This is a class-war government of the rich and the corporations. The hoovering of wealth to the top which is a central feature of the neoliberal era continues unabated. Last year, UK billionaires increased their collective wealth by a fifth, and 24 more joined their exclusive club, bringing the total membership to a new high of 171. At the same time, another 600,000 people were forced to access food banks, so that more than 2.5 million are now dependent on them. These grotesque and growing social inequalities represent the true face of Tory Britain.
The social crisis is, of course, multi-dimensional. NHS waiting lists are now above 5.5 million, and some insiders predict they could reach 13 million. Social care staff shortages are running at around 120,000 and rising. Rent already accounts for a third of Londoner’s income on average, and rents are set to rise by another 20% over the next five years. The real value of wages has fallen by around £500 on average since 2010.
This is a massive, decade-long, Tory-orchestrated attack on the living standards of the working class in the interests of the rich. It is now being ratcheted up further with rising prices, increased taxes, cuts in benefit, and below-inflation wage adjustments. The 2.5 million poorest households with working adults are expected to lose about £1,300 each next year as a result of the National Insurance hike combined with Universal Credit cuts.
Sunak’s budget does not begin to address the scale of the social crisis – neither the soaring inequality nor the decaying public services – and it is not intended to. Much of it is spectacle without substance. The talk of ‘levelling up’, a ‘new economy’, an ‘age of optimism’, and ‘a global science superpower’ is straight out of Johnson’s Teach Yourself Newspeak, where everything means its opposite. The reality is a Brexit and Covid induced crisis which has resulted in massive shortages of labour, supply-chain breakdowns, shortages of food and fuel, and soaring prices.
The Tories have traded a culture-war victory for an economic catastrophe. Brexit has enabled them to build a nationalist-racist electoral bloc of the reactionary middle class and the backward working class. But the cost has been to detach the British state from the European common market and push it towards a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation economic model – a combined sweatshop and tax haven on the edge of the continent.
There are echoes of this in Sunak’s budget, with tax breaks and investment incentives for the corporations. And of course, where there are public-spending increases, much of this will take the form of state contracts to private capital, which have become such a dominant feature of the system in the neoliberal era. Nothing, so far as possible, will be done by public provision; everything that can be outsourced to profiteers will be.
Elsewhere, unsustainable political pressure has produced some giveaways. There is more money for the NHS – but what else could they do given the waiting lists, and of course it is nowhere near enough. There are modest increases in public-sector pay – but again, what alternative was there given fast-rising staff shortages, and again, it does not make-up for previous lost ground, nor cover likely future of cost-of-living increases.
The non-existent opposition
Labour has responded to the Tory budget by highlighting its iniquity and hollowness. Quite right. But what is Labour’s alternative? It doesn’t have one. That is because the Labour Right has regained control of the party, torn up the Corbynista manifesto, and repositioned itself as an alternative neoliberal party of the rich and big business. The Starmites attempt (so far with little apparent success) to tap into the discontent at the base of society with occasional mild flashes of class rhetoric, but it has no more meaning than Johnson’s talk of ‘levelling up’, for they have no programme to match their words. Instead, Starmer trashes his own party’s call for a £15 minimum wage in favour of a pitiful £10, only to have the Tories raise it to £9.50 a month later anyway. The difference between Starmer and Sunak thus acquires a precise measure: 50p. This is what the British social-democratic tradition has been reduced to.
The trade union leaders are marginally better than the ‘opposition’ front bench. Their votes forced through the £15 minimum wage at the Labour Conference. But let us put this in context. The unions were built as organs of class struggle. They were once embodiments of the collective power of the working class in the workplaces. They were once organisers of mass strikes in which tens or hundreds of thousands of workers engaged in all-out action to defend jobs, win pay rises, and improve terms and conditions. Now they are mere lobbyists.
So Francis O’Grady, TUC general secretary, says, on the eve of the budget, ‘We need a proper plan from the chancellor tomorrow to get pay rising across the economy.’ So Christina McAnea, Unison general secretary, says, ‘Ministers must find the cash to give NHS workers the proper pay award they’ve more than earned.’ This is all they do: complain to a cabinet of corporate spivs and public-school toffs that they do not give enough to the workers. There is no attempt to build resistance in the workplaces, no mass campaigning for strikes, pickets, and solidarity, no gearing up to smash through the anti-union laws to lead effective action. Official trade unionism now amounts to little more than whingeing on the sidelines.
The movement must be rebuilt from below. We need to rekindle the class struggle by infusing it with the spirit of Black Lives Matter and the Global Climate Strikes. The danger if we don’t is clear and present: the Tory culture war has created a huge space for nationalism, racism, and fascism to grow. Despite the rank incompetence of the regime and the transparent narcissism and serial lying of its leader, the polls put the Tories well ahead of Labour. Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian, imagines that at some point, almost by magic, political rationality will kick in. ‘With so many trip-wires, who knows which one will topple Boris Johnson. You really can’t fool all the people all the time, not when they count the diminishing buying power of every pound in their pocket.’
History suggests otherwise. It is the class struggle itself that creates class consciousness and class confidence; that generates belief in radical alternatives; that gives rise to the idea that ordinary people can make their own future by their own efforts. Whereas powerlessness breeds despair and reaction. As ever, it is what we do that matters.
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