Betrayed during New Labour’s 13 years in office, working people in the North of England are now facing the full force of the ruling class onslaught spearheaded by the ConDem government.
The attack on local councils is savage. Sunderland, South Tyneside, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Copeland and Barrow have all been hit with the maximum 8.9% cut in the first year of a 4-year programme of reductions. The overwhelming majority of other councils in the region are not far behind, and by 2015 over 10,000 jobs are expected to be lost in local authorities, police and fire and rescue.
Vital services are being put to the sword. Leisure, libraries, day care provision, careers services, free school milk, special needs teachers, rural bus services, local arts facilities and public toilets are among those which have been targeted in the first round.
In a separate ConDem measure, many school rebuilding projects – albeit under the private finance initiative – have been cancelled, while self-interest has been let loose in our comprehensive system, with schools in Newcastle and South Tyneside opting to become academies and Rock Hall private school in Northumberland bidding to be the North East’s first ‘free’ school!
Young people’s opportunities for post-16 education are being narrowed and closed, by simple financial expedient. The abolition of the education maintenance allowance means that many will not be able to stay on at school or go to college; while the massive rise in university tuition fees will be a deterrent to embarking on a degree course.
Even before these policies have been implemented, employment in further education and higher education is under threat: East Durham and Newcastle Colleges have together announced over 200 redundancies, while the future for some of our universities looks bleak, as nationally budgets will be slashed by £940 mn in 2011/12.
Despite LibDem and Tory promises to protect the National Health Service, hospitals are facing massive job losses over the next 4 years, including 700 at both the Morecambe Bay and Co Durham & Darlington trusts. Hundreds of jobs are also going in primary care, while privateers move in, even before the Health & Social Care Bill has gone through Parliament. Care UK has won a £53 mn contract at prisons in the North East; triage nurses are transferring to Northern Doctors, who won a tender to provide out-of-hours care; and Assura Health has won a bid to provide NHS sexual health services on Teesside. Despite opposition to the Bill from the British Medical Association, GP practices in the West End of Newcastle are seeking Pathfinder status for primary care commissioning.
Recreational opportunities, and the employment supporting them, are being hit by the 26% cut in government support for the Forestry Commission – leading to closure of local bases – and cutbacks to the Cumbria Tourist Board and the national parks in Northumberland and the Lake District.
The region’s voluntary and community sector, which employs over 37,000 people, has been plunged into crisis by funding cutbacks. Over one third of organisations have had to lose staff already, and one quarter face closing altogether by the end of 2011.
Working class women are disproportionately affected by ConDem policies in three ways: as workers, as carers and as service users. As workers they will bear the brunt since they make up two thirds of public sector employees – in fact PCS has estimated that 72% of civil service cuts will fall on women. Already the number of women aged 25-49 on Job Seekers’ Allowance is at its highest since 1997. The two-year public sector pay freeze will also affect women most since they already make up the overwhelming majority of low-paid public servants.
Over a lifetime, 7 out of 10 women are likely to become carers. As council services are cut back, women are more likely than men to plug the gaps by becoming informal, unpaid, voluntary carers. They are also more likely than men to find themselves caught between caring for young children and elderly or infirm relatives.
Public services under attack also tend to be used more by women than by men: for example, Sure Start centres, libraries, respite care, social care for single pensioners, three-quarters of whom are women. It is vital that women are drawn into the broad struggle to defend public services.
According to Save the Children, some 71,000 children in the North East and 10,000 in Cumbria are living in severely poverty-stricken conditions – defined as less than £134 per week for a single parent with one child and less than £240 per week for a couple with two children. At 19%, Newcastle has the highest percentage, with Sunderland and South Tyneside close seconds. The government’s benefit changes, including the 3-year freeze on the value of Child Benefit, and the 10% cut in childcare costs in Working Tax Credit, will only make this situation worse. Plans to cut Disability Living Allowance payments by almost a quarter will lead to disabled people in residential care becoming incarcerated in their care home.
Gross domestic product in the North East fell 0.5% from October to December 2010, and unemployment rose to 7% in January 2011, the highest of all British regions. 31% of all Job Seekers Allowance claimants are aged 18-24. The employment rate for 16-64 year-olds, 66%, is worse than in all regions except Northern Ireland. In Cumbria and Lancaster the JSA count was much less, at 2.7%, but incomes are generally lower. While median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees in the North East were £440 in 2009 – the lowest of all British regions – in Carlisle and Eden they were £368 and £311 respectively.
