Editorial from the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Many people are worried about the welfare state–and so they should be. The Labour government, like so many governments around the world, is attempting to cut back on social spending because the capitalist class can no longer afford to pay for it at its previous levels. In times of economic difficulty welfare spending is always the first element of state expenditure for governments to look to cut back. For the last two decades in particular governments across much of the industrialised world have been trying to cut back social spending–indeed, this was a project of the Tories in Britain when they were elected in 1979.
Cutting welfare spending, however, hasn’t been easy. Restructuring of the economy to bolster a sagging rate of profit has taken place alongside an ever growing welfare budget which government after government has pledged itself to tackle. Within weeks of his election Tony Blair made it apparent that his government was in reality (despite the rhetoric) further to the right than both Thatcher and Major because it was this government which was prepared to “think the unthinkable” and make the necessary “hard choices”. From a materialist point of view this simply meant that as the economic difficulties of the period have progressed, the austerity measures required to deal with them have also progressed, and that Blair is aware of this.
This reality is already filtering home to many of the working class. If they are unemployed, disabled, a pensioner or a single parent (in other words, a huge swathe of the population) it is difficult for them to rest in their beds easily. Government talk of the “stakeholder society” and of the “new deal” fools few of them now–workers do not even have to be very interested in politics to appreciate that the government is embarked on a classic austerity programme.
In France recently there have been riots over unemployment, and in Germany a few months ago angry steelworkers clashed with the police. As France and Germany prepare for the Euro (which will be used as an excuse for more austerity cuts, that’s even if it doesn’t directly lead to any) we can expect such expressions of class struggle to increase. And it is indeed a class issue. For however the capitalists and their mouthpieces try to divide us–employed against unemployed, the nuclear family against single parents–a united class struggle within capitalism but against it is our only answer.