Friday, 30 December 2011

Christmas

It is ironic that many Christmas cards we send and receive carry images of festive scenes from the Dickensian era.

Candlelight flickering through frosted windows; a father in heavy coat and top hat, trudging through thick snow, carrying presents for his family; a horse-drawn carriage passing along snow-covered cobbles, flakes of falling snow shimmering in the yellow light cast from gas lamps.  ‘Traditional’ Christmas scenes that give us a warm glow and make us feel good as we look forward to spending time with our family and friends.

The irony is that the Dickensian era, fondly depicted on Christmas cards, was actually marked by extreme poverty, a situation to which contemporary Britain is returning. 

The works of Charles Dickens were set mainly during the reign of Queen Victoria, a time when a small, elite group built fabulous wealth through the exploitation of the majority.  The Dickensian scenes on our festive cards depict the Christmas enjoyed by the wealthy: but for the majority of the population back then, Christmas was just another day of bitterly cold temperatures, insufficient food, grinding poverty and a future without hope.

Today, in North Ayrshire, a growing number of our fellow citizens are without work.  The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government in London is implementing a series of measures that will reduce the amount of benefit received by the poorest members of our communities; many claimants are forced to work for £10.00 per week on top of their benefit, a scheme the government describes as ‘work experience’, but which is actually a means of supplying large companies with a workforce that is paid a real-terms rate far below the minimum wage. 

North Ayrshire has the highest unemployment in Scotland, and some of the worst deprivation in the country: a recent report by the respected charity Save the Children revealed the local area now has the second-highest level of children living in severe poverty.

In Scotland - the European Union’s biggest producer of oil - every third family is now living in ‘fuel poverty’, which means they have to spend more than 10 per cent of their disposable income to heat their homes.  The level of ‘extreme fuel poverty’ – spending more than 20 per cent of income on heating – is rising steeply.  Lucy McTernan, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Bureau Scotland, was recently quoted saying, “There can no longer be any doubt that fuel poverty in Scotland is approaching crisis levels.”

After generations of social advancement, where governments strove to achieve full employment; where safeguards were put in place to prevent people falling into poverty; where standards of housing were improved; where barriers were removed from educational and workplace attainment, the Tory Government of Margaret Thatcher was elected and set about deconstructing the ‘social contract’.

Under Thatcher, all that mattered was making money: people were expendable, workers were to be exploited once again, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  Her ideology was fully embraced by her successor, John Major, and by New Labour Governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  Now we have the Tories back in power – with the help of the Liberal Democrats – and things are going from bad to worse.  The gap between the wealthy elite and the rest of us is returning to levels not seen since Charles Dickens was writing books and Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Victorian London.

Tory Government Ministers don’t care about the plight of the poor.  Of course, they won’t admit this in television interviews or in newspaper articles, but it’s true.  Many of the Tory-Lib Dem Cabinet are millionaires: they are the Dickensian father in heavy coat and top hat, trudging through thick snow, carrying presents for his family.  They will enjoy the warm, happy Christmas depicted on festive cards.  Like the Dickensian wealthy-elite, the super-rich of today can’t begin to imagine how the poor will spend Christmas, and won’t devote much time, if any, to considering how parents feel when they know they’ve failed their children, simply because they lost their job, through no fault of their own, and can’t afford what is now perceived as a ‘normal’ Christmas.

The Tory-Lib Dem Government led by David Cameron is returning us to the dark days of fabulous wealth for a tiny minority, contrasted against an unremitting life of deep poverty for more and more of our fellow citizens.  We, the people, must not allow that to happen.

Another traditional Christmas favourite shows us a shining example of a better way, a better society, and again there is an element of irony to it.  The 1946 Frank Capra movie It’s A Wonderful Life – made in the USA, the most capitalist of societies – tells the story of one man’s feeling of failure because he believes he let down his family and the people of his home town.  In true Hollywood style, when the man, George Bailey, says he wishes he’d never been born and attempts to end his life by jumping into a raging river on Christmas Eve, his guardian angel, Clarence, saves him and goes on to show how so many people’s lives would have been poorer if George had never lived.

If you get a chance over the Christmas period, watch the film.  Irrespective of how many times you may have watched it before, it will still be inspirational.  It’s A Wonderful Life is not just a story about one man’s troubles and how he overcomes them, it is a metaphor for a better society, a socialist society.

Each of us touch so many lives in our journey from the cradle to the grave.  We can help or hinder our fellow citizens, we can decide to be selfish and look after ourselves, to the detriment of others, or we can work together to build a better life for us all. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The fight we have to win

Last week, in his Autumn Statement, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne revealed the Tory-Lib Dem Government is intent on waging war against the working class of Britain.

