Wednesday, 5 July 2017

SCRAP THE PAY CAP: don't let divided Tories divide workers

The Tories are suffering internal Mayhem, with public divisions between Cabinet members spilling out over how to respond to the public fury at pay cuts under their brutal regime of austerity since 2010. 
But like the centuries-old class they represent, they're past masters at dividing their working class opponents, in their ruthless desire to cling onto power, to retain the ability - that goes with being in government - to hand out perks and privileges to their own class of people.    

The trade union movement, socialists, and all those wishing to put an end to the planned poverty and inequality that is austerity, need to be especially vigilant in this period of Tory crises. We must not let weasel words divide one section of public sector workers from others. Nor allow the Tories to make workers pay with job losses, further service cuts, or tax rises, for any cosmetic concessions on the hated public sector pay cap.

After the pounding the Tories suffered in their self-inflicted snap general election - and especially the tide of support for the anti-austerity message of Jeremy Corbyn - Theresa May's Cabinet are wrestling with how best to silence the roar for decent pay and an end to cuts to public services. 

Listening to Public Fury?? 
They are especially desperate to give the (false) impression of listening to 'public opinion' in the wake of the furious backlash at the vote by Tory and DUP MPs to block pay rises for the likes of nurses, police officers and firefighters - when that was proposed by Corbyn as an amendment to the Queen's Speech. 
A public fury fueled by the Tories' sudden discovery of a spare £1bn to buy power, courtesy of the DUP. 
And mounting anger at the fact the same Tories literally cheered as they voted down pay rises, mere days after the population's hearts went out not only to the victims of Grenfell Tower, but also to the firefighters who raced into the inferno to try and save lives, at risk to their own. The Tory cabal trotted out praise for the emergency services one week, pay cuts the next. 
No wonder the 'Not One More Day' demo in London on Saturday 1st July attracted up to 100,000 people, angry at Tory cuts and demanding their removal. 

Cabinet of Chaos 
Several Tory Cabinet Ministers have called for 'a review' of the 1% cap on public sector pay, in operation since 2010, and an easing of their cuts in funding of some services. They are cynically desperate to give the appearance of having listened to public criticism. Each of them is also eager to save their own skin, and jockey for potential leadership challenges to the hapless May. 
Tory Education Secretary Justine Greening has pleaded with May to abandon plans for further cuts to per pupil spending in state schools. The IFS think tank estimates it would take an injection of £1.2bn a year just to halt planned additional cuts, let alone the vast sums needed if they had any intention of reversing cuts already imposed. Until now, Greening was happy enough to administer the knife to state schools whilst pouring resources into selective Grammar Schools for the well-off... until her 10,180 majority was slashed to 1,554 in Putney last month! 
Arch opportunist Boris Johnson has suggested 'a rethink' on the 1% pay cap. Don't forget he was one of the chief pioneers of curbing, or totally banning, the right to strike for public sector workers, as far back as when he was Mayor of London. 
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt - object of unfriendly rhyming slang from many an angry NHS worker! - has publicly suggested new deals for nurses, and teachers. 
Damian Green, de facto deputy Prime Minister, has raised the need for 'a national debate' on the continuation of student tuition fees. 

Weasel Words
Michael Gove, who is actually Environment Secretary, found it more opportune to advocate a possible end to the 1% not for staff in his own department, but for... NHS workers.
There's the clue, the warning, of what these new-found 'critics' of pay cuts and austerity in public services are up to. 

They are feeling the hot breath of revolt from workers and students who are sick of Tory attacks - such as the threat of the first ever strike action by the Royal College of Nurses, and the literal queues of students at unlikely places like Canterbury University, eager to vote for Corbyn's pledge to abolish tuition fees this autumn. 
But in looking for a line of partial retreat from the policy of austerity that they've repeated like a devout religious chant for the past decade, the Tories are seeking to divide and conquer workers' opposition.

Pay Review Bodies
The weasel words of Michael Gove are a case study of this poisonous plan. He has trotted out media statements about how his government should 'respect' the looming reports of (eight) Pay Review Bodies for public sector workers. To the uninformed, that sounds like good news for the 5.3 million UK workers employed in the public sector. But let's pause and look at some detail behind the headlines.

The two years' pay freeze and 1% pay cap imposed since 2010 has been a devastating pay cut to these 5.3 million workers, as the cost of daily living rises, alongside substantial increases in workers' pension contributions. According to studies for the civil service union, PCS, the government's own workforce will have been hammered by a 20% real terms pay cut by 2020. 
The fact that large swathes of civil service staff themselves rely on the in-work, top-up benefits they administer, and nurses are amongst those who've had to turn to food banks, is a damning indictment of government policy. 

