When the chancellor slashed the top rate of tax to 45p for Britain’s wealthiest, while triggering a popular backlash over first the ‘granny tax’ and then the ‘pasty tax’ (which were symbolic of a broader political agenda rather than major issues in their own right), he blew apart the myth of ‘we’re all in it together’. This followed the pyrrhic victory of pushing the Health and Social Care Bill: the Tories succeeded in turning it into legislation, but it was widely unpopular.
There were also damaging ‘cash for Cameron’ revelations, exposing how rich Tory party donors gained access to the prime minister. The image of a corrupt and out-of-touch cabinet of millionaires – serving wealthy, powerful interests – was cemented by developments in the scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, the principal focus of fresh revelations, hasn’t been much of a shield protecting the prime minister: there is an unmistakeable sense of the scandal going right to the top.
This mixture of disasters for the coalition has cut its support in opinion polls. What at first may have seemed a phase is now almost certainly a permanent decline: for almost three months the Tories have polled in the 30-35% range, while their junior partners the Lib Dems have made no progress whatsoever. Labour has picked up support, largely on the back of discontent with the coalition rather than any wave of enthusiasm for Ed Miliband or his policies.
Local elections confirmed this picture of Tory decline, Lib Dem stagnation and growing but unenthusiastic support for Labour as a repository for anti-cuts sentiment. The Labour landslide on 3 May almost exactly co-incided with elections in France, where the left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon took over 11% of the national vote (and where a key architect of European austerity, Nicolas Sarkozy, was ousted) and Greece, where radical-left Syriza took almost 17% of the vote in the general election.
Austerity isn’t working
It all added up to a sense of the tide turning against the economically illiterate orthodoxy of austerity. There could be still more dramatic developments if Syriza win this Sunday’s re-run elections in Greece, the weakest link in the European chain for the continent’s pro-cuts political elite.
In assessing the struggle to defeat austerity, our starting point therefore has to be recognition that their side is weaker than before. This is so at the European level and at the domestic level. Continuing economic problems – the intractable Eurozone crisis, but also the continuing stagnation of the UK economy (signified most starkly by the announcement we are officially in a double dip recession) – underpin a crisis of political legitimacy for the proponents of cuts and privatisation.
There is no reason to believe incumbent parties’ fortunes will improve, precisely because their commitment to austerity has ensured a failure of economic recovery. In this country, there is little doubt that Cameron – whose personal ratings have fallen drastically – can never return to the relative strength he had prior to the budget, cash for access revelations and Jeremy Hunt scandal.
There is also a great deal of division and tension inside the government. There have been, and continue to be, considerable pressure points in the fragile relationship between Tories and Lib Dems. There has also been an outbreak of mutinous behaviour on the Tory backbenches, with many Tory MPs bizarrely concluding from their dire local election results that they need to become more stridently right-wing, or focus on issues (like opposing House of Lords reform) which to most people are marginal and of little relevance.
Nonetheless, most coalition cuts are being pushed through successfully. The government is wounded, unpopular, fractious – but still largely able to get its own way. Unemployment remains high, pay is suppressed and benefits are cut, public services are contracted out, and there is a long way to go in the implementation of savage cuts to every aspect of public services and the welfare state. The coalition sticks together and the official Opposition is too often weak in opposing Tory viciousness and lukewarm in the alternative policies it offers.
Weaknesses in the opposition
But there is another problem: extra-parliamentary opposition remains patchy and fragmented. For a time it looked as if public sector pensions might be a breakthrough campaign for all those opposed to cuts. Arrogant ministers had made the mistake of taking on large swathes of the public sector at once, uniting trade unions around a common cause. The movement peaked on 30 November 2011, with over 2 million trade unionists taking co-ordinated strike action.
That unity swiftly crumbled. The capitulation by leaders of Unison – by far the biggest union in the public sector – exerted considerable pressure on the wider union movement. Timid leadership in some unions and a failure even to pursue more modestly co-ordinated strikes has allowed the struggle to fragment and lose momentum.
While a number of unions are still committed to the pensions campaign, it has sadly become apparent that it’s unlikely to give us a much-needed victory. No clear alternative focus has yet emerged. Pay is the most likely battleground: Tory talk of ‘regional pay’ threatens a break-up of established national pay bargaining, while pay restraint squeezes the living standards of millions of workers. However, the direction in which the pensions campaign has moved has caused some demoralisation and cynicism among union members.
There is, nevertheless, a lot of energy in the anti-cuts movement and a widespread determination to stop the coalition in its tracks. There are many who take heart from election results and polls indicating the scale of disenchantment with this government, while events elsewhere (especially Greece) promote the feeling that austerity can be resisted.
It is clearer than ever – to millions of people way beyond activist circles – that austerity isn’t working and we sorely need an alternative. There is a lot of campaigning, even if most of it is fragmented and small-scale. Victories aren’t – yet - on a scale sufficient to shift the balance of the struggle between us and them.
20 October – an historic opportunity
In this context the potentially massive national demonstration on 20 October – belatedly called by the TUC – takes on special significance. It can unite the whole range of issues, groups and campaigns in a spectacular show of strength, not only co-ordinating the unions in a way not seen since 30 November but reaching out to involve other sections of society. The process of building the demonstration can re-invigorate the movement – and increase its co-ordination and unity - in a way no local or single-issue protest can achieve.
A huge, united national demonstration holds out the hope of re-igniting the movement to save the NHS, potentially leading to mass campaigning to scrap the Health and Social Care Act. But it can also be the launchpad for co-ordinated action on issues like pay, which will require mass strike action as well as further street protests to win.
Making this demonstration massive must therefore be every activist’s priority. It has to be taken as an opportunity to bring everyone in the movement together and, equally importantly, pull in new people who sense an opportunity to decisively turn the tide against cuts. This is about deepening and broadening the movement, not just a single mass protest.
We do this at a time when the dominant economic model is exposed as a failure, increasingly contested across Europe. We confront a weakened government, disconnected from the mass of people. This is an historic opportunity.