Wednesday, 29 June 2011

30 June: live reports from the picket lines and rallies

Tomorrow 750,000 trade unionists are on strike across the country and thousands more are supporting them by visiting the picket lines and attending strike rallies in cities and towns up and down the country. For rolling coverage of the day's events see here.

This is a massive step forward for the movement against cuts in this country. In the autumn we are likely to see members of the four unions taking national action tomorrow, NUT, UCU, ATL and PCS striking again, potentially alongside the likes of CWU, FBU, Unison and even Unite. This is the kind of united fightback we need to stop the government in its tracks and even bring it crashing down.

Workers in Greece have staged a 48-hour general strike to coincide with a vote in the Greek parliament which agreed a further bailout package with more strings attached and more cuts and hardship for people in that country. Workers in Britain are no different from those in Greece. If they can do it so can we. Lets escalate the action and let the leaderships of all the main parties know that we will not allow them to make us pay for their crisis.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Marxism 2011: a festival of resistance

There is an event that takes place every year and is a must-see for every anti-war, anti-racist and anti-cuts activist. It is Marxism 2011 (see here).

Crisis and austerity have exposed the insanity of our global system. Our rulers have handed trillions of pounds to banks while billions of people across the planet face hunger, poverty, climate catastrophes and war. Despite unprecedented wealth and technology we are told capitalism can provide even less for us than before. But a world in crisis breeds an ideological crisis. Austerity has generated resistance. Revolution has shaken the Arab world. Students have shaken the Con-Dems.

Millions are fighting back, questioning this crazy system and looking for alternatives. Marxism 2011 will bring thousands of people together from every continent and every arena of struggle to discuss, debate and organise resistance. With over 200 workshops, panels, film showings and rallies it is the biggest event of its kind in Britain and one of the biggest in the world.

Marxism brings together speakers such as Kamal Abu Aita, President, Egyptian tax collectors’ union; Tariq Ali, novelist, journalist, historian, campaigner; Omar Barghouti, founding member, Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; Tony Benn, veteran campaigner; Alex Callinicos, author Bonfire of Illusions; Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, NUT; Merlin Emmanuel, Smiley Culture Campaign; Ben Fine, author Marx’s Capital; John Bellamy Foster, author The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth; Paul Gilroy, author There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack; Billy Hayes, General secretary, CWU; Ronnie Kasrils, former leader of ANC’s armed wing; and Charlie Kimber, SWP national secretary.

Set in the heart of Bloomsbury, Central London, close to several tube and mainline stations, these venues should provide for an even better festival than before. Marxism takes place in Friends Meeting House and the Unversity College London. Marxism hosts a free creche and offers free accomodation for those coming from outside London.

For any activists, Marxism 2011 is an event that is not to be missed.

Marxism begins on Thursday 30 June at 3:45pm and runs until Monday 4 July. For more information see http://www.marxismfestival.org.uk/index.html

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Academies: the final chapter

The following email was received on 22 June in reply to the letter sent to the governors of Ludgvan CP School (see here). This was five days after the email was sent and five days after the final day of the 'consultation'.

Thank you for the comments in your email of 17th June. The Governors took note of the points you raised and these were discussed fully at their meeting.

The consultation period is now closed and we thank you once again for your interest.

The Governing Body

The following day, parents of children at the school were informed by letter that the governors had voted the previous night and thus taken the decision to apply for academy status.

Friday, 24 June 2011

30 June: one week to go

With just one week to go until around three-quarters of a million public sector workers go on strike around the country (see here) and with thousands set to join picket lines and strike rallies in solidarity, the stakes on both sides are getting higher.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, who are not on strike this time around, spoke at his union's annual conference this week, saying "we stand firmly behind our brothers and sisters from PCS, UCU, NUT and ATL on 30 June... Their fight is our fight". He also told conference delegates to "prepare for action" in the autumn.

Meanwhile much of the media has joined in on the side of the government. The Sun described next week's co-ordinated strike action as a "summer of hate" while the Daily Mail parrotted the ridiculous claim about "gold-plated public sector pensions". The Guardian referred to strikes as "primeval". Even Labour's Ed Balls described trade unionists taking strike action as falling into the government's "trap".

The truth is, neither the media nor opposition politicians would even be discussing the attacks on public sector workers were it not for the threat of mass strikes.

As well as the four unions on national strike, council workers in Doncaster and Southampton and workers on London Underground will also join the day of strikes. Prison officers have also chosen that day to stage a lunch-time walkout. Around the country anti-cuts groups will join picket lines and strike rallies.

In Cornwall, preparations for the joint union rally are being finalised. Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance have organised a 'feeder march' from Pydar House, Pydar Street, Truro to the union rally on Lemon Quay. The march will set off at 10:30am. There will also be groups meeting at Penzance Station at 9:20am and a coach from St. Austell. The firefighters' FBU, postal workers' CWU, general workers' GMB and council and health workers' Unison have all urged their off-duty members to show solidarity with those on strike by joining the rally in Lemon Quay. The unions and political parties are all urged to join the march with their banners to show the strength of support for those on strike and to turn it into a day of rage against the government for all their attacks on public services.

