Saturday, 14 April 2012

Fighting the cuts: where we are, how we got here, and where we need to be

A graphic from NUT national conference
The Tories are weak and the coalition government is fragile. Polls have recently shown the gap between Tories and Labour opening up, with all-time lows in Cameron's personal ratings and the government's approval ratings.

The coalition has often been presented as 'strong', but even prior to the unpopular budget and the 'Cash for Cameron' scandal the Tories generally lagged behind Labour in polls (while the Lib Dems have collapsed). The coalition is likely to hold together until 2015, but there are cracks and tensions inside the coalition on a range of issues.

The coalition parties may take a battering at the local elections on 3 May. If Boris Johnson is re-elected Mayor of London, it will merely distract attention from the bad news elsewhere. If Ken Livingstone is elected, the governing parties will both almost certainly come out of elections day bruised and humiliated.   

This is against the backdrop of poor prospects for economic recovery and a European crisis - not just the catastrophe in Greece, but turmoil throughout the continent. The continuing crisis and the disastrous effects of responding to it with austerity are the contexts framing British and European politics today.   

Labour's capitulation to cuts

When the Tories appear strong, it is due to the weakness of opposition - whether parlimentary opposition from Labour or extra-parliamentary opposition from trade unions and campaigners. Ed Miliband’s opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill and budget day speech ('a budget for millionaires, not the millions') were reminders that Labour can still clearly differentiate itself from the Tories. The party continues to be the natural repository for anti-Tory feeling.

But the dominant fact about Labour is that the two Eds - Balls and Milband - have 'accepted' cuts. When they announced this in January, the result was a slight drop in support in the polls. A continuing strategy of 'triangulation' and a preoccupation with 'economic credibility' (i.e. tailing the Tories' pro-austerity line) is electorally damaging as well as politically wrong.

This timidity in opposing cuts is often characterised as a legacy of the New Labour years or the result of a small coterie of Blairites being too influential in the party. The implication is that Labour simply needs to 'move on' or remove those of particularly malign influence from Ed Miliband's vicinity. But this overstates the relevance of personnel and the internal dynamics of the Labour Party. It under-estimates the broader political dimension.

There is a long-term European crisis of social democracy. In country after country - with Blair's Britain in a vanguard role - left-of-centre parties were elected to office and then disillusioned their own supporters by imposing neoliberal polices. The 'Third Way' of privatisation and deregulation at home and 'liberal intervention' abroad shifted the centre of political gravity to the right.

But it also opened up a gap, a 'democratic deficit', between centre-left governments and broad layers of working class people. In this country, Iraq was the great rupture but it was also a lightning rod for much deeper discontent. George Galloway's recent electoral success has prompted recollections of Respect's earlier breakthroughs in 2005/06. The context for that modest but significant success was not just discontent with UK participation in the 'war on terror' and the strengths of a mass anti-war movement. It was also the disillusionment with New Labour against the backdrop of rising inequality and alienation from a stultifying neoliberal orthodoxy at Westminster.

Labour remains tarnished by its track record under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown between 1997 and 2010. But the party leadership's conservatism is a result of present circumstances not just past influences.

The severity of the Europe-wide economic crisis is essential to understanding this. There is a continent-wide crisis of social democracy because it is trapped in the assumptions of austerity and unable or unwilling to articulate an alternative. When the system is in crisis, it closes down the space for social democracy. Centre-left politicians shrink their horizons still further.

Galloway's victory reminded us that war and austerity have discredited Labour. This disenchantment is part of a general anti-establishment mood: Galloway’s victory was one illustration, but so – in admittedly quite different ways - were last summer’s riots and Occupy London.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the current prospects for building left-of-Labour electoral alternatives are particularly bright. There are numerous obstacles to developing a wider national coalition at the polls. What remains of central importance is a mass movement to stop the cuts, one which involves Labour members and supporters. In that context – only in that context - there is the possibility of developing new forms of co-operation in electoral politics.

Trade unions and the pensions dispute

For some time, though, it has been the trade unions which – in the absence of clear anti-cuts politics from Labour - have played the dominant role in opposing cuts. But the loss of momentum in the campaign to defend public sector pensions has generated widespread disappointment in the anti-cuts movement.
There was supposed to be co-ordinated national strike action on 28 March. This was itself belated - many activists, following the huge strike last November, argued for further national strikes as early as January. It increasingly looked like it may be down to college and university lecturers’ union UCU, teaching union NUT and civil service workers’ PCS to sustain the movement.