Surely, it can now be only the wilfully delusional who believe the Tory mantra of ‘we are all in this together’. The range of economic measures introduced by Osborne showed he and the Coalition Government he represents are determined the poorest should pay the debts run-up by multi-millionaire bankers and financial speculators. While those same dealers in the financial markets continue to take home six or even seven-figure salaries and bonuses running into millions of pounds, the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government announced measures that will punish the poor, including the decision to scrap a proposed rise to the Child Tax Credit, a move that will result in an additional 100,000 children being pushed into poverty.

The pro-capitalist politicians in the Tory-Lib Dem Government are content to see children go hungry in order to make financial ‘savings’ that will go towards paying the UK’s national deficit, a sum of money borrowed by the Westminster administration and used to bail-out banks that had gambled on ‘the markets’ and lost. To be fair, it was the previous Labour Government that borrowed the money to bail-out the banks, but there is no doubt the present Tory-Lib Dem administration would have taken the exact same course of action. Capitalists caused the collapse of their own economic system, but the children of working class families are being punished and made to sacrifice what little they have in order that capitalism can be re-financed and the whole corrupt system can begin all over again.

Last Wednesday, St Andrew’s Day, over 25,000 people marched through Glasgow in protest against UK Government plans to force public sector workers to pay considerably more in pension contributions, work years more than they had expected, and yet receive a much lower pension once they retire. Similar marches took place in virtually every city across the UK.

Public sector workers have every right to be very angry about the way they are being targeted by the UK Coalition Government, and those of us who work in the so-called private sector should learn from history: if we don’t support our sisters and brothers in the public sector, who will speak up when the Tories come for us? Contrary to the Tory-Lib Dem propaganda, we are not all in this together, but all of us who sell our labour to make a living – the working class – are definitely all in this fight together.

The day before the one-day strike, George Osborne’s Autumn Statement also included the news that the Tory-Lib Dem programme of savage cuts to public spending and services had resulted in higher unemployment and a stagnating national economy. So, what do the UK Government propose as Plan B? Bigger and deeper cuts, that’s what.

Previously, the government of millionaires predicted their ‘austerity measures’ would result in 310,000 public sector workers losing their jobs. Callously, that figure tripped-off Tory and Lib Dem tongues without a thought for the consequences, such as families losing income and having to exist on poverty-level benefits. Now, though, that figure for public sector redundancies has been revised...to 710,000. Notwithstanding the personal misery this will create for the workers concerned and their immediate families, we should consider those vulnerable members of communities across the country who rely on public services. Put simply, it will be impossible to continue delivering these vital services with a workforce reduced by almost three-quarters of a million.

Just for good measure, Osborne also announced that pay rises in the public sector will be capped at 1 per cent for the two years after the current pay freeze expires. With inflation running at over 5 per cent, the pay freeze and a cap at 1 per cent – in other words, a maximum pay rise of 1 per cent – means public sector workers are faced with four years of real-terms pay cuts, which could represent as much as a 16 per cent reduction in salary for some.

One of the most-quoted lines by Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs in the run-up to last week’s one-day public sector strike was that increased pension contributions were necessary because we are all living longer and therefore current pension provision is no longer affordable. That is a bare-faced lie. In general terms we are living longer, but the Hutton Report, on which the UK Government bases its current reforms, shows public sector pension payments peaked at 1.9 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – national wealth – in 2010-11, and will gradually fall over the next fifty years.

In addition, a closer look at public sector pension funds shows workers are already contributing more than is currently paid in the form of pensions. Presently, almost £300million more is paid into local government pension schemes in Scotland than is paid out to public sector pensioners. The largest scheme, the Strathclyde Pension Fund, of which most North Ayrshire Council workers are members, currently shows a surplus of £117million.

Successive UK Governments – Labour, Tory and Lib Dem – have raided these pension funds to help pay for a range of government initiatives, including rescuing the failed capitalist system.

The reality is that around three-quarters of a million public sector workers now face losing their jobs; those who remain in employment will see their wages significantly cut, and they are being told they must pay more in pension contributions, despite their retirement schemes being in surplus and the overall cost to the public purse is falling.

Like all of the other ‘austerity measures’ being imposed by the Westminster Government, the attacks on public sector workers are not necessary, they are entirely ideological. Even without the collapse of global capitalism and the ensuing economic crisis, the Tories would be attacking public sector workers and slashing public services - it’s what Tories do. This time they have the backing of the Liberal Democrats, and that party is currently receiving exactly what it deserves for its treachery: it was reduced to just four MSPs at this year’s Scottish Parliament Election and can expect to be wiped-out at next May’s Council elections.

Meanwhile, those of us who sell our labour – the working class – must stand together and fight together as we face attack after attack from an uncaring government in London, a government comprised of two political parties that we in Scotland soundly rejected at the ballot box. The capitalists may be the millionaires, but we are the millions. If we stand and fight together, they can’t beat us – and this fight is not just for our future, it is for the future of our children and grandchildren.