Gordon Brown had a stark new year’s message for working people in Britain – it’s going to be a “difficult and dangerous” year, and the Labour government expect you to pay for it by working harder and earning less.
His government is insisting on capping public sector pay rises at 1.9 percent – at a time when inflation is running at 4.3 percent.
Brown and chancellor Alistair Darling are insisting on three-year pay deals for all public sector workers.
This means a real term pay cut as the prices of essential goods and services keep on rising, making a mockery of the government’s official inflation figures.
The cost of fuel and energy is relentlessly on the rise, with Npower raising gas prices by 17 percent and electricity by 13 percent.
Grain costs are soaring around the world, which in turn pushes up the price of food more generally.
“The era of cheap food may be over. In recent months food prices have risen at a faster rate than inflation,” warned the government’s own Meat and Livestock Commission last week. Food prices in October 2007 were up 5 percent on those of the previous year.
Regulated train fares went up 4.8 percent on average this year, while the typical unregulated fare rose by 5.4 percent.
All this comes as we find ourselves increasingly working longer and harder. According to the TUC some five million workers across Britain – one fifth of the working population – do unpaid overtime worth an average of £5,000 a year each.
Brown’s determination to grind down ordinary working people stems from his neoliberal political convictions. But he is also finding his options boxed in by the economic crisis that broke out with the “credit crunch” of August last year.
Brown’s “boom” over the past decade was fuelled by consumer spending based on easily available credit. Now that is coming to an end. Big business will attempt to restore its profits by slashing workers’ wages yet further.
Despite the belligerent noises, Brown knows all too well that pay freezes can eventually trigger an angry backlash against the governments that impose them.
The Labour government of Jim Callaghan faced the “winter of discontent” at the end of 1978 as public sector workers struck against a 5 percent pay limit. A few months later it lost the 1979 general election.
Edward Heath’s Tory administration was brought down in 1974 after a miners’ strike two years previously smashed through a government imposed pay limit.
Brown got away with his pay freeze last year – helped in part by some union leaders who put their loyalty to Labour above their members. But he knows that the anger from below can only intensify this year.
That’s one reason why Darling is pushing so hard for three-year pay deals. It is also a reason why unions must take a lead in tapping into their members’ anger to bring down Brown’s rotten pay policy.
This year teachers and lecturers could and should take joint industrial action over pay. The civil service workers’ dispute is set to get more bitter.
And the TUC has pledged to coordinate public sector unions including Unison and the GMB in a battle over public sector pay.
These commitments are welcome – but they will remain only words unless union leaders face pressure from below.
We need to build rank and file organisation across different sectors and unions, as well as developing a left wing political alternative to New Labour.
That way we can make sure that 2008 really is a “difficult and dangerous” year for Gordon Brown, David Cameron and all the bosses that seek to make life a misery for the mass of working people in this country.