Britain is in the depths of economic recession. The threat of unemployment, poverty and even homelessness hangs over the lives of millions of people. Unemployment is climbing towards three million, average incomes fell by 3.5% in 2011 and homelessness increased by 14%.
But Britain in 2012 is a tale of two countries. While the majority face cuts to their living standards a few at the top are rolling in cash. The gap between rich and poor is greater today than at any time since the second world war.
The Sunday Times rich list has broken records in 2012. The combined wealth of Britain's richest 1,000 people swelled by almost 5% to £414 billion, reaching the highest amount ever recorded by the 24-year-old survey.
Chancellor George Osborne's budget laid bare, even to those workers who had illusions in the Tories, that this is a government of the rich and for the rich. Taxes were cut both for the big corporations and the 1% of the population who earn over £150,000 a year. Meanwhile further cuts in public spending were announced. All the misery we have suffered so far is less than 10% of the cuts this government has got planned.
But we do not accept that there is no alternative to taking this pain. Nor do the hundreds of thousands of workers who will be striking to defend their pensions on 10 May (M10). Those workers understand, along with millions of others, that the only way to stop the endless austerity we face is by organising a mass campaign of defiance.
The government has declared war and the only possible response is to escalate the action, both in defence of pension rights, but also broadening the struggle against the government's austerity onslaught, and in defence of the rights of the trade unions to organise effectively.
In 2011 the workers' movement in Britain gave a glimpse of its potential power - with the strikes on both 30 June and 30 November and with the 26 March demonstration, the biggest trade union-led demonstration in over a century. Unfortunately, the leadership of the TUC, along with the leaders of Unison, the biggest public sector union, betrayed the mighty movements of 2011 by agreeing to a 'heads of agreement' with the government which does nothing to protect public sector workers' pensions. As a result the strike on M10 will not be as powerful as the massive strike of two million public sector workers that took place on 30 November 2011. If that action had continued, there is no doubt the government would have been stopped.
But it still can be! Socialist Party members, alongside other trade unionists, have fought for the pensions action to continue. The M10 strike is an important step in this direction, which we now need to build on. A further one-day public sector strike needs to be combined with an immediate national weekend trade union-led demonstration against austerity and in defence of our NHS.
Prominent in the campaign against austerity should be complete opposition to regional pay, which is an attempt to weaken the power of the trade union movement by ending national pay bargaining. Regional pay will make far worse the already higher levels of poverty which exists in some parts of the country. In the north east, for example, over 40% of children live in poverty.
However, alongside fighting to stop the cuts we also need to put forward an alternative. Austerity is not only the diet for workers in Britain; it is also what is being offered to workers in Ireland, Greece, Spain and most other countries. All parties that accept capitalism also accept austerity. The Liberal Democrats have shown that no cut, no privatisation, no tax break for the rich, is too distasteful for them to sign up to.
But unfortunately New Labour also does not oppose austerity, and has made it absolutely clear that if elected they would not reverse the Con-Dem cuts. Labour leader Ed Miliband is so craven that he is not even willing, as the ex-social democrat Socialist Party candidate, Francois Hollande, has done in France, to promise to increase taxation on the super-rich. Even promising to re-introduce the 50p tax rate for income over £150,000 is too much for Ed!
That is why it is crucial that the workers' movement begins to develop its own electoral voice. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has stood anti-cuts candidates in this year's local elections in order to begin to develop such a voice. Candidates included leaders of important militant trade unions such as Alex Gordon, president of the train workers' union RMT, and Joe Simpson, deputy general secretary of the prison officers' union, POA.
To fully represent the interests of workers, anti-cuts candidates need to stand on an anti-capitalist and socialist programme. In Britain the result of the capitalist crisis is that the economy today is still 4.3% smaller than it was when the economic crisis began in 2008. Nor is there any prospect of a return to healthy growth, the best capitalism has to offer Britain is prolonged stagnation. Yet there is no lack of profits being made. There is an incredible £750 billion sitting in the vaults of Britain's major corporations. They do not invest it because they cannot find a profitable outlet.
The privatisation of public services, not least our NHS, is in large part motivated by big business's search for a profitable outlet. What a condemnation of capitalism today. Capitalism has always been based on the drive for profit, which comes from the exploitation of the majority, the working class. Yet for all its brutality and exploitation, in the past capitalism did drive society forward - developing industry, science and technique.
