Austerity with a vengeance

Editorial 319

As the unedifying merry-go-round of Tory prime ministers stops at the third in three months, multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak looks set to return to austerity economics with a vengeance. Partly to rectify Liz Truss’s mini-budget fiasco which produced a massive £50 billion black hole, we look set to endure further swingeing public service cuts in already depleted local government, education, housing and health, while it is uncertain pensions and benefits will remain protected as promised in the Tory manifesto.

The NHS, already bled from 12 years of real terms cuts, supported by dedicated but poorly paid staff, with over 100,000 vacancies and still coping with the aftermath of Covid, struggles with an impoverished and understaffed social care service creating long ambulance delays and bed-blocking. Couple this with almost seven million people on hospital waiting lists and record 12-hour waiting times in A&E, and it is clear that the NHS is far from safe in Tory hands and is vulnerable to ever-growing privatisation.

This is a ‘made in Britain’ crisis, with above 10% inflation – especially in energy and food – huge hikes in mortgages and rents, and a sustained attack on trade unions seeking to protect shrinking real pay levels in the face of mounting living costs.

Tory media shout ‘greedy workers’, but it won’t stick, as TUC head Frances O’Grady argues in a keynote end-of-term interview highlighting the popular support enjoyed by rail and postal workers, dockers, barristers and nurses (in an historic first-time ballot for strike action). Insulting pay offers of 3% while bankers’ bonuses are lifted adds insult to injury. Mick Whelan of the train drivers union emphasises the last-resort action by members after months of protracted negotiations while Government plays Pontius Pilate.

Prem Sikka argues that the dogma-driven Tory right, in pursuit of their small-state, low-tax blitzkrieg, crashed the economy, resulting in further assaults on living standards. He examines the figures to argue that Labour must set out a radical tax-and-spend alternative.

While energy prices are tripling, oil corporations like Shell make record untaxed billions in profits. A windfall tax is a no-brainer, but it also raises the question of removing energy from the sphere of private profit. Dave Toke looks at the consequences of Tory privatisation in the 1980s, while Bryn Jones provides a critical analysis of the idea of nationalisation. He argues different models of public ownership should be explored involving regional and local bodies to avoid the previous over-centralised bureaucratic system. Labour’s Great British Energy plan could fall flat unless it is rooted in democratic structures and much more extensive in scope. Paul Salveson echoes this in his critique of the Tories’ hollow ‘levelling up’ rhetoric, calling for real regional devolution of resources and power.

The growth mantra of the Trussites with their discredited trickle-down economic theories begs the big question: what kind of growth? The only growth we have seen under 12 years of Tory government has been in food banks, homelessness, child poverty, mental illness, sewage in our rivers and sea. What’s needed is very different, life-sustainable growth. Gross domestic product increases does not mean happier, healthier and longer lives, as George Monbiot has argued, in comparing the US with lower GDP states like Portugal and South Korea.

The United Nations warns that the planet is heading for catastrophe as targets for global emission reductions are missed, resulting in devastating floods. Witness Pakistan, wildfires and drought; witness Somalia today with millions on a knife edge of life. The big powers – Russia, US and China – show little sign of dramatic reductions in fossil fuels, while Rishi Sunak shows no sign of recognising the importance of climate and biodiversity action to protect life on earth. Licences for oil, gas and coal exploration are granted while green levies on fuel are scrapped. These policies, along with the Prime Minister’s reluctance to even attend COP27 in Egypt, do not auger well for the outcome, reports Nigel Doggett. From greenwashing, we have its twin, ‘sportswashing’ – Dave Lister reports on the staging of the World Cup in Qatar, where hundreds of migrants have already died and continue to face ruthless exploitation, while LGBTQ+ people face repression and prison.

Blaming migrants and workers for the economic woes of capitalism in crisis characterises the populist ultra-right as it takes power in Sweden and Italy, as reported by Julie Ward and Andrea Pisauro respectively. Britain is no stranger to migrant-bashing, says Don Flynn in his analysis of government hostile environment policies likely to continue with rule-breaking Suella Braverman’s reappointment as Home Secretary. Safe asylum seeker routes and an easier welcome to European and other migrant workers could both help ease workforce shortages and demonstrate a humanitarian face for Britain. This must be Labour’s stance if we want to avoid the fate of Swedish and Italian social democrats who sought to appease nationalist flag-wavers and migrant-bashers in their countries.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine enters a further deadly phase, as reported by Mick Antoniw and Alena Ivanova. Solidarity remains the key in terms of finance, medical aid and defensive weapons to push Putin out and restore peace and national sovereignty.

Starmer’s Labour faced an easier opponent in Liz Truss. Sunak will force Labour to articulate a sharper economic and social alternative. The huge poll leads have already started to drop. Living within our means, public spending cuts and wage restraint will be the mantras of the government, but that will mean Labour has to be clearer about support for trade union strike action, a progressive tax-and-invest policy, clearer on its green new deal, and stronger on wealth redistribution. Labour Party Conference made an historic commitment to electoral reform. That policy and other democratic reforms to our antiquated systems of governance need to be at the heart of our alternative.

Saturday 10th December
12.00-5.00pm online
Speakers include Prem Sikka, Ann Black and others. Details to follow – sign up to our newsletter below for updates.

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