This is only the beginning. This day must be a success to keep the momentum going. But the real test for both sides will be in the autumn when many more workers are set to strike against this nasty and vindictive government. The coalition is weak and has already shown its propensity to u-turn. It is vital that we make the most of the current mood amongst the working class and forge it into a weapon with which to strike at the heart of this cutters' coalition.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Lets make the NHS' birthday go off with a bang

It looks increasingly likely that the Tories and Liberal Democrats, having agreed “reforms” to the Health Bill acceptable to both, will rush the bill through before parliament goes to its summer recess on 19 July. Despite Liberal Democrat claims that they have saved the NHS, the bill is still set to bring in GP commissioning, and fundamentally undermine the basis of a publicly funded, publicly accountable health service run not for profit, by opening up the NHS to private sector vultures. This gives us very little time to mobilise mass opposition on the streets.

We need to crank up the pressure on the TUC and the health unions to flex their muscle and call and mobilise for a national demonstration on the day the bill goes to parliament. There are calls for a London-wide protest on 5 July, the 63rd birthday of the NHS, and a day the TUC has already marked for action over the NHS.

In Cornwall, staff at Treliske Hospital are planning an action outside the hospital on their lunch break on that day. They will hold hands around the outside of the building to symbolically show they are protecting the NHS. They also plan to cut a cake. Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance have also planned to organise a 'birthday party' for the NHS. They will make cakes in the shape of the letters N, H and S which will be carved up and given out. Save Our NHS (Cornwall), 'Just Desserts', an anti-cuts group in North Cornwall and Penwith Anti-Cuts Alliance also plan similar events. Steps will be taken over the next couple of weeks to co-ordinate these ideas.

There are also calls for the TUC to call a national demo and lobby of parliament when the bill goes to parliament.

We need to push the unions to act, as well as raising these arguments within the anti-cuts movement and get commitment from organisations to join these initiatives and build for them.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Academies: An open letter to the Ludgvan CP School governors

As part of a long-running series of posts about academies and a campaign against attempts to convert a primary school in Ludgvan near Penzance in Cornwall to academy status (see here), here is a letter that was sent to the school governors as part of the 'consultation period'. The reply will published if and when it is received (see here).

Dear Ludgvan CP School governors,

I am a parent of a child that is due to start at your school in September. However, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that you have decided to turn the school into an academy. As we are still in the 'consultation period' I would be grateful if you could answer my questions.

First, can you explain to me why I was not contacted directly about this? Surely as a parent of two children who may well have a connection with the school for the next nine years I have as much, if not more, right to be informed than a parent of a child already at the school and potentially leaving this year and, as such, not directly affected?

Second, can you explain why, in your initial letter to parents, there was no mention of the consultation period?

Third, why were parents only told of the 'consultation' meeting shortly before it was held, making it very difficult for parents to arrange childcare? Why were parents not texted as they are for everything else? Why was it held at such an inconvenient time (ie neither straight after school nor later in the evening when more parents would be home form work)? Why did the school not provide a creche for those parents that could not find childcare at such short notice? Why was such little information provided to parents both before and at the meeting? Why were parents told the lawyer was present to provide 'independent legal advice' when the lawyer in question works for a company that provides (arguably highly biased) legal advice to schools that want to become academies? Why was the second meeting held during a 'coffee morning', at a time when parents who work or have other childcare arrangements would find impossible to make? Why did the school refuse to hold another meeting, during the consultation period, at a time that parents could manage, in which a representative of the school and a representative of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) could have put forward their arguments and parents could have asked questions. This would have allowed parents to be fully informed of both sides of the argument. You would then have had a genuine reflection of the views of parents and a mandate to either apply to become an academy or not. Did the school refuse because it was worried that if parents heard an alternative viewpoint to their own, they would agree with the representative of the NUT?

If I were a cynical person I would think the school did not want parents to be informed or consulted. The argument that 'outsiders' should not be involved is laughable. The NUT represents teachers in schools up and down the country and is better placed than anyone to understand the issues and how they will impact on staff and students. The idea that some parents are making the issue 'political', or that governors are somehow 'transcending' politics is, frankly, insulting. The government's plans to break-up comprehensive education, which was based on the idea that there should be a good school for every child, and to replace it with a system of schools run by competing, private companies is about as political, or ideological, as it is possible to be. You are either complicit in the government's agenda or naive in the extreme.

Fourth, why were parents told that the school was just considering the idea of becoming an academy when it was already far down the route and had already held two meetings with staff to discuss how they would be affected when they were transferred to the new private company? Is it possible that the school never had any intention of genuine consultation with parents?

Fifth, why did the school attempt to smear those parents that did attempt to obtain information from a source other than the school? Why did it claim that the information that was given to parents was out of date, even though this is blantantly false (it was published in April 2011). Why did it claim it only applied to the 'old style' academies, even though it knew this to be untrue? Why did it send a letter, on more than one occasion, to a parent asking him not to speak to teachers about the issue? Surely a parent has the right to speak to a teacher about how changes to the school will affect his child, or do you think not? Surely a teacher has a right to speak to parents or anyone else about how changes to the school will affect them as members of staff, or do you disagree? Were you concerned that, upon hearing an alternative viewpoint to your own, teachers might oppose your plans? Why were parents sent a letter apologising that parents were 'subjected to leafletting'? Why use such emotive language? Did any parents really feel intimdated by being handed some information on a piece of paper or by being asked politely if they would like to sign a statement?

