By Rebecca Anderson
This year’s Tory party conference saw a bonfire of human rights, welfare and hope for an end to austerity. Chancellor George Osborne revised his deficit reduction estimate and announced a further seven years of cuts; Home Secretary Theresa May announced plans to scrap the Human Rights Act; and Prime Minister David Cameron proposed further attacks on the unemployed.
The Tories promised to “cut the deficit, not the NHS” in the 2010 election, but instead have increased the deficit and are privatising our National Health Service. A demonstration to defend the NHS saw 50,000 people march outside the conference centre.
Austerity until 2020
As it happens, Osborne has had to make cuts more slowly than planned – and even more slowly than Labour proposed in 2010. But this still flies in the face of the Trades Union Congress’s “wait for Labour” strategy. Without a real alternative to austerity, we face even worse attacks than we have already endured.
Average hourly wages have dropped more than 5 per cent since 2010, worse than in Spain where over half of the country’s youth are unemployed. Conservative aides told The Daily Telegraph that a further £25 billion of cuts are needed after the election to clear the structural deficit. As if to prove the point, Cameron floated the idea of denying under-25s access to Jobseeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit.
Attacks on the under-25s
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show more than a million people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in work, education or training. Cameron’s response is to remove the social safety net, saying: “Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits. It’s time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all.
“Instead, we should give young people a clear, positive choice: go to school. Go to college. Do an apprenticeship. Get a job. But just choose the dole? We’ve got to offer them something better than that.”
However, he failed to offer them anything at all, beyond the threat of being driven to destitution and homelessness. He used this platform to gauge the response to a policy that if implemented could cause an even bigger rebellion than the hiking of university tuition fees.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said that Cameron’s proposals would “simply push hundreds of thousands of young people, including those with young families, even deeper into poverty. Young people suffered most in the recession. Today the prime minister has pledged that they will suffer most during the recovery too.”
Labour’s response was less encouraging, as they posed Labour’s “youth jobs guarantee” workfare scheme as an alternative to destitution, rather than real access to jobs, education and training.
Work (fare) for all
Not wanting to be outdone by Cameron, Osborne announced that the hated workfare schemes will be rolled out to all those who have been unemployed for three years, forcing people to work for free to access the benefits they rely on to live. Social media has been buzzing with the news of this trust fund millionaire telling the country: “No one will get something for nothing.”
Indeed, while this is posed as part of the deficit reduction plan, it won’t actually have much effect on the deficit. Disability campaigner Sue Marsh pointed out that the unemployed take up only 3 per cent of the welfare budget, and that 94 per cent of jobseekers find work within two years, meaning that Osborne’s announcement would address “just 0.15% of the total benefit bill”. Its main impact will be to drive down wages, by giving employers a free supply of forced labour.
Scrapping our human rights
Theresa May, widely considered to be the likely next Tory leader, announced that the Tories would scrap the Human Rights Act if re-elected.
One of Labour’s few progressive policies when last in power, this law allows people to use the British courts to assert rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain signed in 1950.
The civil service union PCS unsuccessfully tried to use this act to challenge the Coalition’s attack on public sector pensions; others, however, have successfully used it to challenge police brutality. Its repeal would mean a return to the days when human rights violations could be addressed only by an expensive process involving the European Court in Strasbourg.
May’s pretext was the apparent scandal of migrants who are convicted of criminal offences while living in Britain. She argued that there should be no restrictions on the government’s right to deport convicted criminals, albeit without mentioning that some deportees could face torture or execution in their country of origin.
We need to get rid of the “nasty party”
This conference represented a turn to the right for a party that has already made countless attacks on our public services, welfare state and general standards of living. The demonstration to save the NHS was a long time coming but could be used as a launch pad for industrial action to halt and reverse privatisation.
Labour’s pledges to repeal the Health and Social Care Act and to scrap the Bedroom Tax are not enough. Huge pressure is needed to force Labour to make good on these pledges, and they say nothing about those already evicted or those parts of the NHS already privatised.
The Tories recognise that the unions are the greatest potential threat to their plans, announcing measures to tighten up the already draconian anti-union laws. This includes the banning of “check-off”, the direct deduction of union subscriptions from members’ wages, a measure that could lead to disorganisation for some public sector unions. More importantly, ballots would only be valid if 40 per cent of members vote – a rule that is not applied to general elections.
If we want to get rid of the Tories then we need to fight now, and this means that the teachers’, firefighters’ and postal workers’ strike action planned for the autumn needs to be escalated and spread. All unions should walk out over austerity and the TUC must be forced to coordinate and generalise the strike action. A general strike could deal the final blow to this hated government.