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Britain at the crossroads

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady sets out the challenges facing the labour movement this Congress

So we can all relax. The government says Britain is back in recovery.

After years of recession and stagnation, any sign of growth is welcome, if somewhat sickly and long overdue.

But the bigger question is: just what kind of recovery are we heading towards?

All the evidence is that this government is taking us towards a nastier version of pre-crash Britain, with none of the big economic problems fixed and much more of the turbocharged inequality that helped to cause it in the first place.

That kind of recovery means even more victims of job insecurity and extreme exploitation.

Low pay, zero-hours contracts, temporary and agency working will move from the fringe towards the mainstream of Britain’s jobs market.

The wider economic gains of greater consumer spending power will be sacrificed for short-term cost-cutting that some employer organisations are so keen on.

The power imbalance between worker and employer will get even more skewed.

Wronged staff will be priced out of justice.

And unions, the last line of defence against growing inequality, can expect further attacks.

The welfare state will be chipped away at every opportunity.

Even people who have worked and paid in for decades will be labelled as scroungers as soon as they are handed a P45.

Food banks and loan sharks will become a permanent feature on our high streets.

And fear of unemployment will make it even harder for workers to stand up for themselves.

The scourge of long-term unemployment that blights so many parts of the country will be forgotten by some, as long as the City is recruiting and bonuses are booming.

Public services are being cut to the bone, with ever more delivered by privatised companies keener to give their top directors big bonuses than treat staff properly or serve the public.

Ministers will become even more brazen in their attempts to privatise the NHS and bring the profit motive into our education system, from universities to primary schools.

More tax cuts for the rich few will trump the living standards of the many.

We know that wages were squeezed long before the crash as low and middle earners were denied their fair share of the gains from growth.

It’s hard to see this government busting a gut to tackle the super-rich who did so well out of both the boom and the crash.

They won’t give up their position without a fight.

Ministers tell us that unpleasant medicine was needed to secure our economic recovery.

We know that self-defeating austerity has delayed and dampened economic growth.

The government has tried to lower expectations to make a mediocre performance sound impressive.

But we know that with unemployment at 2.5 million — including nearly a million youngsters — and workers still living through the longest real-terms wage squeeze, it doesn’t feel like much of a recovery to most people.

What’s becoming clear is that austerity isn’t just an ill-fated economic strategy but a wider political project to transform our country in a way that voters would reject — and have rejected — when put as a straight choice.

At Congress you will hear graphic accounts of just how tough life has become for many union members and our fellow citizens this week.

It is right that we ring the nation’s alarm bell.

The lives of the people that we met on our Austerity Uncovered tour are rarely covered in the mainstream media.

The Morning Star was the only paper to fully document the stories and testimonies we uncovered over the course of the tour.

The TUC will give the people we met their own voice in a powerful video we will premiere this week.

But we must also give people hope and confidence by setting out a credible and popular alternative.

That alternative is set out in the general council’s campaign plan, which Congress will be asked to endorse this week.

Our alternative plan talks about good jobs and apprenticeships — not just any old contract without even a guarantee of paid work.

We talk about an ambitious programme to build new council homes — not more desperate gimmicks that risk fuelling another property bubble.

And our plan sets out a strategy for fair pay, and new wages councils to help deliver it, not just super-sized bonuses at the top and pay misery for everyone else.

We know we face stiff opposition to our plan.

That’s why we need a united union movement to make the case for a new more democratic economy.

Congress is our chance to share stories and learn from each others’ experience and expertise and start building towards the next election.

The stakes are high.

Whether we get the chance to help put Britain on the road to a fair recovery will be determined over the next two years.

We’ve had a taste of how bad it could be. That should make us even hungrier for our alternative.

Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the TUC.

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