‘We need to build an alternative to austerity’

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Image: John McInally

Earlier this month the Northern Ireland Congress of Trade Unions. held a seminar in Belfast to highlight opposition to proposed welfare cuts. Below is an edited version of a speech given at the meeting by John McInally, Vice President of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

Welfare reform, like austerity, is no more than a slick political term intended to mask what is in reality a one-sided and unremitting class war being carried by big business and the Tories against the unemployed, disabled and the low paid. Welfare reform has been on the agenda of all the major Westminster parties for some time now but has been greatly ramped up under the Tories’ austerity programme.

It is characterised by the elite’s twin obsessions of attacking the poor and cutting and privatising our public services. It is ideological. It seeks to say that the poor are responsible for their situation in order to justify the removal of the safety net and the destruction of the social security system. It is about the systematic destruction of the welfare state.

There are many fancy definitions of what constitutes the welfare state. But for our class there is a very simple definition – when your neighbour has fallen on hard times you have two choices – You can offer them your hand and raise them up or you can kick them in the guts. The Tories believe in the latter course. That is immoral of course. But it is worse than that.

It makes no economic sense. Every serious study and all experience shows that supportive social security and welfare systems are more economically efficient, cheaper and more inclined to promote social cohesion rather than aggravate social division and inequality.

Welfare reform has been accompanied but what can only be described as a remorseless hate campaign conducted by the politicians and sections of the media. The reason for this hate speech is to provide the ideological basis for these attacks.

This narrative is an attempt to promote the lie that poverty is a “life-style choice”.

And that those claiming benefits are sub-human and undeserving of help and support. I want to state this very clearly. Any politician who is not prepared to oppose the welfare reform policies is complicit in bringing an onslaught upon the communities they claim to represent. There is a massive responsibility on the unions to take up the question of welfare because it concerns their members too. It also means unions fighting against attacks on their members’ terms and conditions. But also about defending everything we have won over past generations of struggle.

In fighting welfare reform there needs to be closest possible cooperation between the ICTU, the STUC and TUC. This is arguably the biggest issue facing our movement and we need to unite. We also need to define ourselves not just by what we are against but what we are for. We need to state clearly there is an alternative to austerity. We need real social security for all members of society. Social security is not just about benefits, it concerns us all – it is about homes, childcare, pensions, pay levels and much more.

It is about whether we live in a civilised society or not. If politicians are not prepared to represent us and give voice to our grievances and aspirations then we have to do so ourselves. Most of all we need to speak out against the great lie that things are the way they are because there is no alternative.

There is an alternative. But we are going to have to fight to achieve it.

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