Yet George Osborne’s plans involve wielding the axe to public sector spending for four years in a row, while dramatically accelerating the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state, local government, education and, perhaps most explosively, the NHS.
Ken Clarke, who served as a minister in both John Major’s and Thatcher’s Tory governments, seems at times alone in sensing that things are about to get much tougher. “Making the speeches is the easy bit,” he told the Financial Times, “It is the actual ability to deliver it on the ground in the teeth of considerable controversy that determines the fate of a government.”
Opposition is spreading. One sign is the growing wave of marches and the protests outside town halls across the country. Even some Tory supporters, who might have accepted the need for cuts in the abstract, are up in arms when their local services are earmarked for closure.
The government’s nervousness is showing. The U-turn over the sell-off of public woodland was followed by Nick Clegg announcing that the plan to cut housing benefit by 10 percent for anyone on the dole for more than a year was being dropped.
Nor is the news good on the economic front. The apparent contraction of the British economy in the last quarter of 2010 points to a faltering recovery. The outburst by outgoing CBI head Richard Lambert that the government has no plan for economic growth points to an anxiety among some sections of big business that the cuts may also hurt profits.
If the economy fails to return to growth – and any attempt to choke off rising inflation through increasing interest rates will amplify that risk – we can expect more rows inside the ruling class over the direction of economic policy.
No doubt these problems fed into David Cameron’s decision to attack Muslims last month (see Hassan Mahamdallie’s article in this issue of Socialist Review) in a classic piece of racist scapegoating.
But the government hopes its strongest card is a supine trade union movement. A glance at the timidity of the trade union leadership and the woeful level of strikes last year (with just 365,000 days “lost” through strikes in 2010 compared to an average 12.9 million strike days annually in the 1970s and 7.2 million in the 1980s) no doubt help affirm the coalition’s belief that they can get away with an assault of this scale on our class.
Yet the cuts are provoking a rising mood of working class anger that shows the potential for serious resistance. What is urgently required is a major shift in the level of confidence of workers to fight.
This points to the importance of the demonstration called by the TUC in central London on 26 March. A massive turnout can make an event initiated by the trade union bureaucracy into something much more than just a show of TUC strength or rallying for a Labour vote for this May’s elections. It can become a springboard for the kind of major strikes that can begin to punch holes in the government’s austerity plans.
That will depend in part on socialists being at the centre of building the demonstration and in doing so gaining a hearing for what should come next. If so, 26 March can be a day that becomes a real ace in our pack.
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