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Social State: Austerity - An Exercise in Divide and Rule

The coalition Government’s rhetoric on the need to reduce the financial deficit represents a consolidation of power for neo-liberal and conservative forces that have developed a politics of austerity based on the argument that there is a need to bring national debt under control through drastic cuts.

What this ideology hides is an agenda to reshape the economy through privatisation of public services including health, education and the police and to destroy union organisation and hard won conditions of services to enable private interests to exploit the labour of public sector workers for profit.

This ideology portrays the role of the state as a negative in people’s lives, promotes nineteenth century philanthropic ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor and characterizes individuals in relation to their value to the economy.

The argument used is that in a time of austerity there is a need to ensure that those receiving welfare support are in genuine need including who should be entitled to receive welfare support, what conditions should be placed on receiving that support and more importantly who is entitled to access public services.

This is a direct attack on the concept of universality that has underpinned the development of our welfare state and was a guiding principle of the Beveridge Report.

This ideology is an extension into the mainstream of policy developed and applied to non-EU migrant and asylum seekers over a number of decades, policies that made the provision of public services contingent on being classified highly skilled (economically useful) in the case of migrants, or accepted as a refugee in the case of asylum seekers.

The impact on new Black and Minority Ethnic communities has been to limit access to public provision such as healthcare, housing and welfare benefits through the denial of routes to acquire permanent residency status. The intersection of racialised immigration rules, and public service access restrictions resulted in public service institutions becoming an extension of border control agencies thereby introducing internal borders and the establishment of processes to police the access to employment and services.

For Black and Minority Ethnic communities, the politics of austerity contains the potential to develop into a perfect storm economically, socially and politically.

Last year the TUC published an initial report on the effects of the recession on Black workers. The report made the point that there are good reasons to worry. The experience of previous recessions suggests that black and minority ethnic workers are particularly vulnerable to rising unemployment.

Current unemployment statistics justify this concern with the average unemployment rate for Black workers running at 13.9% compared with 7.7% for white workers. For some communities the situation is more extreme with Black African and Caribbean workers suffering an unemployment rate of 18.9% while Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers have a 16% unemployment rate.

Most worryingly are the figures for young people. Black and Minority Ethnic communities are even worse with unemployment for young black men doubling from 28.8% in 2008 to 55.9% in the last three months of 2011, twice the rate for young white people. These figures are bound to get worse as the number of public sector jobs, on which Black workers especially women are heavily reliant, are drastically cut.

Socially the politics of austerity are being used to strip away the legal safeguards and the anti discrimination framework used to fight race discrimination in the workplace on the basis that they are bureaucratic and burdensome to business.

Measures such as the introduction of fees to seek justice for racial discrimination at work in the employment tribunals and the lengthening of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal will have a disproportionate impact on black workers who are amongst the poorest part of the workforce and suffer from precarious employment because of problems securing permanent contracts.

The axing of two thirds of the jobs and budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission also ensures that Black workers access to enforcement of a diminishing anti discrimination legal framework is further restricted.

Politically the Government clearly signalled its intentions in their race equality strategy called ‘Creating the conditions for Integration’.

Heralded by Eric Pickles as the end of state-sponsored multiculturalism its analysis was to paint Black and Minority Ethnic communities as outsiders that needed to be encouraged to integrate and sign up to British culture and values, a classic strategy of divide and rule.

It failed to recognize that three quarters of the Black and Minority Ethnic population are born here and are British, or to address the race discrimination that they face daily.

When as a labour movement we are considering our alternatives to the current Governments onslaught against working people we need to be mindful that we do not live in a post racial world where colour does not matter or think that issues of race equality are marginal.

To do so risks undermining the solidarity that we need to build across all working class communities if we are to successfully fight politics of austerity and push back the twin evils of exploitation and greed which are being pursued vigorously by the current Government.