British austerity hits schools, reveals Tories’ future vision
Last week’s teachers’ strike took place following a members’ ballot in which 91.7 percent of voters supported strike action. As a result, 7,000 schools were fully or partially closed for the day – and even ITV’s report was forced to admit that “whatever inconvenience it caused parents, the striking teachers appear to have broad support from the public. My own conversations with parents at the school gate and an online ITV Central poll showed real concern about the issue of school funding.”
But wait – the schools' budget is supposed to be exempt from cuts, right? The Tories won the last election in part by promising that four key budgets – schools, hospitals, pensions and foreign aid – would be "ring fenced" – protected from the savage cuts they promised every other sector of government spending.
I put the question to NUT Executive Committee member Gawain Little. “Nicky Morgan has claimed in a letter to our general secretary that the schools budget has been ringfenced,” he explained. “However, it’s clearly not the case: if the budget was ringfenced, why on earth would headteachers be facing cuts of £100,000, £200,000, £300,000 from next year’s budget? If the schools budget were ringfenced, why would the IFS [Institute for Fiscal Studies] and the Financial Times be saying that schools face an 8% budget cut? It’s simply fantasy. The DfE [Department of Education] is not being honest with people about what it’s doing to education funding.”
What the Department is doing, it seems, is making cuts through the back door. As the Union’s acting General Secretary Kevin Courtney explained in the Morning Star: “George Osborne is freezing the money he gives to schools per pupil, while he is increasing the money he takes from schools [in pension and national insurance contributions] per member of staff”. The results are already being felt in schools across the land.
“There’s been more redundancies in the last six months than I’ve seen in the previous five years”, primary school teacher Nick Wigmore told the Guardian; “We can’t even afford stationary or books for our pupils to write in”, added Laura Thorne.
The truth is, this is the reality of the Tories’ vision for the future: nothing less than the final eradication of the postwar settlement they have been rolling back for three decades.
In his 2014 book 'Buying Time: the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism', German economist Wolfgang Streeck explained how that settlement – in which European workers were provided with well-paid work and quality public services – was only grudgingly provided by a European capitalist class forced to compete with communism for its’ workers’ allegiance.
By the 1970s, Streeck argues, capital had had enough: faced with a profits squeeze, it launched an ‘investment strike’ – refusing to invest until European governments reduced the high level of taxes and other constraints on capital then in place. The result was that the postwar model of a ‘tax state’ – with public services funded by taxes on the wealthy – was replaced by a ‘debt state’ from the 1980s onwards, whereby a refusal by capitalists to continue with the high tax levels of the postwar consensus led to the reduction of taxes to the point where they no longer covered the costs of public expenditure, with governments funding the difference through borrowing.
Government debt grew and grew as a result, before more than doubling overnight following the £1.5 trillion bankers’ bailout in 2008. The next phase, Streeck argues – the transition to which is underway right now – is what he calls the "consolidation state", in which continued deficits and growing public debts have triggered fear on capital markets that they are becoming unrepayable – leading to capitalists demanding the cutting back of social infrastructure altogether.
This is exemplified above all by George Osborne’s "fiscal charter", which makes it illegal for future governments to borrow money: aiming, that is, at nothing less than the permanent institutionalization of ‘austerity’.
This project, this war against public services, is driven by more than just the desire not to tax the wealthy, however. It is also about keeping wages low and unemployment high. Public sector cuts mean job losses and wage cuts, as well as reducing the security of those in private sector employment.
Thatcher’s economic adviser Sir Alan Budd explained the utility of mass unemployment for capital in a rare moment of ruling class honesty back in 1992, explaining that Thatcher’s policies were “a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes… what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since."
But above all, the war on public services is about creating profitable avenues for investment in a time of deepening economic crisis. As libraries close, schools and hospitals deteriorate, parks are sold off, social care and policing is cut back etc, new markets are created. Demand for private schools, private health insurance, private security – and why not, even private parks, libraries, and playgrounds? – is increased the more the state refuses to properly fund such services itself. This is about opening up lucrative investment opportunities for those desperate to see a return on their capital.
Of course, not everyone is able to afford such services. They are supposed to borrow privately to do so. UK private household debt currently stands at £1.5 trillion, generating interest repayments of £143 million per day – another lucrative source of profit for desperate investors.
The Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) expects this debt to increase to £2.5 trillion by 2021, as households on stagnating incomes which fail to keep pace with inflation borrow more to purchase services no longer provided by the state. An increasing portion of household incomes will be eaten up with interest payments, with those unable to keep up being stripped of all their worldly goods. We are in the process of moving from an economy based on exploitation to one based purely on extortion.
Meanwhile, the criminalization of resistance continues apace. During last week’s strike, one teacher commented that “we’re doing this not for ourselves but for the children", another that “we’re not striking over pay and conditions – we’re striking over your children’s education and it’s important schools send the right message”.
Technically, if either comment were true, the strike would be illegal. As the European Trade Institute’s comprehensive study on strike laws across Europe has noted, "all collective action is in principle illegal” in the UK. The only exception is strike action which is "in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute", defined in law as “a dispute between workers and their employer” relating to the terms and conditions of their employment.
In other words, by law, teachers are not allowed to strike on behalf of their students, or in opposition to education policy due to its negative effect on schools, but only on issues relating to their own contracts. This has been the case since the first of Thatcher’s anti-union laws in 1980, and it forces unions to officially declare all strikes as being over pay and conditions, even if individual members are motivated by matters of principle and concern for the service itself. This has the pernicious effect of making strikes seem inherently 'selfish’ and damaging the levels of public support they are likely to achieve.
Worse is yet to come, however. The UK government, which was elected by 24% of the eligible electorate, now wants to make it illegal for unions to strike with the support of anything less than 50% of the eligible electorate. This week’s strike, for example, would have been illegal, despite receiving 91.7% support amongst voters, because most of the union’s members did not use their vote. We are rapidly returning to the situation faced by workers in the nineteenth century, of having to organize underground unions to wage illegal strikes.
The answer is to build effective alliances with those who have been fighting both anti-union laws like these and ‘austerity’ itself for decades – the workers of the global majority in Asia, Africa and Latin America. They have been struggling against the most extreme forms of everything British workers are now facing, and have chalked up major successes in the process. It’s time to unite.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.