Sixth, as I have already said, the idea of academy schools is to break-up the current system of education in which parents have some democratic control over the education their children receive via the local education authority. The plan is to replace this with a system of education in which competing, private companies provide education on the cheap in order to profit from it. It is a model that the government is attempting to introduce into the healthcare system and they are being forced to think again because the general public and healthcare professionals alike do not want it. It is also a model that was used in social care around ten years ago. Banks and investment companies bought up care homes previously run by the local authority. Then private equity firms moved in, buying up the firms, such as in the example of Southern Cross. The private equity company, in this case Blackstone, put the assets into another company and then leased them back to Southern Cross. They then put up the rents and sold the property arm for more money than they had paid for Southern Cross in the first place. As the banking crisis erupted, the property market crashed making loans secured on care homes look shaky. Southern Cross, Britain's largest care homes firm is now bankrupt. Four Seasons, the second biggest is also close to bankruptcy. They are now demanding taxpayer-funded bailouts. The bosses will walk away with a nice pension and the vulnerable people they were supposed to care for and the workers will be the ones that suffer. This is potentially the future for the education system. Does this seem like a good idea to you?

You need not take my word for it. Pat McGoven, the Headteacher of Helston College, at a meeting in Falmouth on 21 March, spoke eloquently about how much schools depend on the local education authority (LEA) and how becoming an academy is not so much about parents, children and teachers being 'free' of state control, but being under the control of private companies. He explained that many of the supposed benefits from becoming an academy can be done anyway. He said that he would never allow his school to become an academy because he does not have the right to sell off what is an assest for the local community both now and into the future. Have you spoken to him about the issue? I suggest that you do.

Fowey School announced to staff last month that it will not now be seeking academy status. This is because the government have told academies that they will be responsible for all redundancy payments, whereas previously they had been told they would only be responsible for the 'academy' years and the local authority would pick up the rest of the bill. Were you aware of this?

Newquay Tretherras School, which became an academy last year, announced a fortnight ago that it would be selling off land at the back of the school to Tesco. School bosses claimed 'this is the only way to fund the future of education at Tretherras for the next 50 years' (see here). Did you know about this?

Seventh, it has not been made clear to me that you are fully aware of the implications of what you are about to undertake. It is my concern that it is in fact you who are making a political decision and not one based on what is in the best interests of staff and pupils. Will there be any redundancies at the school? How will this be funded? Will you be pulling out of national bargaining arrangements for teachers' pay and conditions? How will you retain good, well-motivated staff if they are paid less than teachers in other schools in other parts of the country and indeed county? Can you provide me with a detailed list of precisely what the school will be responsible for once it has become an academy that it is not currently? Who will comission the services that you will need to 'buy in'? Will you be putting extra responsibilities on existing members of staff and if so will they be paid more for this? Or will you be employing additional staff? How will this be funded? Services bought from private sources will tend to be more expensive than those bought through the LEA; how can you justify this given that it will ultimately mean less money to provide less services? One local authority charges academies a higher rate for services. How can you guarantee the same will not happen in Cornwall? You say that finance is not your primary concern as the school does not have financial difficulties. If this is the case, why the indecent haste to become an academy this year? Why not wait until next year? The funding system for academies from the following year has not yet been announced; how can you, in all conscience, go into a system when you have no idea how it will be funded? Is this not an argument for waiting to see what will happen? If a school within the LEA system has a fire or a flood, the LEA will step in and ensure children's education does not suffer. Under the academy system the school is on its own. How will you ensure children's education continues in the event of an emergency whilst you are waiting on an insurance company to pay out (which as we all know can take many months)? If the school gets into financial difficulties, what is to stop it going bankrupt? The government has said it will not bail out failing GP consortia or failing universities; it is highly unlikely that it will bail out failing academies either. Do you accept that as a small school, Ludgvan is more likely to fail as an academy than other, bigger schools? How can you guarantee that the school will not be bought by one of the 'Edubusinesses' such as E-Act, Edison or ARK, a group of hedge fund managers? Academies have more control over the curriculum; how will you ensure that you are teaching subjects that are appropriate and that parents want you to be teaching? How do I know that the next headteacher will not believe in 'creationism' for example and will not decide that should be taught in the school. You say that you want to set up an 'ethos group'. This sounds wonderful but who determines who is on the group? One parent that expressed interest was told at the 'consultation' meeting that she would not be 'suitable' to be on the group. Is the school not making political decisions based upon its view of the parents and their political views? Is this not discriminatory? Should all parents not be given the oportunity to contribute? Academies have control over admissions and have the power to select. How can you guarantee you will not adopt an admissions policy that disadvantages children from poorer backgrounds?

As I say, I am a parent of a child that is due to start at your school in September. I was not told of your intention to become an academy, I received no letter or other communication. I could not attend the first meeting because of childcare and I could not attend the second meeting because of work. I only found out about the meetings and this email address by chance and it seems you only told any parents, other than those at the first meeting, about the email address and the consultation period because you were forced to by parents that announced it in their leaflet. You then denounced those parents in a letter to all parents. It also seems that you only held the second meeting because you were under pressure from parents. If this is the disregard you have for the views of parents in what is supposed to be a consultation period it suggests you will take our views into consideration even less once the school has become an academy. I find this genuinely shocking.

Despite this I call on you to think again. You have clearly not thought this through. The way you have attempted to shut down debate demonstrates that you are very worried that if parents and staff knew the full facts they would be opposed to the plans. If you go ahead with the plans to become an academy there may not be a problem in the next few years. However I feel sure that at some point in the future you will either be making staff redundant, changing their pay or conditions, something will be sold off, or something unpalatable will be taught at the school. At that point it will be the children that will suffer and you, as governors, are responsible for ensuring that does not happen.

