Resisting the cuts
The dominant political issue for the life of this government is going to be public spending. Almost all their policies will flow from, or be constrained by, their overwhelming belief that we need to deal with the deficit by cutting spending and doing it quickly.
Some coalition supporters will do this reluctantly. They will recognise the damage that cuts can do to the wider economy, public services and social cohesion. Others are revelling in this opportunity to shrink the state – and certainly “not letting this crisis go to waste”.
Many outside government of course are deeply opposed, and the debate has already started about how best to resist the cuts. Already there are calls for events, campaigns and demonstrations. Today’s lobby against the cuts to new schools is an early candidate for having captured this mood most successfully.
But it is important to think strategically about campaigns if we want them to have a result. That starts with working out where we are now, where we want to get to and how we make that journey.
Many interest groups are already defending “their” bit of the public sector. You only have to pick up a newspaper or turn on a news programme to hear someone saying, “don’t cut us, what we do is too important”, but usually with the unspoken assumption that others should be cut instead.
There is also a solid body of expert opinion that says the economy is too fragile to cope with big cuts in public spending right now. Paul Krugman is only the most prominent of the many US economists who are deeply worried about Europe’s deficit fetishism. The FT’s Martin Wolf – not generally seen as a natural ally of unions – is perhaps the most prominent UK advocate of this position. Here’s a typical column.
Some in this expert camp simply want to postpone the cuts and have no real problem with much reduced levels of public spending in the longer term. Others want to see a more relaxed timetable for closing the deficit, thus giving economic growth the chance to provide a greater tax take with perhaps some increased tax rates too to better harness that growth.
Many combine these positions, with unions as the most obvious example. We support good public services provided by properly rewarded public servants and recognise the importance of public spending to the health of the private sector.
There is already an interesting debate – mainly online – about how best to maximise opposition to the cuts in general and thus shift government policy. Here’s Sunny with a good practical post and here’s Gary Younge with some insights from the US into how political arguments work in practice (ie not always at the intellectual level).
I’m old enough to remember the Thatcher years. What I mostly recall is just how ineffective most campaigning we did was. For sure you could sometimes mobilise many people. but not always to much effect.
So how should we approach the campaign challenge we face today?
Where we start
First we have too accept that at least at the moment, the government is popular. YouGov probably has the most comprehensive set of post-election polling that probes these areas.
(I don’t think much of some of the questions commissioned by YouGov’s clients as they are too framed in the language used by the government and its media supporters, but then again it shows that their arguments work.)
The polls show that people like the idea of a coalition, and so far, think that it is working well together. They also buy the main argument the coalition makes that we need big cuts. Post-budget polling also suggested that a majority thought that the budget was fair. (Here are some links to the full YouGov results Spending cuts; more on cuts; the coalition. )
At least to date – these things can and probably will change – the government wins the argument about the need for cuts. Those homespun analogies about the purse and wallet may make anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Keynes cringe, but they work with most voters.
However people are worried about the effects of the cuts. 25 per cent are very worried and 45 per cent are fairly worried that they will suffer from cuts in spending.. Some of those will be public servants or private sector workers who depend on state procurement but the concern clearly goes much wider than that.
So how do we engage?
We start with a majority agreeing that the cuts are both necessary and fair. A successful campaign against the cuts will take them to thinking that they are both unfair and unnecessary.
Of course we must continue to engage with the intellectual economic arguments. Few campaigns – at least progressive ones – are won without a strong case that can be argued with anyone.
I doubt whether that will be what switches the national mood however. Most people frankly won’t be interested enough to challenge the popular ‘can’t spend, what we don’t earn’ narrative.
But, as the cuts start to bite, we can shift the debate from being an abstract national one about economics to one based on people’s real experiences. That will make it personal and emotional, with people basing their reactions on what the cuts mean for them, their families, their communities and the people with whom they identify.
Once they start to think the cuts are unfair, that’s when they will start to engage with the economic case actively seeking out arguments that enable them to oppose the cuts.
But there is a danger that people stop half-way along this journey. They may think that the cuts that affect them are unfair, but that the overall government approach is right. This is the individual version of the “don’t cut us, cut them instead” approach.
