More nasty, vicious cuts. No Repeal of the Health & Social Care Act. An attack on our unsocial hours. An attack on our basic democratic right to strike. These are just some elements of the brutal class warfare the Tories are preparing to unleash over the next five years. So, how should we as trade unionists respond?
"We’re still facing a government of over-privileged, public schoolboy millionaires intent on destroying the welfare state."
Firstly, we are not in a hugely different situation to that which we were prior to the election. We’re still facing a government of over-privileged, public schoolboy millionaires intent on destroying the welfare state. Secondly, we remember that only slightly over one in three people who voted actually voted Tory and overall they received just 20% of the votes of the eligible electorate. They have a much reduced majority with the Lib Dems on board and they are (yet again) poised to tear themselves apart over Europe. The smug and complacent grin on Cameron’s post-election face may perhaps be just a little premature.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we in Unison Sussex Partnership branch have seen our confidence and combativity grow over the last few years. From successfully resisting the imposition of twelve and a half hour shifts in Brighton to mounting a hugely impressive and hard fought campaign to retain our substance misuse service. Although that campaign was ultimately lost, it was not before we managed to land some telling blows on the CCG and the council. We saw the confidence of individual stewards and members grow as they threw themselves into the campaign, backed up by an impressive coalition of the branch, community campaigners from Sussex Defend Our NHS as well as local Labour and Green councillors. And although now momentarily downcast, we find ourselves fighting fit and in a strong position to wage the sort of struggles and campaigns against the Tories plans outlined above.
"We find our branch fighting fit and in a strong position to wage the sort of struggles and campaigns against the Tories plans"
Specifically in relation to the election result, am I disappointed? Hell yes. Am I surprised? Hell not really. We have seen the results of what a campaign genuinely based on anti-austerity can achieve. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain demonstrate the huge potential to mobilise around anti-austerity. Last Thursday night we saw the SNP in Scotland obliterate the Labour Party with it’s anti-austerity, close the tax loopholes, abolish Trident message. We also saw our very own Caroline Lucas trounce her Labour opponent and romp home with an 8000 majority after campaigning, in her own words “on the politics of hope rather than the politics of despair.” The lesson is as simple as it is clear. People are sick of austerity and will respond to those politicians who are seen to give a clear expression and lead to their resentment and frustration. Sadly, Labour’s campaign was largely characterised by negativity and timidity. Miliband’s “difficult choices” and Ed Balls “two more years of Tory spending plans” failed to resonate, excite and engage. It’s never comforting to see a Tory win a seat but I have no sympathy for Balls, none whatsoever. Elections are not won in six weeks. The retreats by the trade union and Labour leaders since 2011 demoralised activists. Struggle creates communities of campaigners; retreat sends people back to their homes and to individual fear where they then become prone to insecurities about their own and their families futures.
It was clear that the Scottish electorate were always going to punish Labour for their behaviour during the referendum campaign. Nevertheless, if Miliband had responded favourably to Nicola Sturgeon’s overtures to form a left-of-centre bloc to “lock David Cameron out of Downing Street” this had the potential to wipe the floor with the Tories. Suicidally, Miliband seemed more anxious to reassure the City of London that he would not seriously threaten the status quo of ordinary working people paying for the crisis brought about by the bankers.
"Suicidally, Miliband seemed more anxious to reassure the City of London that he would not seriously threaten the status quo of ordinary working people paying for the crisis brought about by the bankers."
Incredibly, the argument now being advanced in some sections is that Labour lost due to being too left-wing. And this is not being confined purely to the fundamentalist wing of Blairism. Chuka Umunna, shadow business secretary and potential future leader is also preaching the requirement to win back ‘Middle England’ and champion ‘wealth creation.’ It will be tragic to watch the inevitable lurch rightwards when all the evidence confirms that Labour was nowhere near left-wing enough.
The failed breakthrough by UKIP was one of the few highlights. Nevertheless, they polled worryingly highly, coming second in many constituencies and winning control of Thanet council. They could yet enjoy a resurgence, mopping up disaffected far-right Tories in the EU referendum.
"It’s not too melodramatic to say that the very survival of the NHS and union organisation, hell the very survival of a halfway decent society where the strong and fit look after the weak and vulnerable, is at stake as never before."
So, the next five years ain’t going to be pretty. They now have the wind in their sails to push through even greater and more brutal cuts to public services and attacks on public sector workers. First of all they are going to try to make it illegal for us to fight back by introducing a 50% ‘Yes' threshold for industrial ballots (together with a 40% threshold of all eligible members for ballots in the NHS). Thresholds incidentally that would disqualify the Tories from assuming office two and a half times over. We’ve said it before but this really is a line in the sand. it is an outright attack on one of our most basic democratic rights and must be resisted at all costs. Similarly, we must ensure Dave Prentis is held to every word and every syllable of his commitment made at health conference last month to wage an effective struggle in defence of unsocial hours and not abandon that struggle until we have won. We can no longer allow the pessimism of our union’s leadership to prevail. It’s not too melodramatic to say that the very survival of the NHS and union organisation, hell the very survival of a halfway decent society where the strong and fit look after the weak and vulnerable, is at stake as never before. And if we all stand shoulder to shoulder, we can yet beat back this despicable government.
Don’t mourn, organise.
La lotta continua
Stephen McLean is Branch International Officer, writing in a personal capacity.