The Socialist 19 January 2022 |
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Mutual aid, the welfare state and the fight for a new mass workers' party
The beginning of austerity saw an explosion of anti-cuts groups campaigning to defend local services. Photo: Waltham Forest Socialist Party (Click to enlarge)
Josh Asker, Socialist Party national committee
The Covid pandemic and its effects have deepened an already existing social crisis. Ravaged by years of cuts and privatisation, public services have been unable to meet the needs of working-class communities. In a period when the super-rich have further increased their wealth - the top 0.01% richest individuals increased their wealth by another 10% last year, numbers of mutual aid groups took off.
Donations of time, energy, food and money, typically from hard-hit workers, and definitely not from the super-rich, were used to try to ameliorate the worst symptoms of the crisis. At the height of the Covid pandemic 4,000 mutual aid groups had been set up. People, many of whom were on furlough, volunteered to deliver food and medicine to their neighbours who were vulnerable or self-isolating.
The groups included individuals simply motivated to help, others were led by faith groups or had been given permission by employers to take part during work hours. There are also those who see their actions as more political - a minority believing that acts of mutual aid will play a central role in transforming society.
Who owns the wealth?
But an unavoidable fact is that to harness the vast wealth and resources hoarded by the capitalist elite to meet social need requires a political struggle to transfer the ownership of that wealth from a tiny minority, to the overwhelming majority - the working class. A political party of the working class is needed for that fight.
Unfortunately, Labour's defeat in the 2019 General Election, and subsequently Starmer's purge of Corbyn's supporters and influence, has had a demoralising effect on some of those who had been enthused by his rallying call "for the many, not the few". Some have, for a period, lost confidence in the possibility of building a political force to fight in the interests of workers. But a political party of the working class is needed now more than ever.
Without such a party, in the period after the 2008-09 economic crash, the Tories and Lib Dems - assisted by Labour councils - were able to inflict brutal austerity measures. The welfare state was under attack and wage restraint gave workers an ever-decreasing share of the wealth.
The use of foodbanks took off. The Trussell Trust food charity reports that their network distributed 61,000 emergency food parcels in 2010-11; this rose to 2.5 million in 2020-21. The numbers using foodbanks has continued to rise during the pandemic. Many workers who would have previously been employed on zero-hour contracts lost hours, and the millions furloughed lost 20% of their pay.
The issue of food poverty was further highlighted by footballer Marcus Rashford's public campaign for free school meals to continue through school holidays, ultimately forcing a government U-turn. Rashford's victory was worth £120 million in funding from government. Imagine what a political party of the working class, even with relatively few MPs or councillors, carrying out a determined campaign for free school meals and other measures, could have won.
The effects of austerity were acutely felt in local government, �16 billion of funding had been cut from councils' revenue support grants. The cuts and service closures left local authorities particularly unprepared for the demands during the first wave of the pandemic. In the Socialist Party's Coronavirus Workers' Charter, we put forward the need for councils to use their existing resources to meet the needs of communities: "Councils to coordinate local distribution of food, medicines and other supplies to the vulnerable and people in need, with the democratic oversight of trade union and community organisations".
We argued, as we had throughout the years of austerity, that councils should use their existing financial reserves and borrowing powers to provide services that meet the communities' needs. By using these resources in the short-term, popular support for the measures could be mobilised to demand the funding from central government, and ultimately from the capitalist class.
Councils, Labour as well as Tory, refused to take this stand. The distribution of food and medicine was often left to working-class communities themselves, drawing on their own limited resources and time, often delivering food donated by low-paid workers themselves.
Austerity attacks on the welfare state represent an unwillingness of the bosses to continue to give up a share of their profits in the form of taxes, to pay for services for the working class. The establishment of local authority-run services and other aspects of the welfare state historically were enormous victories for the working class, won through struggle.
The landslide election of a Labour government in 1945 led to a programme of reforms that hugely expanded the welfare state, including the establishment of the NHS, expansion of comprehensive education, and mass building of council homes (see 'Poverty increasing. Welfare state in crisis. Do we need a new Beveridge Report?').
In this period, fearing the potential of workers' struggle for a 'land fit for heroes', the capitalists conceded huge reforms. The capitalist state, as Marx explained, exists to police the class conflict that is inherent in capitalist society in favour of the bosses. Often it does this by employing oppressive measures - sending police to beat up picketers and so on. But also, by conceding resources to take the edge off the sharpest aspects of class society, the capitalists hope to be able to maintain social peace.
Ultimately, the concessions won by workers in the aftermath of World War Two were a huge victory. They represented the working class winning an increased share of the wealth in society in the form of healthcare, education and council housing.
But the situation in 1945 politically and economically was different to today. The end of the war had given rise to a number of revolutionary movements in Europe, with workers unprepared to return to the conditions of the 1930s. The Soviet Union, with its bureaucratic planned economy, had emerged strengthened. It was in the interests of capitalism, and also the Soviet bureaucracy, for big concessions to be made to prevent revolution.
Unlike today, after the destruction of the war, the world economy was beginning a period of sustained economic growth. The capitalist class could continue making increased profits, and at the same time maintain the welfare state. Eventually, in a period of economic crisis, the bosses would inevitably come to attack workers' previous gains.
"There's no such thing as society", were the famous words uttered by Margaret Thatcher as part of her ideological and fiscal assault on the welfare state, later continued by Blair, Brown, Cameron and May.
