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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 184 Contents

Notes of the Month


Last cut is the deepest


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


When the teachers abandoned their boycott of tests, education minister Gillian Shephard declared triumphantly that there would be peace in the schools for five years. But the peace had not lasted five weeks before education once again erupted, this time on a bigger scale.

Local government spending cuts threaten to be the new poll tax – and education is at the sharp end in most places. Thousands have demonstrated in once sedate towns such as Shrewsbury and Taunton. Teachers have gone on strike in Oxfordshire and, along with council workers, in Newcastle.

After nearly 20 years of cuts, teachers, parents, even school governors are all crying that enough is enough. A government which believed it could get away with worsening public services year after year is now finding that it is meeting much greater resistance.

The cabinet’s refusal to fund teachers’ pay was probably the last straw. In many areas schools will have to make teachers redundant and increase class sizes, or even put schoolchildren on a three-day week. If school staffing levels are maintained, it will mean drastic cuts in other local government services.

The last three budgets have left a slow fuse burning which is now approaching detonation on both spending cuts and pay limits. The recent pay offer to public sector workers has caused a wave of anger,especially when contrasted with the huge increases to top civil servants or to the heads of the former public utilities.

Feeling is especially strong among nurses, who have been offered an insulting 1 percent, with a little more if they go through the divisive and hated local bargaining. As a result, even the conservative nurses’ body, the RCN, is talking about reconsidering its no-strike policy.

General discontent about the poor state of public services,especially health and education, is coming together with a genuine grievance over pay which can give a focus to the anger and discontent.

The demonstration against education cuts, called by the ad hoccampaigning body FACE for later this month, can also serve as a focus for forcing the government to retreat.

We should be in no doubt that this government can be forced to retreat. It staggers from one crisis to another, and there are already signs that individual ministers are prepared to stab one another in the back.

Their weakness and unpopularity mean that they are susceptible to any campaign. There have already been retreats over post office privatisation and the Child Support Agency and there is a sense that ordinary people can win, following a number of local campaigns.

In many areas large numbers of people, including councillors and governors, have decided that illegal action is preferable to putting up with the cuts – already Gloucestershire and Newcastle councils have voted to set illegal budgets putting them on a collision course with the government.

Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ has rushed to try and prevent this happening. Local government spokesman David Blunkett told a recent conference that Labour councillors had to stay within the law and implement the cuts, rather than face having to issue high council tax bills.

Labour took the same line over the poll tax. Even today, many unable or unwilling to pay the tax are being hounded by Labour councils doing the government’s dirty work for them.

The policy over this round of cuts is even more dangerous, since Labour now controls so much of local government, including all the big cities. If Labour took a decision to oppose the cuts, they would never get off the ground.

A government so weak and divided would then be brought down. Instead labour courts respectability and moderation and staying within the law.

Increasingly, this moderation is at odds with activity on the ground. More and more people – even those who support Blair and are desperate for a Labour government – are recognising that they have to organise in order to stop these attacks. It is a lesson they will have to remember even when the Tories are kicked out and Blair is in office, if they want to prevent further attacks on health and education.

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