A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The rot at the core of public services

New Labour's big idea for its second term of office is more privatisation. They argue private companies can make profits at the same time as providing decent public services. New Labour claims all public services would benefit from bringing management in from the private sector. But now it's time to dissect the gulf between Labour spin and the reality and experience of ordinary working people. In everything from rail, health, housing to BT, privatisation has been a disaster. TWENTY YEARS of Thatcherism tore down many services but Labour has continued the destruction faster than the Tories dreamt of. Even proposed increases in spending on education and health, came after what the Financial Times described as "three years of astonishingly tight control of public-sector spending." Even this extra spending will barely have an impact. Public investment is in almost continuous decline. The share of investment by central government has fallen from 5% of GDP 30 years ago to 1.5% in 1998; if anything it puts the UK at the bottom of the European investment league.

Walk through any housing estate in Britain and you will see housing stock in a state of disrepair. This is after years of neglect, followed now by the wholesale sell-off of entire estates to the private sector. In 1953, 220,000 new council homes were built. An average of 100,000 council homes a year were being built, though just 20 years ago local authorities controlled just over five million homes, 30% of all housing stock. 75,000 new homes were built every year. Today councils only control 3.3 million homes, just 15% of the housing stock. Only 1,000 homes were built last year. 2,000 people sleep rough every night, 10,000 will be homeless over the next 12 months. It would cost £20 billion to clear the housing repair backlog. 300,000 homes have been transferred to the private sector since 1998. Councils are being bribed with an additional £12 billion to write off debts, only if they agree to transfer their housing stock. Stock transfers mean rent increases, lack of security of tenure, an increase in evictions and the decimation of thousands of jobs.

Talk is cheap, especially if you happen to be the PM, Gordon Brown. For all the Labour government's spin on tackling poverty, it has actually been rising since 2004 according to an authoritative study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The report shows that poverty, unemployment and property repossessions all started to rise during the first half of the decade. Some 13.4 million people live in low income households - defined as households earning less than 60% of the national average, the same level as in 2000. And the number of very poor households earning less than 40% of the average is at its highest level for 25 years, at 5.7 million. Two million children lived in low income, working households - the highest figure since the Foundation started collecting records. The report's author, Peter Kenway, points to the impact of 30 years of long-term unemployment and chronic levels of low pay as contributing to widespread poverty.

Socialists were out in Coventry on 5 December campaigning against the closure of the Ericsson Research and Development facility at Ansty, which will mean the loss of at least 700 jobs. Coventry has already seen a complete decimation of its manufacturing jobs with the closure of Massey Fergusons and Peugeot, to name just two major employers in the city. In the last few weeks hundreds of ordinary people have signed the petition which demands "government action to defend the jobs of these skilled manufacturing workers and to provide a future for our youth." Socialist Party councillor Rob Windsor, who represents the St Michael's ward of the city, was one of those collecting signatures: "It's simple really, the government should step in and nationalise Ericsson, bringing it under public ownership - why is that the bankers with their obscene bonuses get bailed out but when workers are losing their jobs New Labour doesn't want to know. How about a bail out for ordinary people, not the bankers?"

When Labour came to power with a mission to sort out education, they bulldozed ahead with the mantra of "whatever works". All opposition to New Labour "reform" was met with this crude put-down. Tests were necessary to drive up standards. Ofsted was needed to root out bad teachers. This was a mask to continue Tory policies. It was a strategy to justify the centralisation of control of schools, the handing of lucrative contracts to their friends in big business for buildings and services, and to stop dead any opposition from teacher unions. A regime, initiated by the hated Tory Party under Margaret Thatcher, introduced the testing of children at seven. This has been pursued relentlessly over the last 12 years. Now every part of education - from children's early admission to school, the content of the curriculum, the building of schools under the Private Finance Initiative, the conditions of teachers and support staff, right through to university level - all have been infected with this suffocating top-down control. Targets, testing and league tables have led to bullying management, and a narrower curriculum than even that of the old Victorian era!

But the recent Cambridge Review completely shatters the New Labour and Tory myth. It supports much of what socialists and trade unionists, and a wide range of educationalists, have been warning over many years. Unfortunately for a generation of children - and their teachers - everything we said has been borne out. It bears out with evidence based on research that the narrowing of the curriculum is not good for children; and that the biggest contributor to under-achievement is poverty. It condemns the current system of SATs. But in the end it will be down to the unions to get SATs and all their ramifications thrown out. The unions, particularly the National Union of Teachers (NUT) have had chances to do just that. In 2003 the union, under a right-wing leadership at the time balloted teachers in primary schools to stop Key Stage 1 and 2 tests. Although the result was over 30,000 in favour of a boycott, the leadership buckled and stepped back, leaving teachers even more isolated. This gave the green light to the government to pile on more of the same, with one diktat after another, one fruitless literacy strategy after another.

Earlier this year the NUT conference voted again to call another ballot to stop SATs with delegates on their feet chanting enthusiastically: "No more SATs." The NAHT, the headteachers' union followed up by passing the same motion at their conference. It seemed that this time it was for real. Then absolutely nothing happened. Recently the heads, not unexpectedly, backtracked, and the now Left led leadership of the NUT fell in behind them. What has taken place is only an indicative ballot, not a real ballot for action. If strong action is not taken soon, the matter could be left to David Cameron and his crew to sort out. According to the Conservative shadow education minister Michael Gove, their view on less interference by central government is, true to Tory form, to hand over schools (including primaries) lock, stock and barrel, to all manner of private outfits. In other words they propose the complete dismantling of state education. The recommendations of the Cambridge Review, with some exceptions, are on the whole very welcome. However, the current system of testing and league tables will not fall down through evidence alone. Trade union action is the key. If teacher trade unionists take the first step to boycott they will find a huge pool of support from parents, other educationists, academics, and even the media, who could all be drawn in to bring about real changes for the benefit of children.

