We're heading to dark days

Oliver Huitson listens to Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, talk about the Autumn statement, tax avoidance, Union strategy and the Conservative vision for the nation – where are we headed, decades of austerity, or is Britain “de-developing”?

Image: Gilderic Photography

Oliver Huitson: Firstly on the Autumn statement, what would you have liked to see?

Mark Serwotka: Well I think you have to start by saying we'd have liked to have seen in every single facet the complete opposite to what we got. And if I was to sum it up it would be essentially to accept that austerity isn't working, it's making it worse. And there needs to be a complete shift in government strategy.

OH: With the U.K.'s level of commercial and household debt, is it realistic at all to expect a recovery led by the private sector against a continuing consolidation in the public sector?

MS: No, I think what we need more than anything at the moment is a real sharp stimulus in the economy, which the government should lead by massive investment done with taxpayers money but clearly involving the private sector. What I mean by that, for example, is a massive house building programme which would employ people in construction and it would help towards the 3 million people, I think, on housing lists. We would have seen them go back on the building schools for the future project, for example, which again is infrastructure.

So our view is what they need to do is invest, get people back to work, both public and private and therefore stimulate economic demand by the fact that more people are at work, as well as also having the effect of improving everybody's lives.

OH: Osborne described tax avoidance as “morally repugnant”. How successful has he been in translating that view into policy?

MS: Well, he's absolutely failed, but I don't believe he is genuine in that view. I think this is a short term political accommodation to what he judges is the prevailing mood. We have campaigned for years now with the Tax Justice Network and UK Uncut, talking about the question of tax avoidance, tax evasion, which just in terms of housing benefit in the rented sector is massive, and non-collection of tax because of lack of resources.

So if he was serious he could at a stroke make inroads into the non-collection by employing more people at HMRC rather than making 20,000 job cuts, he could legislate an anti-avoidance principle, he could make it quite clear that they weren't going to allow people to bob and weave. And if I could give one final example, that would have been so telling had he done it, but it's obvious why he didn't, is when Philip Green's tax affairs were exposed to public scrutiny…

OH: …this was paying the dividends to his wife in Monaco wasn’t it.

MS: …dividends to his wife in Monaco, probably avoided around a quarter of a billion pounds in UK tax. And yet they still brought him in as an adviser on public sector efficiency cuts. The way I phrase that is that it's rewarding bad behaviour, and that's probably because George Osborne doesn't think it's bad behaviour, he probably thinks its entrepreneurial.

OH: If we move now to working conditions, pensions, employment rights, all of these have come under pressure from the coalition so far and we have books coming out like Britannia Unchained which paint a worrying picture for the future. Long-term, what do you think the Conservative vision for the nation is, is it to build a new Singapore, a new Switzerland, is it a mixture of both – where are we headed?

MS: We’re heading to dark days. I think we're heading for a vision that allows the free market to dictate everything, it will be a race to the bottom, it will be the biggest historical shift, probably, from state into private hands and a lot of what we are experiencing today are the softening up processes that will inevitably lead to that coming about.

And in some senses we are dealing now with the sharp end: defence of pensions, six year pay freeze for some of our members, the government has just announced a review of all terms and conditions, from family friendly policies through to flexi-time and, incredibly, increasing the length of the working week for civil servants in London.

So this in itself is brutal but my view is that if they win the election we will see a huge extension of privatisation and I think they are preparing the ground for that now. And in that sense, that vision, is cherry picking all the places where money is to be made and leaving the state essentially as some safety net for the bits that nobody will touch. And the people who will suffer will be the users of services, the workers who seek to deliver them, public or private, and in that sense I think we are at the cusp of looking down the barrel really, of seeing an unimaginable economy, just compared to what it was like when I was growing up.

OH: If we consider election results in France, Greece, the US and then we think about Ed Miliband’s position on austerity and the issues we've been discussing, what would you like to see from Labour and how sustainable do you think union support for Labour is if they carry on their current path?

