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Editorial: The Budget is a fork in the road – for the labour movement

WEDNESDAY’S Budget has been described as a “fork in the road” by Labour’s Keir Starmer.

For the left, the choice he refers to will only have meaning if the labour movement can provide a clear political alternative that addresses the Covid-19 pandemic and also the deeper economic injustices it has intensified.

The first of these is the tremendous debt we owe the key workers who keep the country supplied, cleaned, cared for, moving, even during a lockdown.

NHS workers have played a heroic role, recognised when the whole country appeared in doorways to clap them in the early part of this crisis. Yet the government continues to deny them a proper pay rise.

The contrast, too, is clear between the social value of the work done by other key workers, from cleaners and couriers to shop and transport workers, and their pay and conditions. Millions are paid poverty wages and trapped in insecure contracts.

Starmer has recognised this, vowing when he won the Labour leadership last year that “the last shall be first.”

Labour is rightly calling on the Tories not to hold down public-sector pay. But its simultaneous opposition to corporation tax rises seriously undermines its credibility. 

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus doesn’t mince words: the last being first also entails those who were first being relegated to last. 

But Starmer does not point to the fortunes amassed by the super-rich during this pandemic, against a backdrop of downward pressure on wages, the dirty fire-and-rehire tactics of too many employers, the mass job losses.

Criticising individual Tory decisions without drawing out the need for systemic change is a game they can win. Chancellor Rishi Sunak will announce impressive-sounding spending commitments.

What he will not do is address the joblessness crisis, the pay crisis, the welfare crisis, the privatisation and outsourcing crisis and the links between them all.

Sunak will present Labour as fiscally irresponsible — rooting for pay rises while opposing tax rises. It should avoid the trap by supporting corporation tax rises as well as new taxes on wealth, tying the demand for justice for key workers to a narrative about fairness.

But it should also explode the Tory tax-and-spend trap by pointing to the parasitical nature of private-sector infestation of our public services, its relation to poverty pay and insecure work and the colossal sums of public money that go to fill the pockets of the rich.

More NHS services are being outsourced than ever before and new legislation removes scrutiny from the allocation of these contracts — an insult when Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been found to have broken the law by failing to publish details of these.

The enormous, unaccountable power of private capital is in the public eye, from the shocking abuse of its workforce by Amazon to the recent spectacle of Facebook holding the entire country of Australia to ransom.

The Budget should be an opportunity for us to assert the fundamental contradiction between democratic and corporate power.

If the Tories still lead in the polls despite a staggeringly high coronavirus death rate, soaring unemployment and a workforce facing attacks on job security and pay, it is surely because Labour, by refusing to challenge the system that drives these trends, makes them seem inevitable.

The left needs to fight for an alternative — but this fight must involve active resistance to government policy at workplace level. 

As Public and Commercial Services union leader Mark Serwotka said this week, issues such as public-sector pay and the right of workers not to enter unsafe workplaces can be grounds for united action by multiple trade unions and can combine with community organisation to defend jobs and services.

Such resistance would have a strong chance of forcing government retreats, while mobilising huge numbers of working people for a real alternative. It could transform this country’s politics.

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