As two million workers from 29 unions went on strike today, I paid a supportive visit to the Embankment in London, and watched as a huge procession of public sector workers came down Northumberland Avenue from Trafalgar Square and the Strand, having first convened in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
The timing could hardly have been better, as the strike came the day after the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, admitted in his autumn statement that the whole point of the cuts and misery inflicted on everyone in Britain below the level of rich and super-rich — designed, we were told, to pay off Britain’s deficit in time for the next General Election in 2015 — had failed.
As Jonathan Freedland explained in the Guardian, “That goal had now receded to the distant horizon of 2016-17,” and “All the pain, the tax rises and spending cuts, that were meant to turn red ink black, would be, if not quite in vain, in pursuit of a goal now revealed as vanishingly remote.”
As Freedland also explained, Osborne was, in addition, obliged to sign up for what he always claimed was “the great Labour disease” — excessive borrowing. “And yet here he was,” Freedland continued, “admitting that the coalition would be borrowing £158bn more over the next four years than it planned a year ago.”
As Freedland also noted, “He could not even boast that this extra cash would be spent stimulating the economy. Instead he had to absorb the Labour taunts that he was paying the ‘bills of failure,’ borrowing to pay for the dole and forfeited tax receipts of the newly jobless.”
That should have been obvious to anyone who had been looking carefully at the coalition government’s assault on workers since they came to power. With no sign whatsoever of how savaging state spending (with its huge knock-on effect on private sector firms servicing the public sector) would stimulate growth, it was inexplicable that the government could fool itself into thinking that actively making people unemployed would lead to anything other than reduced tax receipts and an increased bill for the unemployed, which, in turn, would require extra borrowing.
Even more insultingly, having decided to actively seek to make people unemployed, the Tories also declared, soon after taking power in their unholy coalition with the now thoroughly discredited Liberal Democrats, that they were aiming to punish the unemployed as well, for daring to be feckless and workshy, as they and their friends in the tabloid media portrayed it, even though there was only one job for every five job applicants in the whole of the UK.
Kicking the unemployed during a recession was one of the greatest cruelties of our new masters, but it was matched, I believe, not only by the cap on benefits that has not yet kicked in, but will lead to tens of thousands of people being made homeless (even though it will, in the end, cost more to rehouse them), but also by the continued assault on the mentally and physically disabled. Following up on one of Labour’s cruel legacies — the assault on incapacity benefit — the Tory-led government has pushed ahead with allowing the French firm ATOS Healthcare to review the cases of the 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit, at a rate of 11,000 a week, with a mandate to find as many people as possible “fit to work,” even though the entire review process has been revealed as a scam, and the government is now being obliged to pay out a fortune in legal fees in an attempt to defend its indefensible actions.
For more on this story, see my article, Brutal Benefit Cuts for the Disabled Are Leading to Suicides in the UK, and also see this article by John Harris, and this sad story of a man who died of lung disease after being declared “fit to work.” Also see this report on the impact of incapacity benefit “reforms” by Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill of Sheffield University, which, as Professor John Walton explained in a letter to the Guardian last week, “shows how the government is poised to push 900,000 largely unqualified long-term sick and disabled people into ‘engagement’ with a non-existent job market, harassing and threatening them, and reducing already exiguous living standards still further.”
So today, although I was happy to stand with public sector workers fighting back against a squeeze on their pensions, I was also, to be blunt, aware that my sympathies also extend to workers prevented from being in unions, millions of self-employed workers, and, of course, the unemployed, whether they are mentally or physically disabled, or are young people being forced into a disgraceful workfare programme that involves them working for their dole (in other words, for far less than the minimum wage) for corporations that could easily afford to pay them.
In the new year, I hope that there will be a renewed coalition of those opposed to this rudderless government, which includes all of the categories of people mentioned above, and not just unionised workers, because we need to create a climate for change that mainstream politics seems unable to offer, and to find representation for all of us who are being kicked down and demeaned by the government.
Certainly, there is no way that the government can transform Britain’s economic woes into anything positive — not only by the new year, but at any point. The Chancellor has always boasted that he did not have a Plan B. Where does that leave him now that his Plan A has failed? The ongoing cuts have failed to encourage growth, there is no private sector miracle waiting to ride in on a white charger, the misery is only going to get worse and worse, and the Chancellor has singularly failed to provide for a moment any sign that the UK is a remotely happy place to be, and one in which, under his care and attention, citizens can have faith in the future.
Instead, he and Cameron and whichever two other idiots in the Cabinet that you’d like to choose, are like a grim parody of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Note: For further information about the government’s cruel notions of welfare reform, and my despair at my fellow citizens, see the following articles that I wrote last year: Butchering the Poor, the Ill, the Weak, the Dispossessed and the Marginalized: Welcome to Cameron and Osborne’s Heartless Britain, Critics Attack UK Government’s Cruel and Ill-Conceived Assault on Welfare, The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms and On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion.