Thursday, September 16, 2010
Anyone who has been on jobseekers' allowance, for example, would be entitled to feel both insulted and threatened by Clegg's trite remarks. The amount given to those seeking work is just the bare minimum that the government deems will cover a 'basket of goods' (food, travel, toiletries) to enable an individual to live a relatively spartan life while seeking employment. No one is being compensated - they are being kept alive. The system prevents high structural unemployment from wiping out much of the population, or forcing it into criminal, black market activities. Cutting those benefits is an attack on the life chances of millions of unemployed workers.
On top of that, if it weren't for a whole network of other public goods, such as libraries with free internet access and newspapers, this level of income would indeed be a trap. After all, how can one compete for jobs in today's labour market without regular internet access? Few people on benefits actually have internet in their homes. Or public transport. How could one travel to and from job interviews, if it weren't for an effective public transport system? How could one afford the journey, or a suit to wear, if it wasn't for various kinds of reimbursement that one can claim from the job centre? And healthcare. People living on jobseekers' allowance tend to have poorer diets and are vulnerable to illness. If it wasn't for free GP access, and free prescriptions for those out of work, their life chances would be sharply reduced. Which makes it all the more ironic that this is a government that is attacking not just benefits, but all of the various components of the welfare state, while at the same time removing the public sector investment that is sustaining employment. At the same time, they will be seeking to raise the pension age, so that more people are in the labour market for longer, thus increasing the amount of structural unemployment. The spiel about 'welfare dependency' is a crock - they are knowingly making it so that more people find it more and more difficult to escape unemployment.
Before the election, Clegg was seen by many as an honest broker, a fresh face unbeholden to 'sectionalism' in the best tradition of liberalism. But he has emerged as yet another spokesperson for the interests of capital. He is part of a Tory government, therefore part of a government of big business. That was the basis of the coalition pact. And, moreover, this isn't an unnatural position for the Liberals to be in. It is alleged by certain parties to the Lib-Lab negotiations back in May that the Liberals proved even more hawkish in negotiations than the Tories were in public, pushing the agenda on cuts well to the right. I find this all too believable. And thus, the Liberal leadership grabbed with both hands the opportunity to shed that aura of centre-left probity painstakingly accumulated by Charles Kennedy in the tradition of Jeremy Thorpe and Jo Grimond. Their standing in the polls has for now stabilised at between 12 and 14% - still too high in my opinion, but, if it holds, their lowest standing since the 1979 general election when David Steel crashed to 13.8% in the polls. In short, the long-term benefit to the Liberals from the division in the Labour coalition in 1981 is being reversed by this apparently very short-sighted Orange Book leadership.
I take delight in the Liberals' woes. This is not just because of my burning hatred for this coalition, and my probably unwarranted shock at the Liberals' decision to team up with the Tories. It is mainly because the defection of millions of voters from the Liberals is most likely to be a class conscious act, by former Labour supporters in working class heartlands. I take heart from that, and from the prospect of the centre vote being destroyed by the worst capitalist crisis in living memory. The coalition's 'mandate' is weak. The majority of people do not support the coalition's plans. 22% of people back the government's cuts. 37% support the lesser, more gradual cuts that Labour proposed at the last election. 37% of people don't want any part of the cuts, and favour protecting jobs and the vulnerable above tending to the deficit. This suggests that the arguments of the Left and the unions are starting to have an impact, despite having precious little coverage in the media. These arguments, favouring a version of left-Keynesianism, are entirely incompatible with the official programme of any of the three major parties, but they provide a good basis for some sort of 'action programe' that the left can unite around, and which can inform the practise of community activists and trade union militants.
Of course, it helps that Labour's current leadership race is forcing some of the contenders to sound a little bit more left on the cuts than they actually are, adapting to Diane Abbott's argument that the cuts are not necessary. While the Milibands are sticking pretty much to the cuts package announced by Labour at the last election, hedged with a lot of mealy mouthed language about 'credibility', Ed Balls, who sunk his own campaign early on with his crass, racist intervention on immigration, has said that we shouldn't even be talking about cuts at this point. But as is often the case, opinion is solidifying against the government's austerity agenda without much lead from national politicians, and amid a near Orwellian campaign in the media to advise in the most shrill, strident terms that "there's no money left".
If 'public opinion' is turning against the government, industrial action is likely to weaken its position further. Polls have recently suggested that 35% of people at the moment favour industrial action to fight cuts, and 45% of people would oppose it. Caveats apply to these, as to all poll findings, and no industrial strategy should be exclusively based on such evidence. But in my opinion, this does mean that the argument is wide open. 35% of people saying they back strike action when, as the poll was taken, only the left-wing trade union leaders and the revolutionary left had openly called for it, is quite a good number to work with. All of the anti-cuts coalitions springing up locally can take heart in this, in the negative approval ratings for the coalition, in the polls showing majority opposition to the cuts, and in the growing but very substantial and potentially organised minority who advocate a completely different programme altogether.
National strike action, coordinated to some degree, is now inevitable. The coalition is making it so. Socialist Worker's analysis argues that the TUC is moving to the Left, propelled (all too slowly) in that direction by the sheer aggression of the Tory cuts and the anger of the rank and file. The conference in Manchester has been marked by almost complete unanimity on the seriousness of the threat, and the need for united action including joint industrial action as well as community campaigning to resist these cuts. Trade unionists recognise that they have a fight for survival on their hands. But so do the young, pensioners, the unemployed, students, and those workers who aren't represented by a union.
That is why it is essential that these anti-cuts coalitions continue to be built, from the ground up, involving all of those affected, and everyone who wants to fight, such that when the workers go out on strike they do so with established roots in local communities, as part of, with the support of, and on behalf of those communities. But they should not stop at the local level. The working class has been too divided and atomised over recent years to put up adequate resistance to the neoliberal agenda. The aim must be to combine all of these coalitions and groups into a national movement that can both defeat the Tories long before their term expires, and form a popular bulwark against sell-outs by whatever Labour leadership emerges after the elections. Because if labour history has taught us anything, it is that what the Tories fail to do by aggression, Labour can often do through cooptation. Whether or not the goal proves possible, it is unrealistic to aim for anything less. Either the left and the labour movement get their act together at this pivotal moment, or they will be destroyed by the coming onslaught, and we will have a future in which Nick Clegg occupies the farthest left of bourgeois politics, with a right-wing increasingly defined by petit-bourgeois reactionaries and fascist provocateurs. Imagine - it would be like living in America.