Increasingly we are coming to understand that we are at a pivotal political moment. We are facing the final battle over the future survival of the welfare state. The Tories, with their grovelling Liberal Democrat allies, are seizing the opportunity they have been seeking for 60 years to destroy the welfare state introduced by the post-war Attlee Labour Government.
The introduction of the welfare state was a major achievement, gained through the struggles of the generation that experienced the poverty and deprivation which resulted from the 1930s depression. The stock market crash of 1929, caused by speculators and the banks, was swiftly followed by an economic recession. This was transformed into an economic depression by a Coalition Government which forced through cuts in benefits and public spending – leading to mass unemployment and eventually a world war.
When Tony Benn’s generation returned from that war, they determined that never again should our society be scarred by this scale of human suffering. Using the Beveridge report as a guide and despite a near bankrupt economy, the 1945 Labour Government put in place the basic architecture of the welfare state. This would ensure – through council housing – that everyone would have the opportunity of a decent, affordable home and – through the NHS – that everyone would have access to health treatment free of charge at the point of need.
The welfare state meant that for the first time in our history all our children would have the chance of an education to develop their talents to the full and, through the national insurance system, anyone who was unable to work because they were unemployed or sick or disabled or elderly would receive a level of benefits to keep them out of poverty as a right and not as a charity.
The Tories always resented this Labour achievement, opposed it from the start and always looked to take back the ground we had gained. They now believe they have the chance of using the current capitalist crisis to wipe the welfare state off the face of the earth.
Each week brings forward measures by the Coalition to destroy another part of the welfare state. The Localism Bill effectively ends council housing. If this Bill gets carried, anyone applying for a council house will no longer be given a permanent home but will be offered a tenancy for two years. Council rents are to be forced up to 80% of market rents, and housing benefit is to be cut for the long term unemployed and in higher rent areas.
The NHS Bill commences the process of the wholesale privatisation of the NHS. Under the guise of placing £80 billion of NHS expenditure in the hands of local doctors, the Con-Dem Coalition is making £20 billion of cuts. Private companies will largely take over the administration of the doctors’ funds and are being allowed to bid for the contracts as well. Inevitably private companies will be distributing the funds to private companies, sometimes the same company, maximising their profits at the expense of patients and health workers. Eventually the issue of co-financing will raise its ugly head again, undermining the principle of a free service.
On the day it published the NHS Bill, the Coalition abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance which, along with the rise in tuition fees, undermines the potential for many, many young people to afford to stay on in education. The conversion of schools to academies, independent of local councils, means that our schools will be expected to operate as though in the independent sector – with the prospect that, before long, financial contributions from parents will creep into secondary and primary education.
The cuts in benefits, especially Disability Living Allowance, the withdrawal of benefits through draconian non-compliance penalties and the cut in pensions by the shift from RPI to CPI as the basis for future increases remove the welfare state protections introduced to prevent large scale poverty and deprivation – all at a time when there are 2.5 million unemployed (and rising).
In the face of all this, just as previous generations of our movement fought to establish the welfare state, the responsibility has fallen on our shoulders to save it. The only way that we can do this is to bring this Government down. There can be no greater priority for the left. Everything that we do must be aimed at contributing to this objective.
In Parliament, left MPs will seek to vote down every measure attacking the welfare state that the Con-Dem Coalition brings forward – but the Coalition is not going to be moved by parliamentary action alone. Extra-parliamentary action is vital. The left has a responsibility to support every picket line, every occupation, every demonstration and direct action. In doing so, we shall not only assist in speeding the removal of the Con-Dem Coalition, but we shall also be creating a movement and a climate of opinion that will shape the ideas and political direction of the Labour Government which will replace it.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes & Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.