With Thatcher as his hero, why then did Boris Johnson declare from his Covid isolation in March 2020 that: "There really is such a thing as society"? Because in the turmoil of the months of lockdown, the idea of social cohesion and the myth that 'we are all in it together' was absolutely in the interests of Johnson and the bosses he represents.
Johnson is not the only Tory prime minister to laud the benefits of 'society' when it suits. In another period of social turmoil after the 2008-09 financial crash and during the first years of austerity, David Cameron proclaimed the 'Big Society' - cynically proposing that communities step in to provide services closed by cuts. Cameron's 'Big Society' project was a failure. Many of the organisations and charities that were meant to expand to fill the services gap were savaged by austerity too, losing the government and local authority grants their existence depended on.
Today, as secretary of state for levelling up, Michael Gove is regurgitating the same failed idea by introducing a backbench report entitled: "'Trusting the people', a rallying call for a new community-powered conservatism". The Tories are hoping to win support among those who have stepped in to offer 'mutual aid' and, at the same time, attack the welfare state: cutting £20 a week from Universal Credit, maintaining the squeeze on local authorities and a public sector real-terms pay cuts.
Simultaneously, the same Tory government is beefing up the powers of the capitalist state to perform its more elemental role, as a force to defend the interests of the bosses by introducing the repressive police and crime bill to restrict the right to protest. The ruling class anticipates a period of class struggle and discontent, and is preparing itself for those battles.
Workers' experience of police harassment, racism and misogyny, a biased legal system and punitive benefit sanctions give rise to distrust and contempt for the state, alongside widespread support for the NHS and well-funded local services.
During the height of lockdown restrictions, with demand for services at a peak and many services failing to function effectively, mutual aid groups attempted to fill the gaps. But there was no question of mutual aid being able to meet social care needs, for example, or to stand in for the NHS. Other services like libraries and youth services, however, have increasingly been handed over to volunteers as a consequence of council cuts. In these services too it is necessary to continue to demand well-paid, union-organised professionals to provide a high-quality service.
The control of council services and councils' substantial budgets cannot be left in the hands of councillors who continue with privatisation, outsourcing and cuts. It is necessary to challenge them, including at the ballot box, with candidates prepared to fight for the high-quality services we need.
A council prepared to use its borrowing powers financed by reserves in the short term, could, for example, invest in building high-quality council-run care facilities to meet the needs of its vulnerable population. By paying care workers a trade union-agreed minimum of at least £15 an hour, the staff shortages and poor care that dog privatised and under-resourced council care services could be overcome. More favourable care needs assessment could be introduced to ensure decent, affordable, care for all.
This is just one example of steps a council could take, led by councillors prepared to fight the government for funding, to transform local services and people's lives. Such a stand would win massive public support, increase pressure on other councils to follow suit and on the government to concede funding.
Democratic oversight of public services is in steady decline. Clinical commissioning groups in the NHS, subject to limited public scrutiny are to be done away with as part of the health and care bill. Academisation of schools reduces the influence of elected school governors. Privatisation of services reduces the influence of elected politicians over how they are run.
Transformed local services, fully resourced by a council acting in the interests of the working class, could be run by committees made up of elected representatives of service users, the workers' trade unions and the wider community to decide how best to allocate resources and run services. Subject to recall by those who elected them and without material privileges, elected representatives would be made accountable. Bodies like these could play an important role in determining a national plan based on the needs of working-class communities.
In 1945, the expansion of the welfare state demonstrated many of the benefits of nationally planned and resourced services. The largely successful first stage of Covid vaccination in Britain was a consequence of a public, nationally coordinated NHS, in contrast to the failed privatised test and trace. But the 1945 Labour government did not give comprehensive democratic control to workers and communities. And by not bringing an end to the capitalist profit system, the bosses remained in place to claw back what they had given.
In response to the Covid pandemic, the Tory government carried out unprecedented spending to prop up the capitalist system and protect profits. But British capitalism in crisis cannot afford lasting concessions. Already the government is seeking to claw back that spending, ending furlough and reducing Universal Credit, so the working class is being asked to pay.
Who pays for Covid?
The central and most immediate task facing the workers' organisations, including the trade unions, is to fight to ensure workers aren't made to pay for Covid through service cuts or inflation. Already, workers are exercising their power through strikes and the threat of strikes, winning above-inflation pay rises. Some, like outsourced NHS staff working for Serco in East London, are combining their struggle over pay with the demand to be brought back in-house as part of a public NHS.
But the struggles of these workers and others would be strengthened by a political party that fights in the interests of the working class and puts up a serious challenge for the bosses' wealth - that is what the Socialist Party is fighting for. By standing in elections as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), we hope this will be a first step towards building a new mass party of the working class (see page 3).
To prepare for May's local elections, TUSC has been organising People's Budget meetings, bringing together trade unionists, local campaigners and socialists to draw up council budgets based on the needs of our communities. Mutual aid groups are among those that have been invited to participate. And those willing to sign up to TUSC's anti-cuts core policies are encouraged to stand with us.
The pandemic has laid bare insufferable inequality and hardship - this has been met by mutual aid solidarity and mass popular support for key workers' struggles. To win a future with fully funded public services and an end to inequality means fighting politically to challenge for the wealth hoarded by the super-rich. Join us in building a new mass workers' party to take on that fight.