The David Cameron-led coalition of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats has passed its third birthday. Despite being a coalition it has proved to be a government with a clear unity of purpose, committed to a neoliberal agenda of austerity, deregulation and a smaller state.
Tory and Lib Dem ministers have not felt the need to moderate their policies just because neither has a mandate from the electorate for what they are doing.
As things stand we’re set for another two years of austerity policies and a sustained attack on public services, workers’ rights and the welfare state.
The late Ralph Miliband once described a catastrophe as “something which can happen in small, gradual and systematic ways.”
We are truly living through a catastrophic era where we face attacks across so many fronts.
These are taking place in the aftermath of a monumental global economic crisis and are justified by a narrative that presents public debt as the root of that crisis.
This take on events doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Rising public debt is clearly an effect of crisis, not its cause.
But the “there is no alternative” mantra has been uncritically accepted and promoted by the mainstream media.
It’s used to defend austerity both in Britain and across Europe.
The labour movement has helped to expose the intellectual weakness of austerity as an economic strategy, but we have not been able to translate this into successfully combating austerity policies or stopping them from being implemented.
There are local exceptions, but certainly on a national level there remains a desperate need to embolden working people to refuse to accept that the attacks on their living standards, rights and services are inevitable.
Today the TUC’s double-decker bus arrives at the Unison national delegate conference in Liverpool as part of the Austerity Uncovered campaign.
The TUC’s twin aims, revealing the impact of austerity and the many efforts to counter it taking place in our communities, are to be applauded.
But they point to the need for a more joined-up resistance to austerity across the trade union movement and beyond.
We know at Unison North-West that the impact of austerity policies has been devastating.
Since the coalition came to power over 400,000 public-sector jobs have been lost, with another 340,000 predicted to go by May 2015.
In local government, the concentration of funding cuts on more deprived urban areas has resulted in an uneven pattern of job losses.
Some of our councils will have seen their non-school workforces slashed on a phenomenal scale within this Parliament, with Bolton predicted to lose 30 per cent of non-teaching jobs, Manchester up to 40 per cent and Tameside 45 per cent.
This will have cataclysmic knock-on effects on local economies.
Health too has seen redundancies in the north-west, caused by the government’s expensive and damaging reorganisation of the NHS.
Health unions have worked hard to push down a starting figure of 1,600 compulsory redundancies, but still up to 200 are expected to lose their jobs.
With the financial pressure rising on all NHS trusts in north-west England it is feared that this financial year will see larger-scale cuts.
It’s important to note that there’s no trade-off going on here.
Workers are facing job insecurity at the same time as they are hit by falling real wages and attacks on terms and conditions.
The lowest paid local government workers receive just £6.30 an hour – lower than the figure that the national minimum wage will rise to this October.
Lots of councils have also required staff to take unpaid leave (13 per cent of councils), reduced weekend working enhancements (60 per cent), cut redundancy pay (31 per cent) and lowered car allowance rates (50 per cent).
For NHS staff successive pay freezes and caps mean real wages are now 15 per cent lower than when the government came to power.
And it was only through sustained and united trade union resistance that we were able to fend off even more damaging attacks on public-sector pension schemes.
The pattern of job losses, real wage cuts and worsening terms and conditions is replicated across the public sector, including in education and the police service.
In the name of austerity local economies are being deflated and the real needs of service users are not being met.
It’s failing as a growth strategy and even failing as a way to bring down public debt.
So what’s it really for?
The prominent part played by privatisation in austerity gives us a clue.
Our education and health systems are being reconfigured so that free-standing schools and hospitals compete for funding.
Systems of democratic accountability and control such as local education authorities and primary care trusts are being dismantled, leaving only market mechanisms and fragmented, uneven services.
Private companies are being put on the same footing as NHS organisations to compete to provide services and there are concerted efforts by big private players and lobbying organisations to get their hands on more and more public-service contracts.
Private capital’s takeover bid is relentless. The labour movement must be equally bold in fighting for directly provided public services.
We must respond to the current threats to the Tupe regulations protecting workers whose employment is outsourced and to the government’s bid to repeal the 2006 amendments relating to service provision changes.
Tupe is invaluable – providing staff with continuity of employment and the same terms and conditions they had prior to any transfer.
Its existence can also help deter organisations from outsourcing as it weakens the financial motive for doing so. It’s arguably the single greatest achievement of unions and employment lawyers since the 1980s.
Victory isn’t impossible. We’ve had some notable successes.
Workers in higher education have faced large-scale redundancies and employer attacks on their rights driven by competitive pressures on institutions.
Unison and UCU recently had a major success at the University of Central Lancashire, where we defeated the vice-chancellor’s proposal that it become a limited private company.
The success of that campaign shows the way forwards – trade union unity backed up by community and student support.
Following the outsourcing of NHS staff delivering the North West Ambulance Patient Transport Service, new employer Arriva Transport attempted to provide staff with an inferior private pension.
Through negotiation Arriva was persuaded to become an official NHS pension provider with a guaranteed pension scheme for all transferred staff.
Over the past three years we’ve fought a tireless rearguard action to protect members’ jobs and conditions.
But we need a stronger response than that.
This must include stronger industrial resistance, of the sort exemplified by the PCS Budget Day strike and the planned action by teaching unions at the end of this month.
We must also continue to work to move the terms of the debate around austerity through mobilisations such as those of March 26 2011 and October 20 2012.
People need to know about the human misery being caused by austerity policies.
They need to know that the government’s policies are not working and that even the IMF has doubts about Britain’s course.
They need to know about the NHS underspend last year and the criminally low tax rates paid by multinational corporations.
We must help people to make the connection between their lived experience of austerity and the political choices that shape it.
Kevan Nelson is Unison North West regional secretary