It’ll be grimmer up north

Peter Lazenby’s home town — Leeds — was ravaged by Margaret Thatcher’s cuts in the 1980s, but the co

Gipton Fire Station in inner-city east Leeds is one of the busiest in the country, regularly handling 30 emergency call-outs over its three daily shifts. Working life for the station's firefighters has just taken a slight turn for the worse. West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service has sacked the cooks who prepared meals at the busiest of its 48 stations.

As cuts go, it is not dramatic. No one will die as a result. It deprives Debbie Lynch, Gipton's cook, of the job she loves, though she says of the crews: "It's them that's going to suffer, really." With Debbie gone, and a call-out every 48 minutes, the crews will have little time to prepare proper meals and will have to go without. The fire authority, meanwhile, will save £200 a week for each cook it is sacking - eight in total.

The redundancies came in advance of the government's Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October. The fire authority made small-scale savings to pre-empt what it suspected was on the way. And it was right to be fearful. It is now braced for the loss of £20m from its £93.5m budget. The fire service will have to lose 33 front-line firefighters, plus 42 posts in areas such as fire prevention, and an additional 45 "non-operational" jobs. It's hard to see how the loss of such jobs will not endanger lives in the community.

What is happening to West Yorkshire Fire Service is being replicated across the country, and goes far beyond fire services to virtually every other area of public service and protection. We already know that an estimated 600,000 public-service jobs will be cut. Even more are expected to go in the private sector - around 700,000 in total. In Yorkshire, the Royal Bank of Scotland is axing 1,000 jobs as part of a nationwide cull of 3,500. This comes despite the bank's recent announcement of half-yearly profits of £1.1bn.

Back in the public sector, we know who will be hit hardest - women. Most public-sector workers are women, including the worst-paid. They are already suffering the effects of pay freezes, and worse is to come. We should examine the cuts in human terms, rather than thinking of them as statistics.

As a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, I covered Tory-imposed cuts in the 1980s. The secretary of state for health and social security in 1986 was Norman Fowler. He introduced "reforms" to benefits affecting single mothers, lone pensioners, families with elderly or disabled relatives in need of care, and other vul­nerable people.

On a sprawling council estate in Belle Isle, a southern suburb of Leeds, I interviewed in­dividuals in each category selected by Fowler for reduced benefits. For example, an elderly widow told me how the reduction of about 50p in her weekly benefit would affect her. She said she would either be unable to afford the pound of minced beef to which she treated herself for shepherd's pie at the weekend, or she would have to turn off a bar of her electric fire. A single mum said she was already in hock to loan sharks and was heading deeper. Similar stories were told over and over. It didn't stop the Tory cuts, but it illustrated what they meant to real people. Now it's going to happen again - a repeat of 1986, but far, far worse.

Benefit thieves

Already 11 out of the 33 electoral wards in Leeds have been classified in EU terms as "acutely deprived". The number of people on benefits in these wards is high. What will happen when the government cuts the benefits bill by £10bn - including £2.5bn supporting disabled people and those too ill to work - as it says it plans to do? Added to the misery caused by cuts in benefits will be the deliberate creation of mass unemployment, as in the 1980s. Take my home city, Leeds, as an example of the effects of the looming public-sector job cuts.

Leeds has a defined travel-to-work-area workforce of about 440,000 people. More than a quarter work in public administration, education and health - roughly 120,000 people in all. There are many other jobs that rely on public- sector funding - local transport, for example. The figure also excludes tens of thousands of public-service jobs contracted out to the private sector, such as hospital cleaners. But even just using the basic 120,000 figure, 30,000 jobs in Leeds are under threat from cuts, and that is a low estimate.

Add current unemployment in Leeds, at just under 10 per cent, or 40,000 people, and you begin to hit levels of joblessness worse than those of the 1980s. Then repeat this across the most deprived areas of the country. The Leeds economy has survived recession better than most, in the past, because its industrial and economic base is so diverse. It has a huge financial sector. But how will communities that are already struggling survive such blows? And what of the wider effects on communities and small businesses due to the reduced spending power of so many workers? Anger against what is coming - against what is already taking place, in some areas - is growing. I share in that anger. But whether it can be converted into action is another matter.

At least in the 1980s, the trade union movement had the strength and the resources to fight back. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, there were more than 13 million trade union members in Britain. Many did resist. They were battered. Their industries were destroyed. They were shackled by anti-union laws that made Britain the worst country in the European Union for workers' rights.

