Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Strategy for the Left: how do we stop the cuts?

The ConDem coalition is, for now, largely succeeding in shaping official discussion about the cuts. Apparently 'we're all in it together' - and should make sacrifices in pursuit of the holy grail of deficit reduction - and “there is no alternative” to these “necessary” cuts.

These are among the main ideological myths deployed to justify the cuts. The Left needs to think strategically about how to combat those myths and, even more importantly, mobilise active opposition to the disastrous and regressive policies they are designed to justify.

Resisting cuts is the central political priority of our time for a simple reason: implementing the cuts is the number one priority for the ruling class. If the government gets its way, it will have a massive effect for decades to come.

Implementing this assault on the public sector will alter the balance of forces in favour of the ruling class. This will weaken the Left, the labour movement and the working class. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Busting the economic and political myths

It has become clear, especially since the 22 June emergency budget, that we are facing truly savage cuts in almost all areas. This is more amputation than cuts: an assault on the public sector and the welfare state, on a previously unimagined scale. The backdrop is a deep and persistent systemic crisis for global capitalism.

We're supposed to buy into the old notion of 'national unity', everyone united in a common endeavour to reduce the deficit we all apparently share responsibility for. This obscures both the causes of the crisis which is the backdrop to austerity - we certainly weren't all responsible for that - and the hugely uneven effects of the public sector cuts, pay freeze, VAT rise etc.

The left needs to expose the “we’re all in it together” myth. This means both explaining that the crisis originates in the banking sector not 'excessive' public spending and pointing attention to the uneven (and unjust) effects of the cuts.  Speculators and bankers, not public sector workers, are responsible for the crisis. The critical political question is: who pays the price for that crisis?

In fact this is a class issue, but dressed up as a ‘national’ challenge. We are seeing a systematic effort to make working class people pay for a crisis generated by the failures of the financial sector and neoliberal capitalism. Rather than pursuing uncollected taxes from the rich, or curtailing the spiralling wealth of Britain's super-rich, the government is choosing to introduce regressive changes that fall most heavily on the poorest.

This is the message we urgently need to convey to a wider audience: the crisis is created by the rich and their system, but politicians representing their interests are forcing the great majority to pay for it, and the result will be increased poverty and widening inequality.

One task is to articulate, in a clear and accessible way, the economic argument that cuts are bad for the recovery, a view shared by most people from the centre-left to the Marxist left (though the Marxists amongst us have a sharper perspective on capitalism’s inability – regardless of which response to the crisis is chosen – to escape crisis altogether).

The basic point that savage cuts damage consumer spending, and thus repress the economy’s ability to recover, is important. Many leading economists and even the IMF - known for being ruthlessly neoliberal - have sharply questioned the wisdom of deep cuts (on the grounds that austerity will reduce prospects for a recovery).

Our opponents have their repertoire of ideological tricks. For example, ‘consultations' which ask the public to nominate services to be cut are designed to frame the issues in a way that excludes any suggestion of an alternative to deep cuts. The debate is not, in these terms, about whether or not there should be public sector cuts. It isn't even about how deep the cuts go, or their timing. It's merely about exactly where the knife is targeted.

The decisions are already taken, or will be taken behind closed doors by the political and financial elite, but we're supposed to be grateful for these exercises in political 'participation'. They are purely cynical exercises which gives people no actual power. Their real purpose is ideological: they prop up the dominant myth of an unarguable case for cuts.

A key challenge for the left is to undermine this illusion of consensus and clearly outline the alternatives: increase taxes on the rich, retrieve uncollected tax payments, scrap Trident, and so on.

Most people know the cuts will hurt, so it isn't enough to merely draw attention to that. The crucial task is to address the political arguments: puncture the illusion of inevitability, outline an alternative case, etc. We can re-shape the debate and put opposition to all public service and welfare cuts on the political agenda.

From argument to action

It’s not just about the ideological battle. Any emerging campaign or coalition of those opposed to the government will need to raise political slogans that challenge the current priorities - and mobilise action around them.

One lesson of recent years is that political issues can prompt campaigning and resistance. This is true in the trade unions, where ‘political trade unionism’ (anti-war, anti-racist etc) has been a key characteristic of recent years.

For example, Stop the War's call to cut war spending and scrap Trident directs attention to the possibility of doing things differently. It also taps into the very different values many millions of people hold. It connects economic needs with political issues.

The trade unions are essential. But whatever action the unions take - and hopefully there will be co-ordinated mass public sector strikes - we can develop a broad political campaign now, to counter the dominant myths and lay the ground for serious mobilisations.

It’s clear that many on the Left share a widely-felt desire for a serious movement of opposition to the cuts. Due to the legacy of defeats for the trade unions, it is sadly likely that union militancy will lag behind.

We should push for co-operation between the unions and campaigning networks. A strong anti-cuts movement can encourage trade unionists to take strike action, which will be vital to defeating the government's policies. And those campaigns gain more weight from the unions' involvement.

