The John McDonnell Column
Two key events in Parliament will determine the last phase of the Coalition Government in the run up to the next election in 2015.
The first is the Queen’s Speech, realistically the last opportunity the Coalition has to put any major legislative changes on the statute book. The second is the forthcoming publication in June of the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review, (CSR). The CSR statement is of interest because it will be accompanied by the Treasury’s assessment of the economy’s performance and its predictions for our economic future.
The publication of the Queen’s Speech has revealed the Tories’ dominance in the Coalition administration and the increasing marginalisation of the Liberal Democrats. The CSR is almost certain to confirm this trend.
One of the central themes of Cameron’s political strategy over the last two years has been to find a scapegoat to divert attention from the real causes of the economic crisis. When people feel desperately insecure, they fall prey to politicians who offer them a scapegoat to blame for their suffering. The easiest targets are always those least able to defend themselves. That is why people claiming welfare benefits became an obvious target for the Tories and their friends in the gutter media.
The problem with setting off the dogs on a scapegoat hunt is that, once unleashed, the dogs can become impossible to control. So it became relatively easy for UKIP to upstage the Tories in the hunt for a scapegoat and to turn the heat on the traditional targets, migrants. The Tories offered them the poor, the unemployed and the disabled who are on welfare benefits but were upstaged when UKIP offered them migrants.
The publicity focus of the Queen’s Speech on an Immigration Bill seeking to withdraw access to health care and benefits from migrants is of course a blatant attempt by Cameron to retrieve some of the ground lost to UKIP. We also know from the leak which was published in the Guardian the Government had even considered preventing the children of asylum seekers from being able to attend school.
The media hype over the Immigration Bill has partly masked the main thrust of the Government’s programme for the coming period. This is a combination of the wholesale privatisation of the last of our public services, including the NHS, the Prisons and Probation Service and local government and the next overwhelming wave of cuts in public spending to cope with the collapse in tax revenues resulting from a continuing economic crisis.
Even the much trumpeted Pensions and Social Care Bills contained in the Queen’s Speech, proclaimed as the main achievements of Liberal Democratic influence within the Coalition, are now exposed as either contributing to the cuts strategy by cutting pensions or being completely ineffectual in providing quality care for our elderly. Worryingly the list of new legislation also includes the potential for further attacks on civil liberties and rights at work under the guises of tackling anti-social behaviour and deregulation.
The question is how will people react to the prospect of another two years of declining incomes, cuts in their public services and mounting insecurity. UKIP and the Tories are tapping into one set of reactions; xenophobia, prejudice and scapegoating. They have been allowed to because of the failure of the Labour Party leadership to offer an alternative. UKIP and the Tories are filling the vacuum left by the lack of credibility of the Labour leadership’s strategy in opposition. What is needed is a forceful and outright opposition to austerity combined with an active leadership heading up and supporting the campaigns of resistance against the cuts, privatisations and scapegoating.
The CSR in June gives the Labour leadership the ideal opportunity to demonstrate a radical break with the past by calling for an end to austerity. A few simple statements would announce the return of the real Labour Party that so many have been desperately hoping for. A statement to potential speculators that under Labour all privatisations will be reversed without compensation would halt many in their tracks. A commitment to a decent living wage for all, whether in or out of work, paid for by a tax system that is fair and that collects the taxes of the rich and corporations, would send a message that the age of insecurity would be ended under Labour. A message to the City and the banks that Labour will take them into democratic control will send the message that need is taking over from greed in the management of our economy.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.