Why we are right to strike

There will be more to come if the government doesn't start meeting the needs of ordinary people.

Two days before the largest strike in a generation, I addressed a packed hall of trade union members in Glasgow. They were united and determined to resist this government's raid on their pensions - and that was before they'd heard George Osborne's autumn statement.

Perhaps one prescient member had been given a sneak preview, since she told me: "If we don't stand up for pensions today, they'll come for our pay or our jobs tomorrow."

Public-sector workers face working longer and paying more to get a smaller pension, despite their existing arrangements being entirely affordable and sustainable. The proposed increase in pension contributions is a tax on working in the public sector - all going to the Treasury, not a penny towards improving pensions. It's robbery.

Workers are in the second year of a pay freeze - years that have coincided with rampant inflation. They now face two further years of below-inflation pay rises, at the end of which their living standards will be 15 to 20 per cent lower.

The government replies that many private-sector workers have suffered pay freezes and lost their pensions. My union has nearly 30,000 private-sector members, but we've never argued for an equality of misery. The government would like us to compare public- and private-sector workers in some sort of depraved competition for the worst lot, to distract us from the vast gap between what is imposed on ordinary workers and how a tiny elite at the top carries on.

The differences between public and private are overplayed: the average public-sector pension is £5,600, while for private-sector workers in defined benefit schemes the average is £5,800 - roughly the same modest amount. But while 85 per cent of public-sector workers are in defined benefit schemes, only 11 per cent of private-sector workers are.

Wilful greed

That scandalously low figure in the private sector is a result of the wilful greed of top directors, who have closed pension schemes while protecting their own nest eggs. These directors have an average pension of £175,000 per year and last year their pay increased by 49 per cent, on average.

All of us pay for that private-sector greed through higher prices in the shops, higher bills, higher fares and by missing out on tax revenues as many wealthy individuals and big business hide their money away offshore - an option not available to ordinary taxpayers - but which costs us all £120bn a year in lost revenues.

This cosseted elite, including many of the current Cabinet, have never had to worry about paying the bills, going into arrears on their rent or mortgage, or even having to choose - as many pensioners will this winter - between adequately heating or eating.

The day before the strike, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimated that public-sector employment will fall by 710,000. In the past three months alone, civil servants have seen 24,000 of their fellow workers leave. This is damaging public services from borders to tax collection. Even in the so-called "protected" areas, such as the NHS, 26,000 staff have been forced out in the past quarter.

With falling living standards, the prospect of an impoverished retirement and their own jobs increasingly under threat, public-sector workers are understandably angry. As in any confrontation, some have wanted to keep their heads down and hope it doesn't affect them but there is an increasing realisation that we need to unite and stand up to this bullying government.

On picket lines and in marches and rallies across the country, that is being demonstrated. If the government does not change course and start meeting the needs of ordinary people, more and escalating strike action, occupations and protests will be inevitable in 2012.

Growth strategy

A BBC opinion poll just before the strike showed 61 per cent thought it was justified, while only 36 per cent disagreed. Why should that be? There is a growing awareness that the wrong people are being made to pay for a crisis they had no role in creating. That same poll showed only 28 per cent believed the government is handling the economy well; 67 per cent disagreed.

People are rightly asking why the government is slashing over £20bn from welfare and imposing £9,000 fees on students, when it can afford to give away £25bn in business tax breaks? Why public-sector pensions are now unaffordable yet nuclear weapons a necessity? Why young people get six months in jail for stealing bottled water, while big business can avoid paying billions in taxes with impunity?

There is a creeping sense of injustice and a realisation that the government is on the side of its fellow millionaires. But there's also something positive going on: solidarity - a further awareness that, underneath the millionaire cabinet and its City friends, we are all in this together.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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