A Queen’s Speech for the Elite

Millions of people in Britain can’t afford to eat. That the government plans to spend this year undermining democracy and fighting culture wars instead of fixing that problem makes it clear whose side it's on.

Charles, Prince of Wales sits by the Imperial State Crown as he delivers the Queen’s Speech during the state opening of Parliament at the House of Lords on 10 May 2022 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Ahead of today’s Queen’s Speech, a senior government official attempted to justify the absence of any measures to tackle the spiraling cost of living crisis by saying: ‘There’s been enough pain relief. It’s time for the surgery the economy needs.’ The suggestion that there has been any—let alone ‘enough’—relief to alleviate the economic hardship facing the nation is as ludicrous as it is offensive.

UK households are currently experiencing the biggest fall in living standards since records began. Inflation is soaring—expected to exceed ten percent in the autumn—with the price of food, energy, and other basic necessities rising significantly faster than wages and social security payments. Any supposed ‘pain relief’ has not been felt by the nation’s workers, who, after a decade of stagnant living standards, are seeing the value of their wages quickly eroded even further.

A conservative estimate is that 1.3 million people, including half a million children, are set to fall into absolute poverty in the coming year. Thus far, government action has amounted to a £200 loan towards energy bills while hiking National Insurance Contributions for working people; at the same time, the Bank of England’s decision to raise interest rates is set to suppress wages and push the economy into recession. Far from pain relief, this is surgery without anaesthetic.

There was nothing in today’s Queen’s Speech to suggest a change in course. The legislative programme set by the government is more focused on pursuing a right-wing ideological agenda than introducing any measures to improve material conditions. Parliamentary time will be allocated to Bills aiming to force through the privatisation of Channel 4, to repeal the Human Rights Act, to criminalise boycotts and campaigns for social justice, and to legislate on ‘free speech’ issues in universities as part of an attempt to stoke the culture wars.

What wasn’t included in the Speech was the long-promised Employment Bill, which would have provided an opportunity to strengthen rights and protections for workers experiencing low pay, insecurity, and exploitation—including stopping tip theft, tackling workplace sexual harassment, giving workers more predictable contracts, and introducing rights to flexible working. Instead, there will be a Brexit Freedoms Bill aiming to repeal the EU-derived laws transferred into domestic legislation following the UK’s departure from the European Union. Under the guise of cutting red tape, the Bill will put vital employment rights, environmental standards, and health and safety protections in the firing line.

Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, the Labour Party has repeatedly denounced the government’s response to the squeeze on household budgets as inadequate, while failing to set out any meaningful proposals of its own. Rather than calling for the bold policy agenda the country needs to fight the cost of living crisis, it has embroiled itself in ‘beergate’ and grandstanding over its leader’s integrity. However, the amendment to the Queen’s Speech tabled by Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, sets out concrete measures to tackle the crisis and deliver economic justice which socialists within Parliament can rally around.

Without significant intervention, runaway energy bills will tip working people’s finances over the edge. By the end of the year the average household is set to be paying £1,500 more for their gas and electricity alone, a situation so severe that up to forty percent of people are predicted to fall into fuel poverty. In the face of skyrocketing costs, the government must revert to the lower pre-April energy price cap and promise no new energy price hike in October—paid for by a windfall tax on oil and gas companies.

To address the country’s poverty wages—which, adjusted for inflation, have fallen below where they were in 2008—the minimum wage needs to be raised to a real living wage, with a path to £15 an hour and a real-terms public sector pay increase. And for those suffering the real terms cut to social security payments introduced earlier this year, the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift must be restored and extended to all benefits.

This week, a study found that 6.8 million Brits are already skipping meals or eating less as they can’t afford or access food, underlining the need for the Right to Food to be enshrined in law to end food poverty. The housing crisis, which is seeing a basic necessity becoming increasingly unavailable and unaffordable for many, should be targeted through a combination of rent controls and a plan to build at least 100,000 council homes a year.

The key driving factor behind Britain’s long-term economic malaise and the antidote to the coming recession is the state of workers’ rights. The decline in the power of working people to organise and collectively bargain for higher wages and improved working conditions has caused low wages, insecurity, and deepening inequalities. To improve the lot of working people, prevent a recession, and build a more prosperous and just economy, workplace rights must be strengthened. This means not only banning predatory practices such as fire and rehire, but repealing decades of anti-trade union laws to unshackle organised labour, allowing collective bargaining to be restored to levels last seen in the 1970s.

All of this and more is possible if there is a determination to end the exploitation of and profiteering at the expense of the working class. A good and popular start would be to bring public utilities—rail, mail, energy and water—back into public ownership, so they can serve the public interest rather than private shareholders.

After all, one group in society has avoided any of the pain experienced by the rest of us: the rich, who have enjoyed record profits at the expense of everybody else. To achieve any semblance of social justice, they must be made to pay their fare share through tax rises on the richest five percent of earners and large corporations, accompanied by a crack-down on tax avoidance and evasion and an end to the Non-Dom tax status.

With a government desperately out of touch that rules solely in the interests of an economic elite, and an opposition short on both ideas and conviction, today’s Queen’s Speech provides little prospect for improvement for working people. But there is an alternative prospectus that can provide a basis for the labour and trade union movement to rally around in the weeks and months ahead—one that will not only provide the immediate pain relief needed for a nation in distress, but that will cure the ailments of poverty, inequality, and injustice from which the working class have for too long suffered.