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Colin Barker

Cutting the Welfare State

(January 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.85, January 1976, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Cutting the Welfare State (Who Profits)
CIS/CDP, 45p

Poverty and Equality in Britain
J.C. Kincaid
Pelican, 75p

Counter Information Services have joined with Community Development Project’s Information and Intelligence Unit to produce what is arguably their most impressive report to date.

The welfare state, as we all know, is being slashed seriously by the Labour government. The authors of this report show, in field after field of the ‘welfare’ services, how the axe is falling. More important, from the point of view of the development of a movement of opposition to the cuts, they show – in the clearest account I have yet seen – why the Labour government is attacking welfare services. The report is an excellent piece of de-mystification, presenting a mass of material in an exceptionally cogent fashion. Socialists will find it invaluable in arguing the case for a fight back. As the authors show, the cuts are only now beginning. There is more, and worse, to come.

Up to now, the struggle to maintain welfare services – let alone expand them – has been patchy and uneven. The CIS/CDP report ought to be widely read and widely sold, for the issue of welfare state cuts must be one on which socialists seek to build a general working-class movement of opposition. Already, the scattered and uneven experience of campaigns against welfare cuts across Britain suggests that welfare cuts offer socialists an opportunity to present their politics, in concrete terms, to a much larger working-class audience than any other issue over the past generation has done.

For the cuts hurt the entire working class: both the millions who now work in the various ‘public services’, and whose jobs, wages and conditions of work are threatened, and the whole class, for whom ‘welfare services’ are a substantial slice of their real standard of living. The immediate problems are two: first, to work to develop a fighting alliance, in every locality, of workers in all the public services; and second, to win the active and not merely passive sympathy of workers in industry. To date, the first of these tasks appears to be the easier. The common interests of, say, teachers, health service workers and firemen are more readily perceived. Grassroots links between militants in the public sector are more easily developed, for the connection between the cuts in ‘welfare’ and the immediate living standards of the workers who supply the services is direct. But it is the second job which is strategically most central. Not simply because an immediate threat to capitalist profits is likely to prevent welfare cuts much more rapidly than demonstrations and action in the ‘unproductive’ public sector alone, but also because the generalisation of the struggle to defend the ‘welfare state’ involves larger political issues. In that more difficult and more necessary struggle, the struggle to extend the fight against the cuts into the factories, we have to overcome the major ideological defences of capitalism. The idea that ‘public spending must be cut’, that the key problem is ‘waste’ in local council spending, that the interests of ratepayers and council tenants are diametrically opposed, that the only way in which welfare services can be saved is through further taxation of workers, etc. etc. – all of these mystifications have to be directly confronted.

It is not, either, simply a question of demanding ‘more’ where the capitalist state demands ‘less’. For – as Jim Kincaid shows to a degree in his book – the ‘welfare services’ provided by capitalism have a form which alienates them from their recipients. The characteristic relationship between the ‘consumer’ of welfare services, whether this be health, education, relief payments or whatever, is one in which stringency, meanness of spirit, bureaucratic subordination and indifference predominate. ‘Our’ welfare state, even when it was growing rather than shrinking, was not only a most unequal and insufficient provider, it was never ‘ours’. The struggle for the democratisation of the welfare organisations, both in terms of the ‘internal’ relationships in the schools, hospitals and other agencies, and in terms of the relations between the agencies and their users, is a vital part of the struggle against the cuts.

Jim Kincaid’s book, now reissued in a revised and updated edition, provides a mass of useful material on the manner in which inequality in Britain has been maintained precisely through the ‘welfare state’. What it lacks, despite its exceptional usefulness as a compendium of well-presented data, is a view of the place of the welfare state as a whole in modern capitalism. It is not a book whose argument leads naturally to a discussion of how a struggle to transform the situation might be developed. To that extent, it remains ‘reformist’ rather than ‘revolutionary’ in scope. We must hope that Jim Kincaid will soon produce a new book that goes beyond the reach of this.

Nonetheless, both these works are invaluable, and (in terms of modern prices) remarkably good value. The CIS/CDP report is available from IS Books, or directly from CIS at 9 Poland Street, London W1.


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