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The EU, Westminster and Austerity: The Main Enemy Is at Home

20/06/2016 17:08 | Updated 20 June 2016

The campaign around the EU referendum has become increasingly divisive and fraught. It is clear that there is a deep alienation from mainstream politics among large sections of the population and some of this is reflected in the debate over immigration.

While immigration has become a key issue, it is important to look behind the headlines at what is driving the concerns of many ordinary people. The current debate hasn't emerged in a bubble; all the other pressures and problems which people face have fed into a debate which has increasingly focused on one issue - the numbers of people coming to the UK.

I have no trust or confidence in either side of the official campaigns and this is the approach that the Fire Brigades Union adopted at our recent conference. It is also why Jeremy Corbyn has been absolutely correct not to share platforms with Cameron or other Tories. The main debate has been a row between leading Tories. We shouldn't believe any of them. David Cameron and Boris Johnson both now claim to be deeply concerned about the living standards of working people and about future of public services, but the truth is that both have played a key part in an unprecedented attack on our public services and on those who work within them.

Among many ordinary people, there are very real concerns which are being almost completely ignored in this debate. While this is reflected in the debate on immigration and the scale of concern on that issue we also need to look at the economic background. How did we get into this mess? It is surely a bit rich for Johnson and Gove to express concern that public services are stretched when they have, without hesitation, supported the policies that have created precisely those conditions. For example, as mayor of London Boris Johnson forced through the biggest cuts in the history of the London Fire Brigade.

The banking crisis of 2007/08 led to a dramatic squeeze on wages. Living standards fell and have still not recovered. So workers are paying the price for the failings of the banks and resources are being shifted from the majority to the minority at the top. The attack on living standards in the immediate aftermath of 2007/08 has been exacerbated by the Tory-led drive for austerity. In the public services, millions of working people saw a further attack on their pensions under the coalition. George Osborne plans to impose pay restraint in the public sector until the next general election. If he gets away with it, he will leave five million public servants and their families continuing to pay the price for the failure of the banks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been axed, and our libraries and other local services are squeezed, outsourced and shut down. My own service, fire and rescue, has seen the worst cuts in modern history over the past six years, with station closures and unprecedented job losses.

Private sector workers face similar pressures as the crisis in the steel industry has highlighted. The British political elite rushed to save the banks in 2008 - with large quantities of taxpayers' money -- but cannot do the same for steel workers. Meanwhile, for young people, the growth in zero hours contracts, student debt and a growing housing crisis make for bleak prospects. There is a concern - a fear - among many people that our children and grandchildren will be left in a worse position than our generation.

Cameron and Osborne claim that their austerity attacks have been necessary to save the economy. Johnson and Gove have agreed with them and have endorsed every single one of these attacks on services, rights and living standards. Yet they now claim that resources could be diverted back to UK public services if only we vote to leave on Thursday. There are also some in the trade unions whose claims are a strange echo of this. They blame the EU for austerity as they blame the EU for privatisation and other policies which have weakened the position of workers in Britain. The reality is very different.

It was, of course, the Thatcher government after 1979, which launched a determined onslaught against our trade unions, against public services and against the welfare state. Out of this, Thatcher was successful in creating a new political consensus to the degree that the Blair/Brown governments did not do anything seriously to address the demands of trade unions over workers' rights. The result is that the balance of power in the workplace and in society has shifted in favour of the bosses. That is a key factor in why the government has so far been able to get away with austerity in the way it has. It is also significant that successive UK governments have been the most determined to push in the EU for similar policies to those adopted at home - for privatisation and deregulation.

It is also true that there is no simple national solution to the challenges facing working people - although this is certainly a difficult issue to address. The economic crisis was, and is, international. As a result, austerity has been imposed across much of the world, in both the EU and Britain. There has been resistance - but not nearly enough. The trade unions, here and in Europe, have not done anywhere near enough and should wake up to the scale of the challenges we face. We need to be properly organised here and we may find that we have many friends and allies among ordinary people across Europe, while we are opposed by those in power here at home.

The housing crisis here is a failure of the housing market and a failure of Westminster government policy. Privatisation in the UK has been driven by Westminster, not by the EU. Austerity in the UK is made in Westminster, not in Brussels. Blaming the politicians or bureaucrats of the EU simply lets the Tories the hook. And it is the Tories (in both camps) who are leading the charge against British workers. On wages, austerity and workers rights - our main enemy is at home.

That's why I've been advocating a vote to remain in the EU in the referendum vote on Thursday. It's why I'll be voting to remain and want workers across the UK, both organised and unorganised, to vote to remain. Vote to remain - and prepare to fight.

Matt Wrack is the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU)

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