Today British capitalism is utterly parasitic, reduced to making profits from the privatisation of our public services and gambling on the stock markets.
In 2012 manufacturing only accounts for 10.5% of Britain's economy. New Labour in power followed the path set by the Tories before them, and watched the manufacturing industry shrink while the City spiralled out of control. As we warned, the stock market frenzy brought the economy to the brink of Armageddon in 2008. Since then all three of the major capitalist parties have started to talk about the importance of 're-balancing the economy'.
But the manufacturing and finance sectors of the economy are intertwined, and no amount of pleading will convince the major banks and corporations to invest the money in industry instead of stashing it away.
Socialists demand an immediate 50% levy on the £750 billion held by the major corporations in their bank vaults. This would provide enough money to prevent any cuts in public services, but also to invest in developing socially-useful industry.
Instead of the madness of the market, we argue for a rational, socialist solution. Britain currently has over one million unemployed young people while workers are being forced to keep working 'until they drop', to 68 and beyond.
Why not provide free high quality education and training for young people, with jobs at the end: including as teachers, nurses and doctors, firefighters? This would improve the quality of public services, allow workers to enjoy their retirement, and give young people the possibility of a secure future.
This could be combined with introducing a 35-hour week, with no loss of pay. In Britain, low pay means that full-time workers work the longest hours in Europe, while millions of others languish on the dole or can only get part time work. We demand that the work is shared out.
Britain has an acute housing crisis. In 2010 only 95,000 properties were built, overwhelmingly in the private sector. The building of council housing has almost completely ceased. Other 'affordable' housing is also in short supply and is not affordable. The government is demanding that all social housing rents move towards market levels.
In Newham, the borough where the Olympics are being held, shiny new buildings now dominate the landscape but, with 32,000 on the housing waiting list, only 348 of the new properties will be available for social housing after the Games. Meanwhile the homeless are being shipped to Stoke-on-Trent, a city blighted by one of the highest unemployment levels in the country (see also page 11).
Socialists argue for the obvious solution. Between 1949 and 1954 an average of 230,000 council houses were built every year. Why not launch a new mass council house building programme in order to provide high-quality affordable housing for the five million people who are waiting for social housing? Building workers could be put to work, not on slave labour pay, but with union rates of pay and conditions.
This in turn could be paid for by the increased tax income from those drawn into work and the cuts in housing benefit payments - not at the expense of tenants as now - but because there would be affordable housing for all rather than slum landlords making a fat profit from people's misery.
All of these measures together could eliminate the scourge of unemployment and offer a decent future for the whole population. We fight for every one of these measures, but we also recognise that they will never be implemented fully and permanently on the basis of capitalism. Faced with a determined working class, big business can be forced to give us concessions. However, in its relentless pursuit of profit, capitalism would then come back with other ways of making the working class pay for the crisis.
That is why we need a socialist solution. For a start we call for the nationalisation of the big banking and finance companies. Compensation should be paid on the basis of proven need - but without one penny going to the speculators who are demanding that the working class pay for the crisis for which they bear responsibility.
It would then be necessary to introduce a state monopoly on foreign trade - so that it would be a democratically elected government, not the market, controlling imports and exports including capital.
A socialist nationalised banking sector would be democratically run by representatives of banking workers and trade unions, the wider working class, as well as the government. Decisions would be made to meet the needs of the majority, for example offering cheap loans and mortgages for housing and for the planned development of industry and services and ending all repossessions of peoples' homes.
However, that would only be the start. That is why a crucial step towards solving the economic crisis would be to take the big corporations that dominate Britain's economy into democratic public ownership. In Britain 150 companies control between 70% and 75% of the wealth. By taking them over - again with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need - we will be able to harness all of the currently unused capacity. A socialist plan of production could be introduced to meet the needs of the population and the environment, instead of being driven - as today - by the lust for profit.
Of course, capitalism is an international system, and any alternative could not stop at the shores of Britain. But just look at how quickly the revolutionary movements spread around North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011.
If a democratically elected socialist government in any country was to begin to implement the kind of programme outlined here, it would act as an enormous inspiration to workers in the rest of the world struggling against capitalism's devastation of their living standards. The ideas of genuine democratic socialism would be unstoppable.
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