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14 October 2010

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

By Peter Lazenby

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.

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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