MS: Well I think the tragedy of the situation at the moment is that at times like these, one of the most important things you need is a radical Opposition, and a real Opposition and we haven't got it. My analysis of the political landscape in Britain over the course of my lifetime, and accelerated since the Tony Blair years, is a condensing of politics into the centre. And therefore the difference between left and right - and there is a difference, I am never one who says they're all the same - but the difference now is on the margins. So they are all pro-market, pro-privatisation, they're all for cuts in the welfare budget at the moment.

You know, the vote in parliament on the pensions Bill last week, 30 MPs out of 650 voted against. So that tells me we have a consensus around neoliberalism and I think that that actually spills into the trade union movement. So on November 14 when there were general strikes across swathes of Europe - we sent a letter.

What does that tell you? It tells me that there is no political opposition and there is also a lack of leadership in the Labour movement at the moment. And the two things combined I think are quite dangerous. And my immediate priority is to build on the idea that trade unions in Britain are de facto the opposition really, and that if we can garner our forces more effectively there will be political spin-offs from that, and I would hope some of that within the Labour Party.

But my vision is that it's always wrong to put all your eggs in one basket and that's why for me you work with those in the Labour Party who want to make it a bit more radical, but you also work with social movements and grassroots campaigns and people of other political views to build the maximum opposition.

OH: And while we are on the unions, in response to the crisis, if we think post ‘08 to the present day, how effectively do you think the unions have handled the crisis, austerity, and do you think they need to develop alternative methods of engaging the public and policymakers?

MS: Well I think it's a mixed bag. I think some parts of the union movement have been far more effective than others. The good news I think, is that the TUC, representing all the unions, have articulated an alternative to austerity; it has articulated, to a degree, a defence of the welfare state and the National Health Service; it has made the case for investment and growth through employment rather than unemployment. So I think it's made some good core arguments and it needs to continue to do it more.

I think it was slow to embrace direct action campaigns. I think my own union, amongst others, was much quicker to see the importance of UK Uncut and other grassroots campaigning organisations. I always give the example that we did four to five years of the real hard yards on tax avoidance but what made it a front-page story was when they sat down in Topshop and shouted “pay your tax”. So you saw there a combination of: you do your research, you get your ideas, but they also need to be popularised. So that's a mixed bag.

Where I think it is a big negative is the inability to organise enough across-the-board industrial resistance to what is going on. And the November 30 was the high water mark, two million people striking to defend pensions, but it was allowed to just drift away really in an unsatisfactory way. I think, to me, there was the idea that the government would really take seriously: if working people, public and private, were doing what they are doing in Europe far more effectively, I think the government would take the opposition more seriously. If they think they are just going to have a few people writing articles in the press and a few public meetings then it's just business as usual. And I think it emboldens George Osborne, even though everybody thinks he's got it wrong, to carry on with his course.

OH: Final question, Coalition targets for closing the deficit are constantly being pushed back year-on-year, I think we're at 2017 now, so we're struggling to deal with the deficit let alone the debt. Are we in reality facing another decade, or even more, of austerity, or has something more fundamental happened, as Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson argue in Going South, is this a fundamental change, is Britain “de-developing”?

MS: Well at a minimum I think it's an extended period of austerity, 2018 is what he coughed up to today. And I think, in and of itself, one thing the government has pretended to do is to be competent on the economics and on deficit reduction. And it's the one thing that has allowed them to get away with much, in terms of the media, and it is now fairly clear that even on that basis that they are completely wrong, you know, they're borrowing more - he's borrowing more because there's more people out of work. So I think even his vision that he would probably cough up to is austerity for another 10 years.

But going back to a question you asked me right at the beginning, I actually think they have a vision for a very, very different type of society, and whether we call that de-developing, I don’t know, but I certainly think it's taking us backwards.

And if I could finish on an anecdote, that sums it up quite well, I often say in speeches what my dad told me as a kid, that when I got to his age, because the world is richer, technology would develop, we would all have a four-day week, six hours a day, lots of holidays. And it's ironic that now I am nearly his age, we've got a pension age of 68 and rising, they're extending the working week and people have had a bigger cut in their living standards than at any time since the Thirties. And to me that little anecdote sums up the hopes of a generation, and the reality that we are facing.

 

 

*This talk was at Housman’s, at a promotional event for Jenny Manson’s 2012 book Public Service on the Brink, which both Oliver Huitson and Mark Serwotka contributed chapters to.