Austerity and Counter-Austerity in Britain

Social Protest Movements and Political Organizing On the Rise – Published on The Bullet #714, by Roger Annis, October 22, 2012.

Britain is in the throes of a deepening class struggle prompted by attacks on social and democratic rights by the capitalist class. The economic elite is pressing forward with an austerity program of ever-deepening cuts to jobs and social services. A coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats has been in power for the past two years and has cut billions of dollars from public services. With the country mired in economic stagnation, the two parties are aiming to cut billions more in government spending, most notably in the social sphere. 

The leading force in the Coalition, the Conservative Party, says it wants to cut a further 10-billion pounds ($15-billion) from welfare payments alone between now and 2015. Under consideration are denial of housing subsidies to people under 25 years of age and ending per-child welfare benefits to families that bear more than a yet-to-be announced fixed limit of children.

Wages of Britain’s public service workers have been frozen since 2011. In March of this year, the UNISON union said the pay freeze and other attacks had reduced the purchasing power of health service workers by some 15 per cent. Further cuts are aimed at vacation benefits and family-friendly work schedules.

Previous Labour governments began the outsourcing of health services to private providers. The Conservatives have drawn up a list of 6,000 additional procedures to be outsourced. This is stoking tension with directors of the Nation Health Service. Its chief executive, Sir David Nicholson, recently warned against privatization “carpet bombing,” saying it could easily end in “misery and failure.

As a result of government attacks, social protests in Britain are on a marked upswing. A mass protest against austerity has been called by the trade unions to take place in London and Glasgow October 20th. Students will follow that with a national day of protest on November 21 against rising tuition fees, cuts to student living assistance and other restrictions on access to education.

A Tripartite Assault: … //

… Women Hit Especially Hard By Austerity:

Women and girls are among the hardest hit by the anti working-class policies of the Coalition government. A report published in The Guardian earlier this year showed that rising taxes and cuts to social spending have hit women three times as hard as men. Women aged 50-64 have been hit hardest by rising unemployment since the Coalition came to power, up 31 per cent compared to an overall increase of 4.2 per cent in the country (to 2.6 million people).

The deeply sexist character of the British ruling class and its governing institutions has been revealed in several hugely reported cases of sexual abuse and assault of women and girls. Police are investigating dozens of accusations of sexual interference and assault against teenage girls by former BBC music program host Jimmy Savile. The entertainer died last year. The accusations go back decades.

Many of the assaults took place in the BBC television studios where Savile worked and in hospitals where he routinely visited on behalf of his widely acclaimed charity. As a result, the BBC and the National Health Service and their managers are now being investigated for negligence or potential complicity, and possibly face legal action by victims … //

… Rising Social Protest:

Conservative claims to be reliable managers of capitalism and the state budget – the bedrock of the party’s claim to political credibility – have taken serious hits in recent years. Following the financial collapse of 2008, the party and its Coalition government have demonstrably refused to punish or even curb the financial and media oligarchs responsible for the economic mess.

A centerpiece of Conservative policy dating back to the years of Margaret Thatcher (the 1980s) – the privatization of the passenger rail network – recently imploded over the renewal of the operating license on one of the country’s more lucrative lines. Rail privatization has been exposed as a cash grab, a form of taxation against users costing billions of pounds in increased fares and operating subsidies while providing handsome profits to operators. Rail unions have renewed calls for the renationalization of railway operations.[2]

The Coalition government is not as stable and strong as Tory bravado suggests. The weak partner in the arrangement, the Liberal Democrats, risks political annihilation in the next election as a result of its participation. It has lost 20 per cent of its members since 2010.

Anger against the decades-old privatization and austerity drive is prompting a scale of protest not seen in decades. Last November, two million public sector workers went on strike to defend pension benefits. Sectional strikes of public service and other workers have continued, including teachers and rail workers. Union branches and some national unions have voted in favour of a general strike against austerity.

Student mobilizations are renewing after significant protests involving tens of thousands of students across England in late 2010. Heightened police violence contributed to a dip in protest following the repression of the mass Millbank protest in November 2010 where students occupied the Conservative Party headquarters.

The toxic sexualization of culture and life has sparked the rise of a new and militant feminist movement. Kat Banyard, a founder in 2010 of UK Feminista, explains in an October 15 feature article in The Guardian:

“Throughout the 1990s and much of the 2000s, we were sold a lie on an almighty scale. That equality had been won, that the battle was over, and now was the time to enjoy our rights. I think what really helped contribute to that was how institutions and corporations who rely on sexism, who rely on women’s inequality, adapted and changed. And co-opted the language of feminism very, very cleverly.”

At a day-long conference of the Counterfire political group on October 13, Kate Connelly gave a hard-hitting overview of the challenges and opportunities for women’s rights advocates today. “We are seeing a wholesale assault on the rights of women that was entirely predictable when the Coalition government embarked on its austerity program,” she argued, and women and their supporters are fighting back.

A key front of struggle that is deepening is defense of the right to protest. Political protests are routinely harassed or broken up by police. Since 1990, 1500 people have died in police custody. But a fightback is deepening.

A day-long conference of the “Defend the Right To Protest” coalition took place on October 14. A leading force in it is the Socialist Workers Party. The conference was marked by broad participation, including from trade union and student groups, Black rights organizations and activists from some of the main historical battles for civil rights in Britain. Speakers included MP John McDonnell, Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Janet Alder, sister of Christopher Alder, a former British soldier killed in police custody in 1998.

Today’s Conservatives carry on the same class warfare policies as during the years of Thatcher, but it’s a tough go. They don’t necessarily bring the same set of political skills. They showed some weakness during the 2010 election by presenting themselves as undergoing moderation in an effort to shuck their image as the ‘nasty party,’ though the recent party conference visibly put an end to that pretense. Most importantly, privatization and austerity programs now have a track record of failure to create economic and social progress for the majority of society.

All of a sudden, the working-class protests and political advances in the countries of southern Europe are looking less distant from the shores of Britain. The working-class has an opportunity to organize to give the fragile Coalition government the boot long before its 2015 electoral mandate is up.

… Postscript: A Day of Anti-Austerity Protest in the UK: … //

… (full long text).

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