Not content with yearly pay-cuts, repossessing our homes, trying to rob us of our measly pensions and consigning our kids to the next 'lost generation' unemployment figures, this government of parasitic hypocrites, happy in its world of bonuses and backhanders, is now coming with a hatchet for our jobs. These cuts will be in the very services that are needed now more than ever, as the recession turns our lives upside down. How many times over do they expect us to pay the price for this mess of theirs? We will fight to defend our jobs, conditions, vital services and our children's futures. We'll make Brown and his cronies wish they'd never tried to make us the scapegoat for a system in crisis. How dare they spend millions of pounds on bailing out the banks with our money, as taxpayers, and then still want to attack our jobs, wages and pensions - a double whammy! How have they got the nerve? It makes us angry & confused by this abuse of trust by New Labour (or Old Tory) who make the working class once again pay for the foolishness of irresponsible rich Big Business. The union leaders should be railing against 'the market' and demanding the things that we want - jobs, decent wages, homes and pensions, instead of cowering in front of the great god 'the market' that brought us into this terrible economic recession.

It is an outrage and tantamount to theft on a grand scale that health workers and other Unison members are expected to suffer service cuts, job cuts and exploitative working conditions to pay for the capitalists' economic crisis. We both provide and depend on these very services. A mass campaign of coordinated action by the public service trade unions should be called urgently, linking up with service users, to answer these plans of this parliamentary cross-party coalition of the greedy. Public and Commercial Service union members are essential workers and we would be in a far better position to support people if the government hadn't slashed 30,000 staff and 700 offices. Brown should remember the mess that his last assault on the civil service caused and think before doing it again. He should scrap Trident and close all the tax loopholes. Billions of pounds are going uncollected because of the cuts that have been made to PCS members working in tax offices; it is fundamentally a slap in the face for those barely able to afford living costs.

It's a disgrace that public sector workers are expected to pay the price through cuts in jobs, pay and conditions. The three main parties all say cuts are inevitable after the election. In reality cuts are already taking place. At our hospital there has been a recruitment freeze in domestic services since January, putting extra strain on existing workers to make up for the resulting staff shortages. Gordon Brown's comments that frontline services won't be hit are false and condescending to the highest degree - at the end of last term, thousands of schools throughout the UK laid off teaching assistants. Social care services remain chronically understaffed and experienced social workers are drowning in paperwork, not allowing them to provide safer environments for vulnerable children and adults. There is a huge amount of resentment and anger being stored up which eventually will explode to the surface as public sector workers defend their services against Brown, Cameron or whoever.

"Savage cuts needed". This refrain sung by Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrats' annual conference is going to be repeated, albeit in different keys, at both the New Labour and Tory conferences. All the establishment parties accept the logic of capitalism, therefore demanding that working class people and public services should pay the price for capitalist crisis and bankers' greed. Anxious to add his party's voice to the 'slash and burn' frenzy, Nick Clegg has abandoned the few policies which made his party appear fractionally to the left of the big two; particularly the pledge to abolish tuition fees for students. Leaders of the Liberal Democrats have expressed outrage at Tory leader David Cameron's declaration that there is barely a cigarette paper's breadth of difference between the two parties' policies but this is merely a statement of fact. Beyond the general election a Tory-Liberal coalition is possible if the Tories do not achieve the majority they are hoping for. New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown used his speech to the TUC congress to 'reveal' the open secret that Labour too plans to make drastic cuts in public spending after the general election.

The TUC leaders recognise that a Tory government would be a disaster for the working class. For the majority of them, however, the only way forward is to continue clinging to the coat-tails of New Labour. The biggest trade unions in Britain have handed over many millions of pounds of their members' money to New Labour. The CWU alone has handed over £6 million since 2001. Yet its members in the Royal Mail are currently being forced to take strike action against an onslaught of attacks designed to prepare Royal Mail for privatisation. Brown has presided over a public sector pay freeze and the slashing of tens of thousands of civil service jobs. At the TUC he made it crystal clear - using the word 'cut' four times even in one sentence - that a future New Labour government would also decimate public services. Rank and file trade unionists are increasingly unwilling to accept that their money should be used to fund a party which is attacking their pay, conditions and public services - and why exactly should they?

In London, CWU members have organised a regional indicative ballot over whether the union should continue to give money to the Labour Party. In the PCS, which does not fund New Labour, members are going to be consulted over whether the union's political fund should be used to back trade union candidates in opposition to New Labour in future elections. Of most immediate importance, the RMT is currently organising discussions with others on taking part in a coalition that would stand trade union and left candidates in the next general election; the RMT called a potentially important conference to discuss the relevant issues on Saturday 7 November, in London. A glimpse of the potential for a trade union-backed left coalition in the general election is shown by the German general election. There, Die Linke - the 'Left Party', established three years ago, is currently on 14% in opinion polls for Sunday's general election. Despite the present political limits of Die Linke, it is winning support by standing in defence of public services and for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. In Britain, a trade union backed left coalition would mark a significant step forward in the struggle to create an independent voice for working class people. It could stand candidates that argue for a socialist programme and demand that working class people do not pay the price of the capitalist crisis. Such candidates would stand in stark contrast to all the establishment parties, and would play an important role in giving confidence to the struggle to defend public services, which will be crucial after the general election, whichever of the axemen is prime minister.

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