The campaign against Coventry City cuts, which was launched last weekend by City Council trade unionists, entered its second phase on Saturday, February 23rd. In bitter cold, about 200 trade unionists, along with other supporters, marched through the city centre to Speakers Corner opposite the Council House. Darrall Cozens reports on the fight against cuts in Coventry.
The campaign against Coventry City cuts, which was launched last weekend by City Council trade unionists, entered its second phase on Saturday, February 23rd. In bitter cold, about 200 trade unionists, along with other supporters, marched through the city centre to Speakers Corner opposite the Council House. The march was headed by Martin Hartnett and Dave Anderson of Unite the Union, proudly carrying the Coventry TUC banner.
Speakers came from a national and regional level. They praised the unity of the council unions – Unite, Unison and GMB – and said that this could be an example that could set the tone for the rest of the country. At last, organisations that represent council workers are standing up and beginning to fight.
This is something that should have happened when the cuts were announced just after the 2010 elections. When the coalition government, comprised of Tories both blue and yellow in colour, announced the attacks on pensions, trade unions up and down the land came together to protect existing and future pensioners. They did not want to pay more, work longer and get less. In particular, they did not want their members to pay the price of a crisis they did not cause.
The unity achieved in that struggle, where trade unions that had never been on strike in their history came out onto the streets, was soon dashed. One union after another signed up to an agreement with the government that would protect workers within 10 years of retirement but that would severely affect future generations. The actions of Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis, among others, in signing up to the agreement, left a bitter taste in the mouth with many Unison members and others.
Now, more than a year after that defeat on pensions, the unions are waking up again and beginning a fight back in unity. And it will have to be a great fight to turn the tide of cuts being imposed by local councils of all political parties. In Coventry, Labour holds 43 of the 54 Council seats, yet it is set to carry out cuts of £61 million over the next three years. 2013/14 will see £28m of cuts. Services will be decimated and even those that should be provided by law are under threat.
Many of the Labour Councillors have represented local people for decades and have built a reputation of fighting for the interests of working class people, the needy, and the homeless, those suffering from deprivation. That deserved reputation is now under threat as they carry out a damage limitation exercise, the “dented shield”. There is an illusion that if the storm of cuts can be weathered and they stay within the law by agreeing on a balanced budget, the councillors can protect the most needy until better times come along.
That is an illusion. The policy of the government to reduce the deficit, and with it over time the debt, is set to continue until at least 2018. What we will then have of local government services is unimaginable. Many will have been privatised and others cut to the bone. There will be no need for local councillors as there will be nothing to administer. That will be the death knell of local democracy and that will please the political representatives of those who own and control society.
Such is the bankruptcy of British capitalism that it can only survive by leeching off the state at national and local level. The ruling class decries state intervention and demands a free market to do as they please. They want to get rid of “red tape” and anything they see as hindering their ability to conduct business. Yet to survive they are willing to sponge off the state, whether through tax concessions to bribe them to invest or direct subsidies in the form of grants.
Even that is not enough. They also want health and safety scrapped and the so-called “compensation culture” kicked into the long grass. Now they are after ownership and control of public services from the NHS to local government. You now have the grotesque spectacle, to coin that renegade Kinnock, of the NHS being forced to put out contracts to “any qualified provider” in the private sector and the same private companies subcontracting the contract back to the NHS.
Here in Coventry the trade unions have begun the campaign to put an end to this. It is a big task. On Tuesday, February 26th, the city council will vote on the budget. Preceding it will be a lobby outside the main Council House entrance. The hope is that the councillors can be pressurised not to vote for cuts. The hope is too that a broad based campaign can be built, even involving the churches and other faith groups. The hope is that the West Midlands, an area with a population bigger than Scotland, can “punch above its weight” and achieve some kind of special deal, some concessions. This will be a steep learning curve for many trade unionists and their elected reps, as hopes are dashed on the rocks of a crisis-ridden capitalism.
These cuts are not being imposed by the government out of some kind of whim because they are malicious or “ideological”. We know that a government with at least 22 millionaires in the Cabinet understands absolutely nothing about the effects that the cuts are having on the lives of working class people. But even if there were a government of engineers, brick layers and postal workers, the end result would be the same if they tried to resolve the crisis within the confines of capitalism.
Under capitalism the political agenda is driven by the needs of capitalism, and in the case of Britain by the needs of finance capital. The bond markets say jump and the government of any persuasion can only ask how high. Ed Miliband dreams of something that has never existed nor never will – a “responsible capitalism.” Capitalism exists to provide profits for the few, not jobs or services for the many.
That is why the fight back to defend local services and jobs has to have a political dimension. It has to convince those who work for and deliver council services, as well as service users in the various communities, that the cuts can only be fought by fighting against a capitalist system in crisis that demands that cuts be carried out. That is not an easy task yet it is a necessary one. That is why this battle will be a steep learning curve and all ideas in our movement will be put to the test.
The task of Marxists is to work with, fight with and go through these experiences with workers in struggle. We have to earn the right to fight for socialism, even as we try to fight for reforms to stop these cuts. Let the battle commence.