I look forward to receiving your reply.

Friday, 17 June 2011

30 June: two weeks to go and the ballot results are in!

See also 30 June: just three weeks to go.

The industrial fightback has begun. On 30 June over 800,000 civil servants, teachers and lecturers are set to strike. The strike votes are very impressive. The ATL teachers’ union, which has not voted to strike since 1979, delivered an impressive 83 percent vote for action. The NUT received a whopping 92 percent vote to strike, and the PCS 61 percent. Doncaster Unison members voted by 63.6 percent to strike, and they too will be out on 30 June (see here). Council workers in Southampton, belonging to both Unite and Unison, are also set to walk out on 30 June. It also now looks likely that London tube workers will strike on that day in support of two of their sacked reps. If that wasn’t enough, prison guards belonging to the POA union are due to walk out for two hours on 30 June to demand the right to strike!

All this takes place as Greek workers strike and lay siege to their parliament, Spain is set to see huge protests this weekend, and the Arab Spring rolls on. The media have finally woken up to the fact that 30 June is going to be big and that further action is likely. However, the government and the employers are now going on the offensive using the argument that only a minority of union members voted in the strike ballots and threatening to bring in even more draconian anti-union laws. It is important that their arguments are taken on but the best response is to make sure 30 June is as big and vibrant as possible. It has to be a day of rage against the government’s austerity plans. There is no time to lose; we have to get organised now.

The next two weeks must be used to ensure that the strike and solidarity action is as broad and strong as possible. Workers in the unions due to strike need to campaign to make their strikes as solid as possible. Mass meetings should be called and strike bulletins should be produced to inform members about the strike and activities on the day. Anti-cuts groups and students should hold meetings to plan their solidarity action.

Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance met on Wednesday with an impressive array of trade unionists present. This included Ian Williams, divisional secretary of Cornwall and Isles of Scilly NUT; Reuben Wallace, a local NUT secretary; John Parker-Rees a UCU rep. at the Tremough campus of the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC) connected to Exeter University; David Guiterman, an ATL rep.; Gill Allen from the Unison Local Government Branch Committee; Trudy Winterburn, a PCS branch secretary; Tony Lorton, CWU Cornwall Amal Branch Chair; Stuart Pulley, an FBU branch rep.; and two Unison regional officers, Chris Gayas and Stuart Roden.

The meeting discussed plans for the day. The NUT have organised a strike rally in Lemon Quay in Truro from 10:30am. All other unions and anti-cuts groups are invited to speak at the rally. Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance have organised a feeder march from Pydar House, Pydar Street from 10:30am. PCS are putting on a coach from St. Austell that other trade unionists and others are able to get on. John Parker-Rees from the UCU will try to organise a samba band and circus performers as well as someone from the journalism course to be a joint press officer for the day. The CWU and FBU will send out a message to all members for all off work members to get to the rally. The trade unions will all bring their banners on the day. Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance will have a stall at the rally with membership forms and a new leaflet and poster to give out.

There was an impressive sense that the unions understood that the attack on their members was a collective attack on the public sector as a whole and that their response must be a collective one also. Many of the trade unionists wanted to have a much greater involvement with Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance in the future. There was also an understanding that this was just the beginning and that there would be more strike action in the autumn.

Ian Williams from the NUT explained that his union had voted for discontinuous action meaning there could be rolling action in the autumn with different areas of the country coming out on different days. Chris Gayas, the Unison Regional Officer said she would be 'very surprised' if the union did not ballot its membership on the issue of pensions in the autumn and that she would know more after Unison's annual conference in Manchester next week. Tony Lorton of the CWU said the issue of the closure of two mail centres in London was likely to escalate in the near future. John Parker-Rees of the UCU said they had also voted for action short of a strike and that this may be the way his union would go as a 'death by a thousand cuts' may be more painful than a one-day strike. Stuart Pulley of the FBU said his union was currently carrying out a survey of its members and if it looked like there was a mood for strike action thay would be ballotted in the autumn.

All this comes as the government is feeling the pressure of resistance. The Daily Telegraph reported this week that “David Cameron prepares to retreat on four key fronts. The government was last night preparing to retreat on four fronts — the NHS, welfare, refuse collection and foreign student numbers.” This overplays the extent of the u-turns, but it reflects well the feeling of uncertainty and division in the Tories, let alone the Coalition, as they try to ram through such massive attacks. And it shows Cameron and his friends are vulnerable.

Meanwhile the knives are out for Ed Miliband. The Blairites are attacking him, but there are also strong voices on the left of the party who are angry at his lack of action over the NHS, cuts and job losses. Dave Prentis (perhaps with an eye on the approaching Unison conference) gave an interview with the Independent On Sunday where he attacked Miliband for “failing to stand up for the NHS” and “suggested the Labour leader can no longer count on his union's automatic support”. Under attack Miliband is reported to be about to make a speech where he will disgustingly equate greedy bankers with “benefit cheats”. This is the road to disaster. A National Audit Office report from July 2010 estimates that “benefit fraud” costs £1.5 billion a year. Tax avoidance and evasion costs £120 billion a year. Furthermore “benefit fraud” is overwhelmingly about desperate poor people trying to survive. Bankers’ greed is about the rich luxuriating in the wealth they have robbed from us. “Benefit cheats” get jail: bankers get peerages.

