Britain's recession - the cuts out of the bag

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(340)

The current bickering between the three major parties about cuts in public spending started with accusations being tossed between them over who was going to make the cuts and who wasn't. But now consensus has been reached.

The argument between all three parties has now shifted to abstract discussions of semantics: Peter Mandelson says the Tories will bring "savage cuts" and the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg boasted of his own preference for "savage cuts" at his party conference. The Tories, meanwhile, have been openly bragging to their rich friends about what they will do to reduce spending.

The parties are now competing to show they are proposing the "nicest" cuts. Nick Clegg even went as far as arguing that we need "progressive austerity" - a contradiction in terms akin to "compassionate conservatism" or "happy slapping".

Gordon Brown had the gall to grandstand his own cuts at TUC conference, of all places. So he plans to "cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets" but would "not support cuts in the vital frontline services".

Yet only days later education secretary Ed Balls was boasting that he can cut £2 billion from education, and health secretary Andy Burnham claimed the NHS budget will need to be slashed by £20 billion. Perhaps the nub of the argument comes down to your definition of "vital frontline services".

The politicians are in the contradictory position of trying to prove themselves to their big business superiors while at the same time appealing to the concerns of desperately needed voters.

The clamour for cuts has opened the floodgates to the likes of the Confederation of British Industry who want a 50 percent increase in student fees and a rise in student loan interest payments, proposals that have been supported by the 1994 Group of universities and the Tories.

Needless to say, this doesn't have to be the case. Britain is still the sixth richest country on the planet, after all. But as the three parties of big business continue to worship at the altar of profits, the prospect of taxing the hyper-rich is tantamount to sacrilege.

But the mixed messages can create problems for the government. Gordon Brown is keen to talk about his heroic rescue of the economy, and the potential for the green shoots of recovery to break through. But this recovery comes at a cost.

The massive bailouts of the banks were justified by claiming they would save the economy from cataclysm. In fact, they were destined to save the huge profits of a few people. So, as the bankers celebrate the homecoming of their massive bonuses in the City champagne bars, the rest of us have to pick up the tab.

The "captains of industry" aren't suffering. As Tesco workers struggle on an average wage of £10,000, CEO Terry Leahy makes 907 times this amount. Bart Becht, head of Reckitt Benckiser (the company behind Cillit Bang and Nurofen, among other things), makes a staggering 1,374 times his workers' average wage of £26,700.

So the obvious question is this: if the economy is recovering, who is benefiting from that recovery? It's not those in the public sector, whose pay and jobs are still under attack. It's not those in higher education, who now have no mainstream party supporting their right to free education. And it isn't workers like those at the Vestas wind turbine factory who, despite the massive profits of the company and the paper commitment to green jobs, still ended up being thrown on the scrap heap and abandoned by government.

Workers rightly feel abandoned. People see that the "tough choices" over cuts apply solely to the poor. But for workers to be angry and see these contradictions is one thing - to have the confidence to fight back is another. The Financial Times has voiced the concerns of bosses that pronouncements of impending recovery will cause people to ask why they must continue to suffer, and stoke resistance to pay cuts and job losses.

This is why the increasingly militant pockets of working class action are so important. The indefinite strike action at Tower Hamlets College is an inspiration for many others, and the occupation at Vestas could not have happened without the courageous occupation at the Visteon plant.

Who pays for the crisis is up for grabs. As socialists we need to argue that this will depend on whether we can forge the large-scale fightback that is needed to push back the bosses' attacks.