Today, the trade union movement has just 6.5 million members. (It has to be said that after 1997 Labour did little to undo the anti-union laws, other than introducing the right to union recognition.) Critical industries have been destroyed, including mining and steel. Many parts of Britain's old industrial heartlands have still not recovered.

Yorkshire had 60 pits not long before the miners' strike of 1984-85, employing 60,000 men. Now it has two, with fewer than 1,000 miners between them. Many of the communities that depended on the pits as the foundation of their economy are now depressed and poverty-stricken. I could take you to former mining areas where young men who would otherwise have learned the discipline of working in the mines, and of the union, are hopeless heroin and crack addicts.

The suffering has been shocking - and now along comes a new set of Tories, this time backed by lickspittle Liberal Democrats, intending to make it worse. Those of us who lived through the Thatcher years - suffered through them, I should say - know what to expect. They will put workers on the dole, then attack them for being "work-shy" and cut their benefits. They will slash budgets for state schools and many other vital publicservices.

Ultimate betrayal

Some aspects of what is happening are parti­cularly appalling. One is the deceit practised on the electorate by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Neither party, during the election campaign, gave a hint of the attack to be mounted on the worst-off, most vulnerable people in Britain. And let us have no more rubbish about how "we're all in this together". We expect this of the Tories. But who would have voted for the Liberal Democrats if they had known them capable of such policies?

Then there's the targeting. It can be identified in two ways: by class and geography. Those who depend on public housing, state schools, public health services, benefits, state pensions and council home-helps - these are the people who will suffer most. And the suffering will be worst in the north, the north-west and the Midlands, according to recent research by the BBC. History records the repeated "harrowing of the north" stretching back 1,000 years. It's about to happen yet again.

But perhaps the worst aspect of what is to come is that it is unnecessary, just as the butchery of the mining industry was. Despite the financial disasters that have hit national econ­omies since 2008, Britain is still a wealthy country. It's just that most of the wealth is in a tiny number of hands. Swingeing taxes on Britain's ultra-wealthy could deal with our £155bn deficit in a breath and still leave them rich - they are worth double that.

Two things should be happening. First, what is left of our trade union movement should be preparing to fight in defence of jobs and services. Despite the reduced strength and fortunes of the unions, despite the legislative shackles, 6.5 million organised workers are still a force to be reckoned with. Second, Labour should go back to what it once was - a party with bold policies to narrow the equality gap, not widen it. Under its new leader, Ed Miliband, it should commit itself to stopping the cuts and to taxing the ultra-rich. If it does, it will win the next general election. It will also destroy the Lib Dems for their treachery.

Peter Lazenby is a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

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Paul Mason: How the left should respond to Brexit

It's up to the labour movement to rescue the elite from the self-inflected wound of Brexit.

For the first time in a generation there is a tangible split between the Tory leadership and the business elite. Forget the 41 per cent poll rating, forget Theresa May’s claim to have moved towards “the centre”; the most important thing to emerge since the Tory conference is a deep revulsion, among wide sections of normally Conservative voters, at the xenophobia, nationalism and economic recklessness on display.

Rhetorically, May has achieved a lot. She quashed any possibility of a soft Brexit strategy. She ended 30 years of openness to migration. She scrapped the Tories’ commitment to balanced books by 2020 – though she neglected to replace this keystone policy with anything else. And she pledged to stop constitutional scrutiny over the Brexit process from Holyrood, Westminster or the courts.

Yet in reality she achieved nothing. May’s government is not in control of the crucial process that will define its fate – the Brexit negotiations. And on Scotland, she has triggered a sequence of events that could lead to the end of the UK within the next five years.

In the light of this, the left has to be refocused around the facts that have emerged since the referendum on 23 June. Britain will leave the EU – but it faces a choice between May’s hubristic nonsense and a strategy to salvage 30 years of engagement with the biggest market in the world. Scotland will hold its second referendum. Labour will be led through all this by a man who, for the first time in the party’s history, cannot be relied on to do the elite’s bidding.

Brexit, on its own, need not have caused a great shift in British politics. It is the new, visceral split between Tory xenophobia and the implicitly liberal and globalist culture in most boardrooms that makes this a turning point. It is a challenge for the left as big as the ones Labour faced in 1931, when the gold standard collapsed; or in 1940, when the reality of total war dawned. It represents a big opportunity – but only if we jolt our brains out of the old patterns, think beyond party allegiances, and react fast.