Internationally, Yemen and Syria are in revolt, Greece is on the verge of a social explosion (with this week’s general strike adding to the “square occupations”), and the Japanese government has been forced to admit that the effects of the nuclear meltdown were far greater than claimed.

We need to push for further coordinated action in early autumn. Some in the PCS are putting forward 4 or 6 October as possible dates for this. Already the PCS, NUT and CWU have indicated that they want to strike again in the autumn. This is exerting real pressure on the bigger unions. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, warned the government on Tuesday that if it did not back down it would see “massive industrial unrest”. He added that “it will not be one day of action—it will be long-term industrial action.” We have to turn his words into action. If the pressure continues to build and we see the big three, Unison, the GMB and Unite join the action, 4.5 million could be out on strike. We need more coordinated strikes in the autumn, and we need to urge Unison, GMB and Unite to join the fight.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Academies: part three

See also Academies: Selling our children's future, Academies: an update and Academies, Free Schools and Gove's dastardly masterplan.

Campaigning parents of children at Ludgvan CP School, which is looking to become an academy by September, have been trying to organise another meeting at which parents can hear both sides of the argument. The idea was to have the headteacher, Helen McFarlane, put the arguments in favour of the school becoming an academy, and Ian Williams, divisional representative for Cornwall NUT (teaching union) putting the arguments against. Parents would then be able to ask questions and make a decision based on the facts and not simply by putting blind faith in the headteacher.

The headteacher initially gave parents a flat 'no' when asked for another meeting. Parents received a letter from the headteacher 'apologising' because parents had been 'subjected to leafletting' outside the school gate from other parents. One parent was sent a letter on two seperate occasions requesting that he direct his 'queries' only to the headteacher because he asked his children's teachers what they thought about the academy status and pointed out how it might affect staff terms and conditions.

A couple of parents initiated a petition calling for a second meeting but it was immediately obvious that it was going to be a struggle. Hostility was beginning to creep into discussions at the school gate from some parents. Other parents agreed that the school was not being open with them but felt powerless to do anything to stop the process.

In the end, the governors were embarrassed into agreeing another discussion during a 'coffee morning' this morning. The meeting was not very well attended, hardly surprising given the difficulty of attending a morning meeting for many parents. A number of parents spoke against the proposal and one suggested putting the decision off for a year or two, a suggestion that was rejected out of hand.

The governors say 'no decision has been made' but it is clear to many that the decision was taken in principle some time ago. The staff have been brought on board and have had at least two meetings about transferring to the new private limited company. Some parents are intransigently supporting and some are against while the mass of parents in between feel they do not really have the information to make an informed decision, which is exactly what the headteacher wants. Many parents feel it has been a sham 'consultation' and nothing they could have done would have changed the governors' minds.

However, there was nothing automatic about this. In Islington in North London, there is a great campaign being run by the NUT, pupils and parents to defeat plans to turn three primary schools into a chain of academies (see here). At the recent conference of the Anti-Academies Alliance there were many examples of successful campaigns against academies (see here).

Locally, Fowey School announced to staff last month that it will not now be seeking academy status. According to the NUT, this is because the government have told academies that they will be responsible for all redundancy payments, whereas previously they had been told they would only be responsible for the 'academy' years and the local authority would pick up the rest of the bill.

However, it is undoubtedly true that it is very difficult for parents to stop a school going to academy status without the teachers' support and preferably by taking strike action. Also, although nationally only 0.5% of schools have applied for academy status, in Cornwall it is more like 40 or 50%. Many school governors are taking the view that the local education authority cannot be sustained in Cornwall and so it is a matter of when, not if, the school becomes an academy. They argue that if there is likely to be less money around for those that transfer later it is better to transfer now. But of course this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Newquay Tretherras School, which became an academy last year, announced a fortnight ago that it would be selling off land at the back of the school to Tesco. School bosses claimed 'this is the only way to fund the future of education at Tretherras for the next 50 years' (see here). The fact is that there should be a good local school for every child. We should not be bringing market forces into the education of children. Ultimately the government wants to wash its hands of providing an education system, not to mention a health service, and to make all schools privately funded. Each school must then sink or swim according to its balance sheet. Profit will become the motivation for those running our schools not providing a good quality education. They must be stopped.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

30 June: just three weeks to go

The potential mass, co-ordinated strike action of up to 800,000 trade unionists on 30 June has been discussed a number of times on this blog (see here for the most recent example).

It is clear that this is not just another date in the anti-cuts diary but is the best example so far of an opportunity to turn widespread anger against the coalition government's attacks on working class people into a generalised movement of practical resistance. We have also discussed here before how the Egyptian people toppled their tyrannical and dictatorial leader (see here). The demonstrations gave confidence to people to collectively resist the regime but it was the entrance of the working class, organised as workers, through strike action that finally toppled Mubarak.

In Britain, after the TUC-organised demonstration on March 26, the strikes on 30 June will put workers’ resistance centre stage. Vince Cable’s speech to the GMB conference had a clear message to the union leaders – thanks to those of who you who are holding down strikes, but if this changes then there may well be even more anti-union laws. This bullying blackmail needs to be confronted head on – and it can be.

Every day brings more evidence of the effect of the cuts and the way the bosses are using the crisis to reshape society – from the 40,000 extra Royal Mail job losses to the scandal of the Southern Cross care homes.

