Wednesday 28 July 2010

Who is winning the debate about cuts?

Samuel Brittan, Financial Times columnist: 'The trick of the British establishment is to turn discussion from “whether to” into “how to” questions. The media debate is on which government services to cut or on the balance between spending cuts and tax increases.

Once the discussion has been channelled into these trenches the establishment has won. The real argument, however, should be on whether we need unparalleled fiscal austerity or not.'

As Brittan observes, there are basically two ways of framing the debate about public sector cuts. The first way is to assume deep cuts will happen - the only issue is exactly where these cuts will be targeted. The knife must be wielded, but where exactly should it cut?

The second way is to challenge the whole 'need' for cuts, which means examining the assumptions underpinning the cuts agenda. This is becoming the great ideological battle of our age.

A 'There is No Alternative'-type acceptance of deep cuts is what we need to confront above all. Anti-cuts campaigns won't prevail simply by alerting people to cuts and their impact on people's lives, necessary as this is. We are in a war of ideas, and need urgently to outline the alternatives to the orthodox pro-austerity line.

Two things bring this home. One is the evidence from polling; the other is current media coverage. The latest polls indicate a widespread concern at the impact of cuts, but also a large number of people viewing them as necessary. There is naturally no enthusiasm for the measures announced in the June budget, and people aren't ideologically committed to what Cameron, Osborne et al represent, but many people do accept the idea that cuts in servies, pay, pensions and benefits are a necessity.

Nigel Stanley at Touchstone examines the findings of a BBC Newsnight poll: 'Most buy the necessity for big cuts, but are beginning to be worried that they will be affected and that they might be going too far. What is new here is that a majority think they might be bad for the wider economy.'

The contradiction is captured in this: 57% agree 'the government is trying to cut too severely', yet 64% agree 'the scale of the cuts is essential for the government to balance its books'. But, as Stanley notes, another finding is interesting: 56% think the scale of cuts is likely to threaten the economic recovery. The view - a correct one - that deep cuts will undermine recovery is evidently widespread.
The Guardian reports on a separate poll:  'Overall, 38% of voters think the coalition's plans for tax rises and spending cuts go too far, 39% think they are right and 16% think they do not go far enough... Whether they approve or not, everybody thinks they will suffer: 91% say the cuts and tax rises will hurt, with 31% saying they will hurt a lot.'

There is clearly a wide layer who simultaneously feel concern at the effects of cuts and think they are necessary, and thus reluctantly accept them. We shouldn't be surprised at this, not least because Labour has failed utterly to articulate clear argumens opposing the ConDem coalition's policies, which stems from its own commitment (prior to the election) to making cuts.

The media are also playing a vital role in shoring up the ideological consensus. Paul at Though Cowards Flinch cites this unashamedly biased example:

'MPs will be breaking up for the summer tomorrow, 27 July, but when they return they will still have to deal with the £156 billion deficit which looms over Britain. This week, BBC Radio 5 live Drive is looking for your big ideas to drive down the deficit. Today the focus is on home savings, including on health, education and local services.'

This is precisely what the FT's Samuel Brittan meant by eradicating debate about 'whether to', instead focusing on 'how to'. The ruling ideology is embedded in the BBC's coverage, so deeply that we're not supposed to notice there is anything contentious at all.

The Left Outside blog observes: 'The Labour leadership is in disarray over the deficit and there seems little concerted effort to highlight the positive effects of ignoring Tory policy recommendation in the last few years...

The embedding of this deficit hysteria may have already reached a point where it is impossible to overturn. If we let them dictate the terms of debate we have lost the debate'.

It's a debate we on the left have to re-shape and win. Just conisder Iraq if you are in doubt: left to their own devices, politicians and the BBC would have contentedly limited themselves to the 'how to' questions. They tried, but failed precisely because a mass movement forced the real arguments into the mainstream and re-shaped the political debate.

On the most important domestic political issue for generations, that is the challenge we now face: to build a political movement that transforms the terms of debate and creates the space for effective resistance.


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