Let’s start with the facts around which May, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd constructed their rhetorical body swerve at the Tory conference. Britain is £1.7trn in debt. Its budget deficit cannot be eradicated by 2020 because, even on the steroids of quantitative easing, growth is low, wages are stagnant and its trade situation deeply negative. Austerity, in short, did not work.

With sterling weakened, by next year we’ll begin to feel the pressure of imported inflation on real wages, re-creating the economic pain of 2011-12. On top of that, by attempting a “hard Brexit”, May has created damaging uncertainty for investment that no degree of short-term positivity can mitigate. Even if the range of outcomes only widens, investment will get delayed – and with May’s commitment to hard Brexit the range of outcomes will get significantly worse: 7.5 per cent lopped off GDP, according to a leaked Treasury assessment.

Civil servants believe Britain’s negotiating position is so weak that it will have to leverage its intelligence-providing services to Europe and concede “free movement of high-skilled workers”, just to persuade the French and the Germans to cut any kind of decent bilateral deal. Yet in the two years of brinkmanship that begin when Article 50 is triggered, the EU27 will have no reason whatsoever to concede favourable terms for bilateral trade. By adopting hard Brexit and hard xenophobia, Theresa May has scheduled a 24-month slow-motion car crash.

To orient the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider progressive movement, we need first to understand the scale of the break from normality. Labour already faced deep problems. First, without Scotland it cannot govern; yet many of its members in Scotland are so dislocated from the progressive Scottish national movement that the party is bereft of answers.

Next, the old relationship between the urban salariat and the ex-industrial working class has inverted. With a vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia – the cities that voted to stay in Europe. Its electoral battlegrounds are now places such as Bury, Nuneaton, Corby and Portsmouth, where the “centre” (as measured by the Lib Dem vote) has collapsed, to be replaced by thousands of Green voters and thousands more voting Ukip.

This was the known problem on the eve of Brexit, though layers of Labour MPs and councillors refused to understand it or respond to it. The solution to it was, even at that point, obvious: Labour can only attract back a million Green voters and hundreds of thousands of Ukip voters in winnable marginals with a combination of social liberalism and economic radicalism.

The alternative, as outlined in the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, was an overt return to social conservatism. That cannot work, because it might win back some ex-Labour Ukip voters but could not inspire Labour’s new urban core to go on the doorstep and fight for it. On the contrary, it could easily inspire many of them to tear up their membership cards.

A new strategy – to combine social liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism with left-wing economic policies aimed at reviving the “communities left behind” – was, for me, always the heart of Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself, whatever his personal strengths and weaknesses, was a placeholder for a political strategy.

Brexit, the attempted Labour coup and the Tory swing to hard Brexit have changed things all over again. And Labour’s leadership needs to move fast into the political space that has opened up. The starting point is to understand May’s administration as a regime of crisis. It is held together by rhetoric and a vacuum of press scrutiny, exacerbated by Labour’s civil war and the SNP’s perennial dithering over strategy to achieve Scottish independence. The crisis consists of the perils of hard Brexit combined with a tangible split between the old party of capital and capital itself. The elite – the bankers, senior managers, the super-rich and the ­upper middle class – do not want Brexit. Nor does a significant proportion of Middle Britain’s managerial and investing classes.




All this presents Labour with a series of achievable goals – as an opposition in Westminster, in London, as the likely winner in many of the forthcoming mayoral battles, and at Holyrood. The first aim should be: not just oppose hard Brexit, but prevent it. This entails the Labour front bench committing to an attempt to remain inside the European Economic Area.

The wariness – shared by some on the Corbyn side, as well as the Labour right – is born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour. The party’s new spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, expressed perfectly what is wrong with this approach: first it’s a negotiation, not a finished relationship; second, you start from the economics, not the migration issue.

Leaving the single market will be a macroeconomic disaster, compounded by a social catastrophe, in which all the European protections – of citizens’ rights, labour rights, consumer and environmental standards – will get ripped up. That’s why the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.

John McDonnell’s “red lines”, produced hurriedly in the days after Brexit, embody this principle – but not explicitly. McDonnell has said Labour would vote against any Brexit deal that did not involve some form of single-market access, and preserve the City’s passporting arrangement, where banks are authorised to trade across an entire area without having to be incorporated separately in each country. Freedom of movement is not included in the red lines.