There are no indications that the private sector will be able to meet the demand for employment from those made redundant in the public sector. Over 4000 companies in the North East are already facing ‘significant’ or ‘critical’ financial problems. The sale of the mothballed Teesside Cast Products plant at Redcar to SSI from Thailand does promise some 800 jobs over a two-year period, but that will only go part way to reengaging the redundant former steelworkers. The 500-plus permanent jobs to be created at Hitachi’s train assembly and manufacturing plant in Newton Aycliffe, plus the 3000 jobs expected in the supply chain, are a welcome development, but the project has been scaled back by 40% from the plans of the Labour government, and production will not start till 2016. It remains to be seen what wages these companies are prepared to pay.
Resistance within the region to the ConDem policies has so far been limited. While the turn-out for the TUC demonstration on March 26 was magnificent, opposition to the public spending cuts before that was more vocal than effective. In part this has been due to the piecemeal nature of the cuts, making a common fight-back difficult; but there has also been a view among some union leaderships that members are not yet willing to fight, or that the principle of ‘no local cuts’ is unsustainable when the national government is the paymaster.
The Northern Public Services Alliance, established in Summer 2010, has adopted a strategy of building awareness among activists and in the workplace, putting pressure on council Labour groups to sign up to PSA objectives, seeking allies among community organisations, campaigning publicly on certain key issues such as academy schools, and generally seeking to break the coalition government. Given the low activist base of many unions, these were worthy initial objectives; but the structure of the PSA, and the lack of industrial action around which to build solidarity, has limited the involvement of a number of unions, and thus the effectiveness of PSA campaigning.
The regional top-down structure of the PSA, designed to ensure that it remains a trade union-led campaign, and that funds donated by the regional unions are not spent on campaigns with a narrow sectarian character, has led to a stifling of local initiative and a narrowing of participation to a few unions. If these problems are to be overcome, and the PSA start to make a real challenge to government policies, then its constituent unions need to be talking seriously about organising coordinated industrial action on issues of common interest. The attack on public sector pensions is arguably the issue around which the greatest degree of unity can be built, but it does need unions at a national level to agree on balloting and dates. Such an approach would galvanise many rank-and-file members, promoting involvement in the PSA as the vehicle which can both mobilise workers for positive votes and for action, and represent the position of the public sector unions to the wider community.
Alongside this, there needs to be the injection of a comprehensive alternative to the present agenda of the ConDem coalition – and, indeed, of the Labour front bench. The People’s Charter for Change and the Charter for Women together provide such an alternative, and they need to be promoted within the region so that trade unions take them up as programme demands around which campaigns can be built. The ability to build such an alternative, as well as to draw together the various strands of resistance to the ConDem policies, is inseparable from the struggle to build the profile and paid circulation of the Morning Star.
All of this points to the need for a much stronger Communist Party. The 51st National Congress in 2011 put out a call for class-conscious workers to join the Party, and we need to do much more to turn that into a reality. Communists need to be at the forefront of the campaign to defend public services, while at the same time promoting the two Charters and the Morning Star.
The two years since our last District Congress have seen significant advances in membership numbers, organisation and activity, and branch initiative. There do however, remain significant weaknesses which need to be addressed. The incoming district committee is charged with the following priorities for Party work over the next two years:
(1) a recruitment strategy, aimed at winning class conscious workers, and in particular women, to see the need to join the Party and build its influence;
(2) a cadre development policy, including organised political and organisational education, the Communist University of the North and joint educational work by the Cumbria branches;
(3) a party-building strategy, focusing particularly on South Tyneside, Sunderland, Teesside and Darlington, to win new members with a view to establishing independent self-reliant branches;
(4) an ideological offensive, including winning new daily readers of the Morning Star – including among members – boosting sales of Communist Review and Party pamphlets, and raising the profile of the Party in local media;
(5) an electoral strategy, leading to a significant increase in the number of local election contests in the name of the Party;
(6) an industrial strategy, seeking to strengthen regional broad lefts in different unions, the activities of trade union councils and the trade union base for the People’s Charter and the Charter for Women; and
(7) a cultural strategy, including mobilising writers, artists and other cultural workers to engage in the struggle against ConDem policies and for a progressive alternative.