Equally this week has shown the potential for a rise in the global revolutionary challenge. In Yemen protesters have celebrated the fall of the third dictator since the start of the Arab revolutions. But there are clearly many battles still to fight.

In Cornwall, there were two meetings last night that have helped to move things forward. In Truro, Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance members met and discussed plans for 30 June. There will be a trade union special meeting of the group on 15 June to co-ordinate action on the day. NUT, ATL, UCU, PCS and Unison have confirmed so far. The FBU and CWU are also expected to attend.

The NUT have organised a rally in Lemon Quay from 10:30am on the day and Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance are organising a feeder march for all those not striking to both show their support for the strikers but also to turn it into a day of rage against the government's cuts and privatisation. The march is assembling at Pydar House on Pydar Street in Truro, also at 10:30am. The group will be leafletting in the town for the next three Saturdays and there are also plans to poster and to leaflet workplaces, colleges and schools.

In Penzance, Penwith Anti-Cuts Alliance members met and also discussed the day of co-ordinated strikes. The group agreed to produce its own leaflet and to do stalls on the two Saturdays before the march as well as on Quay Fair Day. A poster will be produced to mobilise people from Penwith and there will be a Penzance meeting point for those that wish to go as a group.

We need to be at the heart of fighting to make the 30 June a carnival of resistance for all those who face the Tory onslaught. The 30 June is the bridge to wider action in the autumn, when potentially Unison, CWU, FBU and others could also be calling strike action. We need to win every worker, every student, every campaigner to see the importance of that date and get in behind building the strikes, rallies and protests.

See also 30 June: two weeks to go and the ballot results are in!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Conservative MP questioned over NHS plans

Around 25 people met in Tesco's car park in Camborne at 1:15pm on Saturday to join a March and lobby of George Eustice over the future of the National Health Service. Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance members had held a stall in the town in the morning where people were queuing up to sign the Save Our NHS (Cornwall) petition. The march went from Tesco's, through the town chanting 'save our NHS' and 'no ifs, no buts, no health service cuts'. Shoppers cheered and waved as the march progressed through the town and car after car sounded their horn.

As the protest arrived at the constituency office of Camborne MP George Eustice, he was meeting his last surgery case of the day. One of his staff invited the whole protest into a large room that had pots of paint and broken urinals and old chairs scattered about. However some protestors elected to stay outside and every couple of minutes a car or bus would honk its horn and the protestors would cheer.

After a while George Eustice appeared and he was presented with the Save Our NHS (Cornwall) petition with over 6000 signatures on it and a disc with the nearly 400,000 signatures on the 38 Degrees petition. The protestors asked him a number of questions. Jane Bernal, herself a doctor within the NHS, argued that "what is needed is good quality health care for everyone, in the public, not the private sector. We are worried that large companies will take over the more profitable NHS functions and leave NHS hospitals to manage the most complex and ill patients without the full range of supporting services. In the present financial climate competition would be on price."

Mr Eustice said that competition could be a good thing and was sure that we would want our GP to be able to send us to a different hospital, if one had let him down last time. One petitioner had actually asked her GP. "I spent 7 years training to be a doctor. If I had wanted to be an accountant I'd have done different training" she was told. Mr Eustice said that before the election doctors had been asking for more control over commissioning and suggested that the BMA supported the reforms, which it does not. What they actually said was "The Health and Social Care Bill should be withdrawn or at least undergo major changes", not exactly support. Mr Eustice kept mentioning doctors when he in fact meant GPs. Hospital doctors and nurses, under the coalition's original plans, will be excluded from the commissioning process. As one retired nurse reminded Mr Eustice when people are using the health services it is the nurses who are really important to them.

Most worryingly Mr Eustice seemed wholly unaware of the issues at Southern Cross where the Government will have to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers money to provide a care service for thousands of old people in care homes who have been let down by a failing private company. Nor did he mention Winterbourne View, the private hospital that so shockingly failed to protect vulnerable people with learning disabilities from horrifying abuse.

The main reassurance that Mr Eustice was able to offer was that there is now a pause and the government are thinking again. That is true but it is has been forced on them by trade unions, campaigning groups and the general public. The coalition government's original plan was to steam-roller the destructive Health and Social Care Bill through Parliament and now they have been forced to think again. We need to keep up the pressure on them until they ditch this nasty policy.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The true scale of the cuts and the fight to stop them

Cuts
Of the £80 billion a year cut from public spending since last June, £18 billion directly affects welfare, the biggest cut since the 1920s. Few areas, including education, are left unaffected. The cuts fall into two main categories: those that directly affect people’s incomes and those that affect the services they rely on. Included in the first category is the decision to link benefits and taxes to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which excludes housing costs and council tax, instead of the currently used Retail Price Index, which does include these factors. Since the CPI underestimates the real cost of living for most working class people, it is, as the IFS points out, “effectively an across the board cut to all benefits received by working-age adults”, and as such, a direct assault on the living standards of the poorest people in Britain.