May, meanwhile, insists there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating stance, or of the outcome. This position cannot stand, and overthrowing it provides a big, early target for Labour and the other opposition parties. They should use their constitutional influence – not only in Westminster but at Holyrood, Cardiff and the mayor-run cities, to bust open the Conservatives’ secrecy operation.

By declaring – formally, in a written pact – that they will refuse to ratify a Brexit deal based on World Trade Organisation tariffs, the progressive parties can destroy May’s negotiating position in Brussels overnight. Let the Conservative press accuse us of being “citizens of the world”, undermining the national interest. They will dig their own political grave even faster.

In parallel, Labour needs to lead – intellectually, morally and practically – the fight for a coherent, pro-globalist form of Brexit. In order for this to embody the spirit of the referendum, it would have to include some repatriation of sovereignty, as well as a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.

In response, Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration and – forgotten in the rush to “tinder box” rhetoric by the Blairites – puts refugees at the front of the queue, not the back. At its heart must be the assurance, already given to three million EU-born workers, that they will not be used as any kind of bargaining chip and their position here is inviolable.

Finally Labour needs to get real about Scotland. The recent loss of the council by-election in Garscadden, with a 20 per cent swing to the SNP, signals that the party risks losing Glasgow City Council next year.

It is a problem beyond Corbyn’s control: his key supporters inside Scottish Labour are long-standing and principled left-wing opponents of nationalism. Which would be fine if tens of thousands of left-wing social democrats were not enthused by a new, radical cultural narrative of national identity. Corbyn’s natural allies – the thousands of leftists who took part in the Radical Independence Campaign – are trapped outside the party, sitting inside the Scottish Greens, Rise or the left of the SNP.

The interim solution is for Scottish Labour to adopt the position argued by its deputy leader, Alex Rowley: embrace “home rule” – a rejigged devo-max proposal – and support a second independence referendum. Then throw open the doors to radical left-wing supporters of independence. If, for that to happen, there has to be a change of leadership (replacing Kezia Dugdale), then it’s better to do it before losing your last bastion in local government.

The speed with which Labour’s challenge has evolved is a signal that this is no ordinary situation. To understand how dangerous it would be to cling to the old logic, you have only to extrapolate the current polls into an electoral ground war plan. Sticking to the old rules, Labour HQ should – right now – be planning a defensive campaign to avoid losing 60 seats to May. Instead, it can and must lay a plan to promote her administration’s chaotic demise. It should have the ambition to govern – either on its own, or with the support of the SNP at Westminster.

To achieve this, it must confront the ultimate demon: Labour must show willing to make an alliance with the globalist section of the elite. Tony Blair’s equivocation about a return to politics, the constant noise about a new centrist party, and signs of a Lib Dem revival in local by-elections are all straws in the wind. If significant sections of the middle class decide they cannot live with Tory xenophobia, the liberal centre will revive.

The best thing for Labour to do now is to claim as much of the high ground before that. It must become the party of progressive Brexit. The worst thing would be to start worrying about “losing the traditional working class”.

The “traditional working class” knows all too well how virulent Ukip xenophobia is: Labour and trade union members spend hours at the pub and in the workplace and on the doorstep arguing against it.

All over Britain, the labour movement is a line, drawn through working-class communities, which says that migrants are not to blame for poor housing, education, low pay and dislocated communities. For the first time in a generation Labour has a leader prepared to say who is to blame: the neoliberal elite and their addiction to privatisation, austerity and low wages.

It was the elite’s insouciance over the negative impacts of EU migration on the lowest-skilled, together with their determination to suppress class politics inside Labour, that helped get us into this mess. An alliance with some of them, to achieve soft Brexit, democratic scrutiny and to defeat xenophobic solutions, must be conditional.

We, the labour movement, will dig the British ruling class out of a self-made hole, just as we did in May 1940. The price is: no return to the philosophy of poverty and inequality; a strategic new deal, one that puts state ownership, redistribution and social justice at the heart of post-Brexit consensus.

That is the way forward. If Labour politicians can bring themselves to explain it clearly, cajole the party apparatus out of its epic sulk and make a brave new offer to Scotland – it can work. But time is important. We are up against a corrosive nationalist bigotry that now echoes direct from the front page of the Daily Mail to Downing Street. Every day it goes unchallenged it will seep deeper into Britain’s political pores.

Paul Mason is the author of “PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge