By Colin Foster
We may be approaching the point at which — given a lead by a sufficiently strong and weighty body of activists — the multiform discontent with the Blair-Brown government's drive to chop up the welfare state could be transformed into a campaign strong enough to change the social balance of forces.
On 25 March two big campaign conferences will be held in London. The National Union of Teachers and other groups have called a conference on the Government's plans to convert all schools to a status similar to Academies; and the NHS Support Federation and others have a “SOS NHS” conference on the escalating marketisation and privatisation of the health service.
Meanwhile, the National Pensioners’ Convention is organising a “pensions action week” from 11 to 18 March. “Today's pensioners”, it reports, “are now at least £52.50 a week worse off as a direct result of the Conservative government’s decision to scrap the link between the basic state pension and average earnings in 1980, and the subsequent Labour government’s refusal to reverse the policy”.
Soon the Government, following the Turner report, will probably propose to start pushing the state pension age up from 65 to 68 or 69.
Local government unions are planning strike action against cuts in their pension scheme on 28 March.
Defend Council Housing - which campaigns against the Government's declared intention to abolish council housing and transfer all council houses and flats to housing associations or similar - has just produced an eight-page newspaper for activists to use in the run-up to the May local government elections.
By November, the Government will be trying to push its plans to abolish Incapacity Benefit through Parliament.
In 1994 AWL and others launched the Welfare State Network in an attempt to spark a mobilisation to defend the Welfare State of the scale of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in its heyday - or of the big battles on pensions and social security in many countries in continental Europe.
But after 1997, the diffuse hopes of many that a Labour government would restore welfare provision faded into demoralisation, as the Government held to Tory spending limits and the unions passively backed the Government.
By about 2000 things had begun to shift in the unions. But at the same time the Government embarked on a second phase. Helped by a relatively balmy economic climate, from 1999 it started to increase public spending fairly fast.
At the same time it started a drive to marketise and privatise public services. Its hope must have been that an upturn in spending would give it leeway to do that without too much protest. After a few years the new marketised-privatised model would be “bedded down” and (so Blair and Brown, with their market-obsessed minds, imagined) working so efficiently that spending could be slowed again.
Of course it has not worked out like that. The results of the extra money spent on public services have been disappointing by anyone's reckoning - much of it going in inflated administration, pointless “reorganisations”, and rake-offs for private contractors.
Now comes the third period. Creeping marketisation and privatisation has begun to etch away the very core of public services. At the same time, the Government wants to cut back public spending again.
The two trends meet in the Government declaring, macabrely, that hospitals are doing “unsustainably” too much and some must close if they cannot balance their books.
A collision is coming between the Government and the very core of the welfare state. Can the labour movement muster enough momentum that it will be the Government forced off the road in that collision?