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Here are three ways to respond to Tory cuts

(Cross-posted to Liberal Conspiracy)

Since the banking crash it’s been fashionable for lefty commentators to quote Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But the unpalatable truth is that while we’ve been talking about not letting a crisis go to waste, the right have been getting on and doing it. Or, in the foggier language of Mark Littlewood, director of the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs: "We are trying to ensure that necessity is the mother of invention, in that the deficit spurs the coalition to take a broader view of what the public sector should be doing."

So it could be argued that Sunny’s post on Monday on fighting the cuts – and this follow-up – are part of the problem. But we have to start from somewhere (and if we’re still writing about how to fight the cuts in three months’ time, rather than actually fighting them, then please shoot us).

Sunny argued that rather than just complaining about cuts and public-sector redundancies, we have to win the economic argument – that Tory cuts will push us back into recession, putting private-sector workers on the dole too. Some of his commentators, notably Richard Blogger, Cath Elliott and Stuart White, responded that the focus must be on how cuts affect actual service users and communities – not economic theory.

It was a good debate, but the premise was wrong. This isn’t an either/or issue: both approaches – economic theory and real-life reportage – are important. I particularly liked Stuart’s proposal, which he embellished at Next Left, to let a thousand stories bloom:

“What about setting up a website at which people can post their stories? Perhaps people could post short films – 2, 3, or 5 minutes – in which they explain how the cuts affect them. This website could become a testimony bank, a resource for campaigners, something to direct journalists to if they are looking for a story or for that awkward question to ask a Coalition politician.”

But Sunny is right to say that a defensive and reactive campaign against cuts isn’t enough. If we don’t win the economic argument – or, at the very least, change the terms of debate – then people will accept cuts as inevitable whether they like them or not.

There are two parts to the economic argument. First, we have to set out, in language as plain as Thatcher’s household budget analogy, the Keynesian case against cutting the deficit during a recession. Tom Freeman had a good stab at such a narrative in his response to Sunny’s post.

Second, there is the longer term argument that the structural deficit can be closed through progressive taxation, not rolling back the state. Compass offered a strong contribution to this case with its In Place of Cuts report earlier this year. There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism. On the plus side, the crisis of the free-market economy has broken the consensus that says we can’t increase taxes on the rich.

But on the minus side, the meltdown coincided with a loss of faith in the state, exemplified by the MPs’ expenses scandal, which has helped the right turn a crisis of the private sector into one of the public sector. The neoliberals now have the success of the US Tea Party movement in their sights. The problem we face today isn’t so much that of making the case for progressive taxation, but for taxation full stop.

Labour must take its share of the blame: not just by allowing the MPs’ expenses scandal to happen on its watch, but by its enthusiasm for privatisation, its reckless reduction of income tax during the boom, and its cavalier approach to civil liberties. It’s no accident that right-wing groups like the TaxPayers’ Alliance have jumped on the liberties bandwagon by launching their own spin-offs such as Big Brother Watch.

So I would add a third approach to those of winning the economic argument and reporting the effects of cuts: promoting a more ambitious and optimistic vision of the public sphere of the future. It must also be more equal and democratic, contrasting with the hypocrisy and deceit of government claims that "we’re all in this together".

One other response to Sunny’s article is worth mentioning. HarpyMarx said: "I think in getting the message out, the trade unions need to be at the forefront as public sector workers will be at the frontline, along with other groups in society who will feel the impact of these attacks."

Unison’s Million Voices campaign is a good example of what can be done – and has elements of the testimony-based website that Stuart White suggests. But on its own it’s not enough. What’s missing are civil society-based campaigns that can work alongside trade unions and be better placed to reach the majority who aren’t union members.

In recent years, all three main parties have voiced support for the concept of co-production: public sector staff and users working together to improve services. If staff and users can come together to improve public services, they can surely come together to save them.

Posted by Other TPA at 12:02pm on 23 June 2010
Tags: Campaigning,Cuts,Deficit

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Good start to the debate Clifford. As the recently retired Comms Officer for UNISONScotland. I would be happy to discuss bringing the fightback together (either in Scotland or across the UK). I particularly agree with the line about the need for both to argue on an economic level AND to feature the specific loss of important services/attacks on people’s jobs and incomes.

In Scotland we took the million voices campaign a stage further and started the Public Works campaign - this is part of the UK campaign but reflects differences in Scotland - (of attitude to public services - as well as politics and structures). Here, there have even been some right wing commentators arguing against cutting public spending in the short term (although they usually want it spent on contracting private firms to supply things!)

For wiw it does seem that the arguments on the economic madness of cutting public spending during a recession are just beginning to gain a wider currency. Even FB opposition spokespeople are now using them (which they signally failed to do when in power!).

Where we do need work is linking existing TU campaigns together and to community based campaigns. Some UNISON branches (and it really needs to be done at the grass roots) have made a decent start (West Dunbartonshire,; East Ayrshire ). But we now need to move this activity up a gear, and hopefully the forthcoming Scottish Elections may help us do that.

I am copying this note to my former colleagues (and, I hope, continued comrades!) at UNISONScotland. If you feel that you need a contact in Scotland - I am happy to offer my services, now that I have a little more time!
Chris Bartter

Posted by Chris Bartter at 11:06am on 24 June 2010

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