In March the NUT executive met and was split over what course of action to take. A consultative ballot had shown 73% of respondents saying they wanted further strikes to prevent having to work longer, pay more in pension contributions, and receive less in retirement. The NEC majority, however, supported the proposal for a London-only strike, deferring any decision about national action to the union's national conference at Easter.

Within the teaching sector, the NUT had increasingly found itself isolated over plans for a major strike on 28 March. The NUT's decision in turn made it more likely that the PCS executive would call off strike plans – and that’s precisely what happened.


The real turning point, though, was back in mid-December when a number of trade unions provisionally signed up to 'heads of agreement'. What the government offered was paltry, but its negotiators were shrewd enough to offer minor concessions in local government, therefore splitting that sector from the wider public sector movement.

Unison, with a moderate leadership eager for a deal, is the biggest union in the sector. Once it signed up, other unions were greatly weakened and thus likely to follow suit.

It is no co-incidence that two big Labour-affiliated unions, Unison and the GMB, led the way with seeking compromise. Their commitment to Labour – despite some criticisms of the leadership’s policies – is a form of pressure pulling them towards compromise. The ‘acceptance’ of cuts and pay freezes announced by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in January triggered some denunciation from union leaders, but nonetheless strengthened the pull towards conciliation.

A pattern developed. More unions either signed up to a deal or declined to pledge further strikes. Those voices within their leaderships pledging ‘realism’ – saying it wasn’t realistic to expect the government to give any more, so further action was futile – became louder and more persuasive. 30 November faded and negotiations took over from mass action.

The 'rejectionist' unions delayed over setting dates for strike action, influenced by a desire to hold out for other unions to get on board with joint action, though this never materialised. Alongside this shift towards more sectional action (rather than broad, united and large-scale strikes) has been the strengthening of arguments for selective strikes instead of bringing everyone out together.
This is all a very long way from the magnificent unity displayed on 30 November, with a wide range of unions across the public sector taking strike action together. Two million were on strike; perhaps half a million took part in marches and rallies on the day. The strike movement encompassed local government, health, education and the civil service, demonstrating a degree of unity not seen for decades.

The overwhelming support for national strikes at NUT conference has at least gone some way to turning things around. There are a few rays of sunshine elsewhere: strike action in the health sector is still possible, for example. However, the trade union bureaucracy has been firmly in control throughout this dispute. There have been often sharp conflicts within the leaderships – between unions and within unions – but there hasn’t been a strong grassroots counter-pressure to ‘doing a deal’. Neither has there been a sufficiently strong broader anti-cuts movement to pull the trade unions in a more militant direction.


Current problems and possibilities

Across the union movement there has recently been a failure to launch broader mobilisations, linking trade unions with other constituencies, which could connect pensions to the wider cuts and privatisation agenda. General anti-cuts demonstrations would have strengthened momentum in the pensions dispute and also boosted the anti-cuts movement as a whole.

A massive national demonstration to save the NHS could have contributed enormously to breaking the Health and Social Care Bill – and lifted the whole movement. It is, though, a hopeful sign that Unite is apparently initiating a major national anti-cuts demonstration in the summer.

The threats to break up national pay bargaining are potentially devastating to working people and the power of trade unions. The public sector pay freeze is a real-terms cut for millions. To respond to such threats we need national co-ordination and mass campaigning, with unions reaching out to forge connections with everyone affected by cuts and marketisation. We can’t afford to let the Tories divide us.
Politically we need to constantly drive home the class politics of austerity – the double whammy of the budget and the Cash for Cameron scandal blew apart the notion of ‘we’re all in it together’. Cuts are widely seen as unfair – even among those who largely accept arguments about the ‘need’ for cuts, there’s potential for mobilisation against particular policies because of they are widely seen as unjust.  

We also need to promote simple alternatives to cuts: tax the rich; fund jobs, homes and transport; drop the debt. It’s not detailed policy proposals that will rally people, but finding imaginative ways of conveying these simple points (this is something Galloway’s campaign did to great effect). Articulating – and agitating around – these demands also helps shift the ideological terrain away from the dominant orthodoxies.


I started by noting the weakness of the Tories, the coalition government and establishment politics. The problem is that the trade unions, the anti-cuts movement and the Left are also all weak. Our side has the capacity, but we repeatedly fall short of using our strength. If the balance of forces between them and us is going to change – if we are to seriously challenge austerity – that needs to change. 

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