Divide and Conquer 
But far from offering a guaranteed end to the below-inflation pay cap for all 5.3 million workers - let alone pay rises to compensate for a decade of cuts to their real incomes - Tories like Gove are angling for a divisive concession to just some of them. 
For starters, his talk of 'respecting the Pay Review Bodies' only covers substantially less than 50% of the 5.3 million in the public sector. For instance, the vast majority of civil service staff are totally excluded from these Pay Review bodies. 
The Tories' tactical trick to me seems obvious: promise to concede a few crumbs to the likes of nurses, maybe police, possibly even firefighters - because of the place they hold in the affections of the public - but to hell with the vast armies of low-paid civil service and council workers; show them ruthless resistance on pay. 

"Weary after Seven Years of Hardship"
Chancellor Philip Hammond this week told a CBI dinner of bloated business executives that he "understands why people are weary after seven years of hardship, repairing the damage of the Great Recession", but rejected any concession to 'taking the foot off the pedal', insisting "the government must hold its nerve." 
Theresa May responded to rumour and counter-rumour of the Tories ending the pay cap by stating they will "consider the Pay Review Bodies' reports on a case by case basis." Another signal of divide-and-conquer tactics - even within the parameters of the less-than-half of public sector workers who ARE covered by such Bodies.

Hammond on Mock the Week?
The Tories' shenanigans are in part driven by their desperate attempts at political  survival, in the face of growing opposition to their austerity and pork-barrel politics - and the surge towards Corbyn's anti-cuts message. But they are also reflecting the panic in big business circles at the parlous state of the capitalist UK economy. 
Tory Chancellor Hammond must have thought the CBI dinner on 3rd July was an audition for a place on the Mock the Week panel, when he declared:
"After seven long and tough years, the high-wage, high growth economy for which we strive is tantalizingly close to being within our grasp." (!!??)

Back in the Real World
That's the man allegedly in charge of a British economy with an invisible 0.2% growth in GDP last Quarter - the worst in the G7 biggest economies; with a Scottish economy teetering on the edge of a technical recession; with dire warnings from the Bank of England at credit card debt rising by 10.3% in the 12 months to April. 
An economy where wage-slashing and political insecurity has led to the GfK consumer confidence index today reporting a five points plunge to minus 10 in June - meaning sectors like retail and hospitality are bracing themselves for tough times ahead. 
The same economy where the recent Scottish Widows Adequate Savings index sounded alarm bells at 1 in 4 Scots saving nothing for retirement this year (up from 19% last year), including an astonishing 70% of workers aged 22-29. This despite the new Auto Enrolment Pension scheme. 
All in large part because the sustained and conscious drive to slash wages as a share of national wealth has led to the longest and deepest cuts to wages since the Napoleonic Wars, two centuries ago! 

Worst Wage Cuts since Napoleonic Wars 
Austerity for the working class may have meant boom times for the profits of the multinationals, but it's not even achieved its own stated goals of cutting the government's budget deficit.
Sections of big business, and now of the Tories, are belatedly awakening to the fact their own robbery of wages is undermining the spending power of the working class, thereby choking their prospects for profiteering. Plus they dread a revolt by millions of workers against the long, excruciating pain of the public sector pay cap.

United Strike Action 
The Tories are divided; we must build united action, rather than allow the cornered rats lash out and divide workers, sector by sector. 
The time is ripe for coordinated industrial action to 'scrap the cap' for the entire public sector - not just the minority covered by Pay Review Bodies, and certainly not just for selected sections such as nurses, or firefighters, or the police, as hinted at by the Tories. 

The Scottish teachers' union, EIS, is amongst those proposing coordinated action on pay at the September TUC conference. Already, at the recent 'Not One More Day' demo, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka called for united public sector strike action. 
A serious, urgent plan to prepare and build such action should be implemented by union leaders, with explanatory materials and meetings across the public sector. And lessons need to be applied from November 2011, when a huge one-day public sector strike was squandered by leaders of several unions capitulating to shoddy promises, letting the Tory-LibDem Coalition off the hook, letting them divide and defeat the millions who'd shown willing to fight back. 