On top of this there are the planned cuts in welfare benefits, again specifically targeted at the poorest and most vulnerable. The biggest losers here will be people with disabilities. Currently 2.6 million people claim incapacity benefit, 40 percent of them on account of mental health problems. The government intends to move 1.5 million of them onto the new Employment Support Allowance (ESA), paid at a much lower rate, via a test of their capacity to work. If after a year on ESA they have still not found work, despite the “assistance” provided by private agencies such as the hated Atos Healthcare to which the government has outsourced this task, they will be moved onto Jobseeker’s Allowance of £65 a week.
Cuts in housing benefit will also have a massive impact on the poor, projected to amount to £1.8 billion by 2014. According to the government’s own survey, the changes will mean that more than three quarters of a million households will lose an average of £9 a week while bigger families will lose an average of £74 a week. Nor will the changes only affect unemployed people. Some 680,000 working households also claim housing benefit, 14 percent of the total housing benefit caseload. As housing charity Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb pointed out, such losses represent “huge amounts” to some of the poorest people in Britain.
Finally, there are the cuts to local authority spending. Research commissioned by the TUC has shown that Britain’s poorest 10 percent will be hit 13 times harder by cuts to services than the richest 10 percent. The research shows that the bottom tenth of the population, who depend much more on publicly provided services, will suffer reductions in services equivalent to 20 percent of their household income, while the richest tenth will lose the equivalent of just 1.5 percent through cuts that the government plans to implement by 2013. Across the income distribution, the poorer the household, the more they will lose.

Privatisating welfare
The restructuring of welfare services will involve a massive extension of privatisation. Involving the private sector in the provision of public services is, of course, hardly new. The Public/Private Partnerships promoted by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were a barely-disguised version of the Private Finance Initiative first introduced by the Conservative governments of the 1990s. What is different this time round, however, is the sheer scale of the proposed privatisations. The proposals of the Browne Report, most of which have been accepted by the government, will essentially transform the nature and role of English universities. As Stefan Collini has argued, what Browne is proposing is that “we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds… Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (ie universities)”.

Similarly, health minister Andrew Lansley’s bill to place NHS commissioning in the hands of GP practices, which will be required to purchase services from “any willing provider”, will take privatisation of the NHS to new depths. As columnist Polly Toynbee has argued, the introduction of unfettered price competition at a time when the NHS is already experiencing cuts of 4 percent “will leave the NHS open to challenge and undercutting from any private company offering temporary loss-leaders. The destabilising effect on financially fragile hospitals will be devastating”.

Privatising everything
The White Paper on welfare reform will mean that no area of the public sector, other than the security services and courts, will be safe from privatisation. According to David Cameron, writing in the Daily Telegraph: “This is a transformation: instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services, as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS, the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly”. Everything, in other words, will be up for grabs. Councils, like GP practices, will be forced to accept tenders from the lowest bidders, on past experience likely to be multinationals such as Cordia, Capita and Serco, as long as they promise to “protect quality”. In reality, not only will quality of service be one of the first victims of these changes as private firms and charities compete to cut costs and drive down the wages and conditions of their staff, but so too will local democracy. For once these commercial contracts are in place, neither councils nor local people will have any control over them, making a mockery of the Tories’ much-vaunted concern for “localism” and “empowering communities”.

The Big Society
Both localism and empowered communities are, of course, key elements of the rhetoric of the Big Society, the ideological framework within which much of this change is taking place. The main reason for the failure of the Big Society is that, despite Cameron’s protests to the contrary, most people see it simply as a big con and a cover for the cuts. That does not mean the coalition will drop the idea. The emphasis on “localism and “shifting responsibility” from the state to communities and individuals is likely to remain a central theme of coalition social policy, reflected for example in the social care policy of personalisation, a policy pioneered by New Labour involving the promotion of direct payments and individual budgets as an alternative to state-provided services. This is because there is a serious ideological intent behind the rhetoric of the Big Society. Under the veil of attacking “welfare dependency”, the coalition is seeking to engineer a “culture shift” whereby people no longer look to the state when they become unemployed, ill, disabled or old but rely instead on family, friends and an often mythical “community”. In that sense, it’s an attempt to turn the clock back to the period before the welfare state, to the days when the minutes of Victorian charities such as the Charity Organisation Society in London could record that “when an applicant is truly starving he may be given a piece of bread if he eats it in the presence of the giver”.

The balance of forces
Whether the government can succeed in this objective is, of course, a whole other question. In part, this will depend on the strength and determination of the coalition, in part on the forces of opposition ranged against it. In relation to the first aspect, there is growing concern on the right about the coalition’s apparent willingness to retreat at the first hint of opposition, examples including the government's humiliating climbdowns over the proposed privatisations of Britain’s forests and the Blood Service. Clearly, unlike Margaret Thatcher’s, this is a government which is for turning.

In relation to the second aspect, given that for more than a decade Blair and Brown encouraged greater private sector involvement in public services, introduced welfare to work policies and in 2010 made it clear that if elected they would also implement massive cuts, the response of the New Labour leadership to the biggest assault on welfare since the Second World War has been predictably defensive and pitiful. Shadow secretary for work and pensions Liam Byrne, for example, welcomed Ian Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms as “sensible”, complaining only that the coalition wasn’t doing enough to create new jobs. Despite that, the absence of a credible left alternative means that the Labour Party will benefit both electorally and in terms of membership at the growing popular anger at the coalition’s attacks.

It is that growing popular anger, however, rather than the feeble response of the Labour front bench, that is causing most concern to the ruling class. As the British Social Attitudes Survey Series has shown year after year, whatever their deficiencies, the welfare state and the NHS in particular hold a special place in the affections and folk memory of the British working class. Cameron and Clegg have launched a full-frontal assault on every aspect of that welfare state. Hence the concern expressed by one leading Tory: “When I heard that we were starting on health reform, I knew how Hitler’s generals felt when they heard he was invading Russia”.

