Things are looking good for working people, according to the government. Wages have risen, unemployment remains low, poverty is falling, waiting lists for hospital treatment are down, there are more doctors and nurses and standards of education keep on rising. Yes, they admit, there are social problems with unruly children, street crime and immigration, but overall things did get better under New Labour. However, if you step back from the hailstorm of statistics, all is not what it seems.
The NHS: not as healthy as it looks
Health is a good place to start because the government has trumpeted this as its big success. The statistics look impressive: between 1994 and 2004 we got 42% more doctors and 24% more nurses (Staffing and Human resources in the NHS, Reform, 2006), and waiting times for many operations are now counted in weeks rather than months or years. Yet increasingly there are stories of nurses being unable to find jobs, of hospitals asking nurses to work for a day without pay or to accept pay below the minimum wage. The reorganisation of pay scales over the last few years, far from standardising responsibilities and pay nationally as it was purported to do, has led to further inequality and confusion. Recent surveys have found that in work nurses are experiencing such high levels of stress that they are forced out of work or end up suffering from physical or mental ill-health, while outside growing numbers have to rely on charity handouts to get by. It is now suggested that over the next few years improvements in productivity will lead to a 10% reduction in the NHS workforce with pay increasingly being linked to ‘results’ (ibid). It is hardly surprising then that the plan to hold public sector pay increases down to 2% has not gone down too well.
Poverty and wages
A second area where Labour claims success is in reducing child poverty. Again the figures look good: 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since 1996/7. However, not only does this mean that some 2.4 million, or 19% of children still live in poverty; it also only takes the situation back to where it was in the mid-1980s, which itself was above the level seen in the 1960s and 70s (Office for National Statistics). Many of those ‘lifted out of poverty’ have gone from being just under the poverty line to just over it: the statistics look good but real life is much the same for those enduring poverty or near-poverty (Poverty: the facts, Child Poverty Action Group, 2001).
Similarly, for all the rhetoric of social justice, wage inequality has risen under Labour (after falling under John Major’s Tory administration). There is a particular gap between skilled and unskilled workers. This means that the latest figure for wage rises of 4.5% does not give the whole picture. In the first place, it includes bonuses, which very many workers never get a hint of. This brings the overall level down to 3.7%, with the private sector at 3.8% and the public sector at 3.1%, which is below the current rate of inflation. Secondly, the figures are skewed because they include salaries and bonuses paid to the very rich. The average weekly income stands at £445 but half of the population lives on £363 or less (Poverty and Inequality in the UK 2007, Institute for Fiscal Studies).
This picture is itself only part of a global picture that has seen workers’ pay fall significantly as a percentage of national income over the last 30 years while profits have increased. This is starkly evident in the US where their pay has fallen by 4% since 2001, while businesses have all but doubled their share of the national income from 7% to 13%. At the same time productivity has increased by 15% (Economist 14/9/06).
In Britain, while there does not seem to have been the same direct fall in wages, the number of hours worked has been rising since the mid-1980s. At the same time, work has become less secure in Britain and America, as short-term and temporary jobs replace permanent ones. In both countries it is the working class that is paying for the apparent economic prosperity. In short, New Labour’s rosy picture is based on the increased exploitation of the working class, many of whom now face years more in work only to be followed by a retirement into poverty. Coupled with the continued growth of personal debt, this results in a growing sense of insecurity and the loss of any vision that things could be different.
…and growing anger
The working class is assailed from all sides by claims of things getting better and better. Its experience to the contrary is simply dismissed as a failure of understanding or a mistaken perception. Indeed, the ruling class always complains that the exploited are not suitably grateful for the generous and selfless efforts made on their behalf. It can be difficult to resist this nonsense since it rains down on us day and night. However, over the last few years there have been signs of growing anger and of a refusal to passively accept things as they are. This is reflected in the increasingly frequent warnings of industrial action, even though these are largely confined to one day strikes and threats of what might happen.
At the end of March, for example, defence and passport workers staged a one-day strike while other civil servants voted to take action short of a strike. A few weeks later 95% of the representatives of the Royal College of Nurses voted in support of the principle of taking industrial action, overturning its longstanding no-strike principle. At the end of April, college lecturers in Northern Ireland took action while 113,000 civil servants staged a one-day strike. At the end of May the Royal College of Midwives followed the RCN in voting to consider balloting for industrial action, while the National Union of Teachers called for a 10% pay rise. The postal workers’ union has held a ballot which resulted in a large majority in favour of industrial action over pay, and Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, warned of a “summer of discontent” (Guardian, 17/5/07).
Last year saw the third greatest number of days lost in industrial action over the last decade: 754,500 days in all, involving 713,000 workers in 158 disputes. The number involved was the second largest of the last decade although this is still nowhere near the level seen in the 70s and 80s, and the actions that have taken place mainly remain firmly within the framework set by the unions.
However, now and again the anger breaks out and ignites in struggles run by the workers with the unions left behind calling for restraint. This was the case with the initial response to the redundancies at Airbus (see the April issue of World Revolution) and with the strike at Heathrow in support of the workers at Gate Gourmet in 2005 (see WR 287). A particularly important feature of some struggles is the support between groups of workers, overcoming racial divisions as at Heathrow or religious ones, as was the case with the postal workers of Northern Ireland some time ago.
We do not fool ourselves that such actions are enough to turn the tide and stop the attacks of the ruling class, but what they do is set out another vision of the world, a vision of unity, solidarity and support that runs completely counter to the division, isolation and selfishness that the ruling class gives us. What the working class offers in these struggles is a different view of the world; a different perception. But it is more than a perception: it is a potential that the working class is capable of making real. It is this that really frightens the ruling class. For us it is a cause for hope. WR 9/6/07