Wages are the clearest measure of how well or badly workers are doing in capitalist society. Between 1979 and 2008 the share of national output (GDP) going on wages fell from 65% to around 54%. This represents a huge shift of wealth in favour of the profit system and the capitalist class who benefit from it.
Following an economic crisis in the 1970s, the capitalists set out to roll back the gains made by workers in the previous decades, Over thirty years global capitalism has reduced relative wages and fundamentally undermined the strong trade union organisation and workplace militancy which once set firmer limits on exploitation.
Labour’s policies — a £10 living wage, stronger employment rights from day one in a job, ending zero hours contracts and ending the 1% pay cap for NHS workers, restoring collective bargaining in the public sector, reintroducing bursaries for training NHS workers — will all boost working-class living standards. Labour’s £10 living wage (up from its current £9) will boost the incomes of more than 20% of the workforce. These steps will push back against almost 40 years of redistribution in favour of the rich!
For over six years, five million workers in our hospitals, schools, fire stations and a host of other essential services have been subject to a government-imposed pay freeze. Year after year pay rises for these workers have been capped at 1% regardless of the rising cost of living, the growth of productivity or the problems of recruitment and retention in their services. The effect has been that those workers have seen their living standards fall on average by 7%. We are just over half way through a planned ten year pay freeze, with four more years to go.
Re-electing the Tories means a continuation of institutionalised low pay and ever lowering living standards for millions of workers and their families. In public services it also means an acceleration in staffing shortages as demoralised and underpaid workers continue to drift out of jobs that don’t pay their bills.
Those who hanker after a return to business as usual in the Labour Party should recall Labour’s stance in 2012. Labour’s then Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls accepted the Tory-Lib arguments on the public sector pay freeze and promised that it would continue even if Labour were re-elected in 2015. He said, “I understand the anger in the public and private sectors at that income squeeze, but the reality is, given the economy failing as it is, that that pay restraint is going to have to continue.” Balls also said, “the priority has got to be getting people into jobs rather than people being paid more.”
The truth is Labour’s support for the Tory-Lib coalition policy did nothing to get more people into jobs, let alone decent, well-paid jobs. A decade of low pay and real pay cuts on impacts on everything: how often we eat, where we can afford to live, how much time we spend with family and friends, whether one job is enough to survive on, whether a holiday can be afforded, and so much more. poverty In modern capitalist Britain the great majority of people on benefits are also in work.
Many are struggling with rent arrears and other debts, parents go without food so their children can eat, teachers bring food into schools to feed hungry children, nurses use food banks, young women school students cannot afford tampons, For an elected representative of the Labour Party to respond to that set of circumstances as if the choice is between decent pay and jobs, rather than between low taxes and high profits for the rich and well-paid meaningful jobs and decent benefits and services for all, was and is a disgrace.
Worse still was the failure to make the obvious link between the relentless attack on pay and the morale and recruitment of people to who look after our sick and elderly, teach our children and provide social care for the most vulnerable. New Labour accepted the Tory presentation of public sector pay as a selfish “producer” interest when they could and should have transformed it into a debate about the sort of society we want to live in. It’s a measure of the progress made and the possibilities created by the election of Jeremy Corbyn that Labour goes into this election promising to change all this.
In the coming weeks of the election it is important these commitments are reinforced and expanded. For instance, a much bigger and more important way to ensure that we can protect our living standards would be to repeal the anti-union laws that have allowed the bosses to assert their power and enrich themselves so lavishly at our expense. The pay freeze should be ended across all services, and pay rises should be argued for explicitly as a measure of Labour’s commitment to high quality effective public services for all. The increase in Living Wage should be a start of further hikes and, future rises should be tied to the cost of living.
The Tories and their many friends and allies in the press will attack these policies as a hand-out to the unions who fund the party. That argument will have some sway unless we turn it into a debate about the sort of society we want and who it benefits. It helps that Labour have said they will fund their NHS measures by reversing the reductions in corporation taxes introduced by the Tories. But Labour needs a comprehensive policy for redistributing income — including scrapping VAT on basic goods and raising taxes on those with the highest incomes.
No progress in the Progressive Alliance
“Labour is fighting to win this election and will field candidates in every seat...”
This is Labour’s response to a letter from Labour MPs, members and supporters calling on the Party to stand aside in Brighton Pavilion, the seat held by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas and, bizarrely, in the Isle of Wight, where in 2015 the Greens were second to the Tories, and 500 votes ahead of Labour.
The letter says, “...with the progressive vote split, the danger of a Tory landslide and all it means for our country now looms darkly on 8 June.”
That’s a real threat, right? But adovates of the so-called “progressive alliance” want the labour movement to shackle itself. Some even say that by voting Green in safe Labour seats Corbyn will be pushed into sticking to his more radical policies. The best way to make sure Corbyn does that is to vote Labour and prepare to fight for Labour not to back down! Building a labour movement capable of asserting itself must be our priority, not propping up those who will only weaken the labour movement once elected.
The Greens’ record in Parliament has never really been tested, as they have just one MP. But, in charge of Brighton Council, they unleashed appalling cuts to the terms and conditions of Brighton’s bin workers. They have helped prop up a Tory/Lib Dem coalition in Leeds which undertook similar policies.
Those who have given up on the idea of a strong labour movement — or, with the likes of Polly Toynbee, who never wanted such a thing — are combining to weaken the left in the Labour Party. Discussing the possibility of the Greens being able to affiliate to Labour is worthwhile. Then the Green Party, like the Co-Op Party, would have some autonomy but unite with Labour for elections.
As it stands, it is better that the Greens stand down in every seat where they threaten the Labour vote. Labour should stand in every seat!