Broad-based local campaigns are, to a certain extent, already emerging. My own region, the North East, provides a strong example in the union-led Public Services Alliance, which is in the process of establishing several local coalitions after a very successful regional launch attended by 120 people.

Such campaigns can protest at specific instances of cutbacks in local communities. Campaigns can expose the human cost of the cuts, provide alternatives, and develop a body of resources – leaflets, bulletins, online materials etc – which can be adapted or used elsewhere.

National and international coalitions of resistance

This begins to move us on to the question of co-ordinating our efforts. This government has, by launching an attack so widespread and far-reaching, risked something Thatcher avoided, at least until the poll tax: generalised working class resistance. Bob Crow and the RMT are correct to point to the anti-poll tax movement as a precedent for what is needed now.

While it is generally agreed we need local grassroots campaigns, we will also need a national movement to develop. The cuts programme is a national and international political issue, and the key domestic players are Westminster politicians. We need opposition at a national level.

We will all benefit from developing networks that connect local campaigners. We had a successful, 50-strong meeting in Newcastle where we circulated the draft statement for a national ’Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ conference, due to take place in London on 27 November. We need local activism which is consciously geared towards also building coalitions of resistance at national and international levels.

National mobilisations are important. I’m thinking of the protest at the Tory conference in Birmingham on 3 October and (hopefully) a union-led national demonstration later in October. Talk of a huge TUC demonstration next March, apparently taking the great 15 February 2003 protest as inspiration, is welcome, though its regrettable the TUC isn't initiating a national demo this autumn.

We should also forge conections with campaigns and unions elsewhere in Europe, as both the austerity drive and the resistance to it are international phenomena. Recent events in Europe, most powerfully the Greek example, may indicate the direction of resistance here. We can promote solidarity with strikes and mass protests elsewhere in Europe. The European TUC day of action on 29 September is one opportunity.

I believe it’s also important for the radical left to shape the political debate inside the campaigns. To an extent, those on the centre-left who accept some ‘need’ for cuts will be drawn in behind more radical forces as a movement develops, but some explicit argument about these issues – within a framework of united action wherever possible – is nonetheless necessary. .

The left needs to urgently advocate political alternatives to the status quo and connect these ideas with the widespread desire to stop the attacks on welfare and public services. I don't buy the idea, sometimes encountered on the left, that the cuts will 'hit' people later and there's not much we can do for now.

Millions of people know how serious the situation is. We need to start connecting and organising those who reject the ConDem coalition's policies. The stakes are extraordinarily high, the government is weak, and there’s still - despite the ideological barrage - a deep commitment in the working class to the public service ethos and the welfare state.



  1. We need to remember that unlike the Thatcher government, the Tories do not hold a parliamentary majority. The coalition is a weakness we should exploit - there has to be (at least from us in the Northern regions) a protest at the start of the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool on September 18.

  2. Yes, I think a protest at Lib Dems conference should be supported. This is partly because it gives a regional focus for North West and partly to exploit the weaknesses of this coalition. Before the coalition deal was struck, in May, I speculated that a minority Tory government would be fantatically weak and potentially good for the Left. A ConDem coalition is better for the Tories, but still vulnerable.

    Having said that, the Tories are the main enemy and therefore should be the number 1 focus for protest, including their annual conference on 3 Oct in Birmingham.

  3. I agree with James.
    Tories won 2 million more votes than labour and 36% of vote overall to labour 28%.

    Not that many given the turnout was 65%.

    Tories simply have no mandate.

    Thats why cameron is posing with the public having phony 'conversations' all over the place. Pure propaganda to big up the illusion of a mandate.

    Behind the scenes new organisations are being formed to lever in the big outsourcing companies. The left should attack these not just the Cuts per se. Go to charities commission, go to companies house, see what's being set up.

    There will be spending - because the govt will prop up the private enterprises taking over public services. They're knocking stuff down to install the new 'officer' class. Then tories will pose as caring liberal facilitator of leaner, more efficient infrastructure - employing scared people with lower wages, fewer rights etc.

  4. Yes, the consultations are entirely cynical. It's now routine for them to announce a 'consultation' when really they are preparing people for something they've already decided. And the whole 'interactive' consultation line - all those 'Tell us what YOU think should be cut' things - is part of the same approach.

    The new coalition of resistance which is being launched - following the letter by Tony Benn and 73 others last week - is 'against cuts and privatisation'. That bit about privatisation is important.

  5. There's an interesting contradiction, deeper than the party divide within the coalition.

    Privatisation and marketisation in the past two decades has involved many utilities and services which cannot operate as profitably independently of state spending. If spending is to be cut, the public service industry will also experience cuts. We've seen some firms experience sudden falling shares as their ability to pay dividends in an "Age of Austerity" is restricted.