What I said to Netroots UK about the cuts campaign
I’m at the very well-attended and buzzy Netroots UK conference which the TUC is hosting today.
Somewhat to my surprise I was the opening speaker in the lively first plenary session on the cuts campaign. This is the gist of what I said. It’s a mix of my powerpoint slides – and what I said to link them up – and therefore a bit jerky.
First any campaign needs to have clear shared objectives and a strategy about how you achieve them. We should not start with activities, but devise ones that fit with the strategy, accepting that you need flexibility and must continuously re-evaluate the circumstances in which you find yourselves.
For the cuts campaign, it’s a matter of identifying the coalition’s two key decisions and devising ways of getting them to retreat from these. These are:
- To eliminate the deficit within four years
- To do so with 80 per cent of cuts to 20 per cent of (mostly unfair) tax increases
Where do we start from?
A majority still buy the coalition narrative about the need for cuts. In polling conducted straight after the spending review:
- 52% backed spending review cuts – 39% opposed (ComRes for BBC Oct 21 10) l
- 51% thought they were about right or not far enough – 39% thought they went too far (ComRes for BBC Oct 21 10)
- 59% agree that Labour bears most responsibility for the deficit (ComRes for Indy Oct 21)
If we summarise public opinion:
- most voters think that the cuts are necessary … but
- they are beginning to be worried about impact, speed and scale and
- they no longer think they are fair
These graphs are taken from YouGov polls where they have been asking the same question since the election. The graph shows the net result (eg the percentage who who think the cuts are unfair is taken away from the percentage who think they are fair.)
This all suggests that first, we need to turn this from an abstract, distant argument about what is best for the national economy into an emotional and personal story about what is happening to me, my family, people I identify with and my community.
And second, we need to get people to see their own personal experience as a reason for changing national policies, and not as an unfair exception within a broadly correct framework. In other words they need to move on from “don’t cut us, cut something else instead”.
We should be honest about some of our weaknesses:
- We don’t yet speak for a majority and there is therefore a danger of endlessly mobilising a minority.
- Unions need to guard against being seen as a vested producer interest.
- Coalition narratives about “Labour’s bloated and feather-bedded public sector” and “welfare scroungers” are strong with some.
- And while there is strong support for fair tax policies, the idea that growth is the best way to shrink the deficit does not have such purchase.
The government also has key weaknesses:
- We’re not all in this together
- “The most worrying finding for the Conservatives was the perception that they would, in a crunch, stick up for rich and privileged people.” This quote is from Cowley and Kavanagh’s book on the election. (HT Sunder)
- There is no electoral mandate for big cuts. Here is just one broken promise:
- “What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.” David Cameron
And their are clear pressure points on the government:
- The Fairness narrative (tax v cuts; tax dodging/UK Uncut; and cuts divide the country (as long as the government gets the blame for the division- which is a key test for all proposed action)
- Electoral legitimacy (particularly for the Lib Dems, but these deep rapid cuts were not put by either coalition party to country
- Is it working? (The measure of that should be whether unemployment goes up or down)
What does all this mean for a campaign?
This is a long term campaign, and we need to start from where people are. This means stressing what is likely to involve people, which is the fairness of the cuts that personally affect them. It means starting from the elements of the alternative that already resonate such as the Robin Hood tax and tax avoidance, but also putting great emphasis on local campaigns in coalition held seats.
It’s a mistake to think that we should be building a single top-down unified campaign. Different groups of people will want different ways into campaigning both on-line and in their off-line lives. People have multiple identities – and they are not simply a trade unionist, or a resident of their community, or a voter for a particular party – and the more we can engage them across those different parts of their lives the more we wil draw people into support and active campaigning that spreads the message even further.