They have cause to be worried. The coalition’s attempts to shift the costs of the banking crisis onto the poorest sections of British society, and in the process divide and scapegoat those who depend on welfare benefits, have already provoked resistance. They have revitalised the disability movement and have led to the creation of militant new organisations such as Disabled People against Cuts and the Black Triangle Campaign, both of which have shown a willingness to engage in direct action. There have been huge protests in defence of education that have united school, college and university students and staff. There have been militant protests outside town halls across much of Britain and the beginnings of a revival of organisation among health workers. The energy and militancy of these struggles stand in marked contrast to the cowardice and passivity of much of the leadership of the official trade union movement, despite the fantastic 500,000-strong TUC-organised demonstration in London on March 26. But there is still everything to play for. The next big test will come on June 30 when up to 800,000 trade unionists across the country could be taking co-ordinated strike action. This must be just the prelude to a much bigger wave of mass strikes in the autumn when NUT, ATL, UCU and PCS unions could be joined by unions such as CWU, FBU, Unite and Unison, possibly leading to a general strike.

The weakness of the coalition on the one hand and the willingness of millions of working class people on the other to fight, if given a lead, to defend a welfare system that offers them and their families at least some protection against the hazards of life under capitalism mean that Cameron and Clegg’s attempt to privatise welfare may yet prove to be their poll tax, the rock on which the coalition founders.

This is based on an article in International Socialism journal by Iain Ferguson. Read it here.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Links getting stronger as unions build for 30 June strikes

See also Lets make 30 June a day of resistance.

There is now less than a month until the mass co-ordinated strikes on 30 June. If the NUT, PCS and ATL ballots are successful they will join UCU members in the biggest strike against the Tories so far. More than 800,000 workers could be out in defence of pensions and they could be joined by council workers in Birmingham and Doncaster (who are balloting against job cuts) and London postal workers.

This is not just another day in the diary. In the wake of the 26 March TUC protests the strikes on 30 June will put workers resistance centre stage. A powerful strike can combine with the dynamism of the anti-cuts and student movements to create a real challenge to Cameron and Clegg. The need for united action in the face of the cuts is becoming clearer as the days go by. The call for 30 June to be more than just a strike day, for it to be our “day of rage” against the coalition government is gaining more and more support.

The UCU Congress this weekend was animated by this spirit. Every new “post 92” university and further education college, with some 80,000 UCU members will be on strike. Despite moves by UCU leaders that mean strikes are unlikely in the old “pre-92” Universities on 30 June, story after story emerged from activists at the conference about the growing links between the UCU, NUT, PCS and ATL on the ground with plans for local rallies and demonstrations. UCU activists talked of the need to make links with students, pensioners, anti-cuts campaigners and disability rights groups to involve them on picket lines and at protests. The UCU has added its name to the growing list of unions, including CWU, PCS, NUT and NUJ who have now voted to call on the TUC to organise a General Strike across the public sector to stop the government attacks.

"We marched together now we must strike together" is becoming the common sense of the movement. But it will take an enormous fight to turn words and conference motions into reality. We need to be at the heart of fighting to make the 30 June a carnival of resistance for all those who face the Tory onslaught. The 30 June is the bridge to wider action in the autumn. We need to win every worker, every student, every campaigner to see the importance of that date and get in behind building the strikes.

See also 30 June: just three weeks to go

Afghanistan: The truth behind Obama's "progress"

President Obama told the British Parliament on 25 May that the US/Nato forces were "preparing to turn a corner" and the Taliban's momentum had been "broken". However, since then, facts on the ground have exposed the reality.

The day after Obama's speech, eight US troops were killed, the highest daily figure for four years. The next day, two British soldiers were killed. The father of one of the them, asked whether the death of his son had been a price worth paying. To which a serving soldier on leave from Afghanistan wrote emphatically, no. On 28 May, a suicide attack in a supposedly "secure" province left at least six dead, including the commander of the northern Afghanistan police force and two German soldiers, and seriously wounded Nato General Markus Knaeip, commander of foreign troops in northern Afghanistan.

Not to be outdone when it comes to killing, on the same day, Nato airstrikes on two villages killed 32 civilians, including 17 children and five women. Such was the outrage at yet more "collateral damage" that even the US puppet President Karzai felt compelled to issue a "final warning" to Nato that these attacks had to stop.

By every measurement this war is catastrophic, for the Afghan people and the occupying forces alike. The war has now lasted longer than World War I and World War II combined and is the longest war in US history. 2011 will be the most violent year since the invasion ten years ago. It is clearly far from over, with the British commander in Afghanistan, Lt Gen James Bucknall, being the latest of a stream of military figures in the US and British military calling for an extension of the 2015 deadline for withdrawing all foreign forces, as promised by Obama and David Cameron.

The reason is obvious, the planned "exit strategy" of training the Afghan police and army to administer a proxy occupation for the US and its allies currently looks hopeless. This is confirmed by the latest report showing the security forces have been deeply infiltrated by the Taliban and other resistance forces, with a dramatic increase in the number of Afghan soldiers or policemen turning their weapons on western troops or facilitating attacks by insurgents.

We need to continue to press our government to end this war immediately.