenable position – whichever party wins the next Westminster General Elections. Yet Brown seems to be seeking to reinvent himself as the ‘Bard of Britishness’ (in a wonderful phrase from Tom Nairn).

Thirty years ago Tom Nairn was a lonely voice on the left in his argument about the Break-Up of Britain, and the democratic potential in bringing an end to the Union. Now it is Brown who appears the lonesome one when he urges us all to run a Union Jack up the flag pole in the face of the much greater appeal of identities framed by our English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish belonging. ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, Brown demanded, in front of a huge Union Jack backdrop at his inaugural Labour Conference as prime minister. This was an appeal to the most backward, defensive and narrow version of national identity, wrapped in a flag that increasingly lacks the unifying appeal he is so obviously seeking. One wonders how often Brown has been out canvassing back home in his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, urging voters to fly a Union Jack out of their window to celebrate their ‘Britishness’, or stuffing Labour Party leaflets adorned with the same flag through letterboxes. Just what kind of response would Gordon get if he tried?

Instead of retreating into a sour-faced jealousy of our Celtic neighbours who have achieved something denied to the English – a measure at least of independence and difference from the one-flag-fits-all politics of the Union – the English would do better trying to learn from our nearest, if not always dearest. It is time to embark on a process founded on engaging with what England might become, rather than what it once was. Not just a St George Cross to stick out the car window and a national dress of bri-nylon football jerseys, but the beginnings of shaping some kind of state of independence out of those summer tournament bursts of ninety-minute nationalism.

It is time to move on from a simple celebration of the enormous, friendly and increasingly multicultural flag-waving parties of football’s world cups and Euros, or the rugby world cup and Ashes series. Instead we need to consider the connections between these eruptions of Englishness and a broader cultural, social, and political emergence of Broken-Up Britain. My thinking here is in part a response to points made by Beatrix Campbell. Speaking at a discussion of Billy Bragg’s book The Progressive Patriot, Beatrix questioned the centrality often awarded to football in re-imagining Englishness: ‘By aligning football with national identity you are ignoring the fact that football has been connected with some of the worst things in English history. It’s a mistake to think that national culture is defined by football. What is it about the insecurities of masculinity? Why would anybody want to think that football should define in any way at all the new English sensibilities?’ England and football have certainly been responsible for some of the nastiest expressions of English patriotism, but they have also contributed to moments of a popular, inclusive, multicultural Englishness. Yet Bea’s point is essentially correct: if football is all we’ve got, what kind of nation do we imagine England might become?

It is the discontinuity between the current version of devolution and common-sense democracy that is most likely to create the momentum towards change. It is in this context we cannot afford to ignore the potency of the BNP’s appeal. Jon Cruddas has been absolutely correct when he has talked about the BNP’s capacity to mobilise support by defining national identity not only racially, but as the frontline against both immigration and Europe. This, of course, is an option not limited to the far right: such defence-mechanism politics is resorted to by a much broader constituency. But if we fail to engage with these arguments they will almost certainly come to define Englishness on their own terms – of insecurity in the face of difference.

Our engagement should revolve around imagining England as a new nation, though of course it comes complete with an ancient history. Our history and language isn’t simply constructed out of an imperial and martial legacy, though it is pulled into different shapes by these past episodes, and migration and colonialism add layer upon layer to the story. The full English isn’t to be found by trying to locate a pure, deep English – a task which is thankless and futile. It is the mix, the impurity, that is so distinctive.

Environmentalism adds a key perspective to this English imaginary; in an era likely to be defined by the imperatives of climate change, this is no longer an added extra but central to progressive thinking. The rubric of Green politics is basing our preservation of the local in our commitment to the global. Does this offer us a different way of settling national and international loyalties, to their mutual benefit? A green and pleasant England – a patchwork of particularities – is one route to Jerusalem; and perhaps it has the potential to merge the progressive and the patriotic.

We urgently need to make a start on connecting popular affiliations to Englishness with a political expression for the emotional investment that so many share. No one should underestimate the difficulties in such a process, but that shouldn’t stop us recognising its crucial importance. What is required is a soft patriotism – one that is open and inclusive, and hard to take for those who favour hate and prejudice. Its aim: an England which will be for all, after a Britain that was always for some.