Don't Trade Pay for Job Cuts 
In fighting to scrap the cap on pay, workers must also guard against a 'rob Peter to pay Paul' tactic from the Tories; concessions on pay at the price of further job losses, further public service cuts, and/or tax rises for low to middle-income workers. 
Given the weak state of the economy, and the IFS estimate that it would take £6billion per annum by 2019/20 to bring public sector pay up to that of the private sector, the enfeebled Tory government won't just roll over without pulling every dirty trick in their book. 
They'll deny the existence of 'the money tree'. They'll try to resist across-the-board pay rises for all 5.3 million public sector workers, deploying their tried and tested divide-and-rule tactics. They'll demand even more work from even fewer workers in the event of having to retreat on pay. They'll tell us all that the pot of funds is finite, a matter of 'balance between pay, jobs and public services'. 

SNP Government 
In the case of Scotland, we already have the warning signs of this approach. After meekly obeying and implementing the Westminster public sector pay freeze for the seven long years since 2010, the SNP government have now stepped into the turmoil surrounding the Tories and announced they will lift the 1% cap. That is welcome news, compared to the 'will they, won't they' chaos emanating from the Westminster Tories. But Nicola Sturgeon's explanation is worthy of close attention by public sector workers, their unions, and all those opposing austerity. 
To quote Nicola:
"Over the coming months, ahead of our next budget, there will be a number of discussions with different unions,  public sector workers and employers about how we find the right balance between ensuring people earn a fair wage and protecting employment and public services. That won’t always be an easy conversation – unlike at Westminster we really don’t have a magic money tree, but no matter what the UK government does the SNP will deliver a new pay deal for Scotland’s public sector workers."
The danger nestling in this statement is that after growing anger among workers in Scotland's NHS, local authorities and FE colleges, the Scottish government will try to trade concessions on pay for setbacks on jobs and/or services.

Break Out of Austerity Straightjacket 
The pressing priority is to build a unified, coordinated plan of demonstrations and strike days to put the enfeebled Tories on the run, to scrap the cap for all public sector workers' pay, and demand pay rises to compensate for a decade of savage cuts. But that movement needs to add the demands 'no more job losses, no more service cuts', and refuse to be trapped in the straight-jacket of austerity; of the pretense that the funds available for the public sector are fixed, invariable, finite. 

The IFS's estimate of £6billion to catch up with private sector pay in itself is a modest sum compared with Treasury plans to spend £802billion this year - making it all the more viable as a fighting aim for the unions. 

The fact £1billion was discovered 'down the back of a sofa' at the Treasury to buy the allegiance of the DUP should embolden us to demand funding for pay, jobs and services - including a serious campaign to mobilize workers and communities in Scotland to demand the pro-rata equivalent of £2.9billion. 

And that's as nothing compared with the fortune that could be harvested through taxation of the obscenely rich. 
As just one illustration of the oceans of wealth sloshing around - whilst millions stave off starvation through resort to food banks, or reliance on credit cards rockets, or workers are unable to put anything aside for their retirement - the richest 1,000 humans in a UK population of 60 million have combined wealth of £658billion.
Even a modest 10% wealth tax on these 1,000 alone would reap in £66billion - eleven times the sum reckoned to raise public sector pay to that of the private sector; well over two years' worth of the entire Scottish block grant from Westminster. 

That's not to mention the £120billion a year, every year, that big corporations and hyper-rich individuals avoid, evade or simply don't pay in taxes. Or the £200billion being squandered on Trident weapons of mass annihilation. 

Win Back the Stolen Billions 
There's absolutely no excuse for poverty pay - neither in the public nor private sectors. There's equally no excuse for Westminster or Holyrood suggesting we have to choose between pay and jobs, pay and public services, robbing Peter to pay Paul. 
The consistent, persistent demand of those of us in the Scottish Socialist Party for a mass campaign to win back some of the £billions stolen from Scotland by successive Westminster governments could not be more timely. The Tories are in crisis. Growing swathes of the population have been shocked and appalled at the system of austerity, privatisation, deregulation, cuts to safety standards, cost-cutting for profit - the whole capitalist ethos of profit before people - that created the atrocity of Grenfell Tower. The £1billion bung to the DUP can be used to prise open the door to demands for funding for jobs and services, as well as pay rises to reverse the 20% pay cuts for millions. 

The Tories are divided; don't let them divide the working class as they cling onto power and rule for the rich. 
Do your bit in your union, community or party to demand unified, decisive action - including mass demos and public sector strikes - to win the funds to not only scrap the cap on pay, but reverse the cuts to jobs and public services. 

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