It is highly likely that the coalition’s media cheer-leaders will understand this. This is where they will attack the “public sector vested interests” that are making deeper cuts elsewhere inevitable. This is why there is such a continuing onslaught against public sector pensions, and the (very few) public sector fat-cats. Thus they will allow people to be able to recognise that cuts are unfair, but without challenging the fundamental point that cutting spending on this scale and timetable is wrong.
So the journey will be in two stages. We start with the argument that the cuts are unfair and will hit ordinary people, and then win the argument that this requires a change in strategy at national level, not simply readjustments within the cuts package.
What would this kind of campaign look like?
There will inevitably be lots of national calls for action – and of course well-targetted and supported events have an important part to play.
But if we think about how best to take people who do not yet support us on the first part of our journey, the local is probably where we can best engage them. For some, sectoral campaigns will also be an important point of entry. Of course the two can work together as with the schools protest, but it is the local issue – my school, my community, my service – that will initially draw people in.
This bottom-up approach will inevitably not always be neat and tidy. But what the union and political activists who inevitably get involved can do is inject the wider context and the national issues, without taking over.
The one glaring exception to my observation that many campaigns failed to make much impact against the Thatcher and Major governments was the poll tax campaign. Of course that had some telling national moments – and the big demonstration that was marred by a certain amount of violence is still seen as a defining moment.
But the real reason that the campaign succeeded was the local pressure in constituencies. Even government MPs in safe seats got worried by the sheer sense of anger they encountered in their communities. Spontaneous campaigns sprung up across the country, without any central organising command.
Of course the world has changed since the 1990s – and campaigning looks very different – but the same approach looks just as relevant today, even we use more modern techniques and tactics.
There was a lot of rubbish talked before the election about it being the first internet election. It wasn’t, but this could be the first internet campaign that can really change the shape of national politics, as it is the ideal tool to mobilise and connect local activists. I’m certainly excited by the interest in anti-cuts people active in online campaigners working together in ways that Sunny outlined and Stuart White wrote about here. Very similar discussions have been taking place here in Congress House.
The more we can build up a modern ‘doomsday book’ of the effect of the cuts, the more we can help people to make the second stage of that journey when they realise that they are not alone in being hit with unfair cuts, and that they therefore need to call for a thorough-going alternative. Combined with resources to help people organise locally, and popular material that can put the economic arguments, such a web-site could be an important tool.
Campaign pressure against the cuts will need to be delivered both locally and nationally. The national media – particularly the broadcast media – are crucial. National political strategists will carefully read polls as they assess the national mood.
But local pressure on MPs – particularly those in the coalition parties – will be decisive. We do not yet know whether the coalition is more stable or less stable than a single party government. Clearly it brings stresses and strains as well as strengths to the government. My own take is that it is probably more durable than some think. Of course some Lib Dems are very unhappy, but head-on attacks on their party are more likely to bring them together than drive them apart. At least that is what happens when people try to divide and rule unions.
What would be success?
One constant difficulty in campaigning is working out what counts as success. In truth many campaigns are very hard to measure as the only real conclusion is that without them it would have been worse.
Some will simply see this as a way to undermine the coalition’s electoral support for the next election in five years time. Others will see it as a defeat if any cuts go ahead.
Neither of these can be satisfactory. The cuts will have a devastating impact, we can’t wait five years for action. Some have already been implemented and that should be a spur to action, not defeatism.
Progress is likely in two ways. First campaigns against specific cuts – either geographical or sectoral – will be the first to get going (as we have seen with Building Schools for the Future). Some will succeed in ameliorating the coalition’s policies. Others will do political damage, and put the government under strain, both inter- and intra-party.
Secondly – and probably after a mounting series of these specific campaigns – we can look for changes in policy, either through a more relaxed time-table for reducing the deficit or by greater use of taxation.
What are the next steps?
The TUC’s formal decision making processes will of course decide on any specific initiatives that we take. I am sure that this will be a crucial debate at our Congress – both in the formal sessions and on the fringe.
Unions have their own issues as well where other campaigners will be less likely to get involved. The Hutton commission on public service pensions is obviously of great current interest to public sector staff, without effecting many others. Particular issues in particular sectors will effect only some unions – changes in civil service redundancy terms springs to mind.
But what is clear is that unions want to work with service users and others. This needs to be about the wider issues for our society than the legitimate defence of jobs, terms and conditions of public sector staff. That means some new approaches to campaigning, and particularly more focus on how we build local campaigns and alliances. While it would always be wrong to hide union involvement, campaigning is often more effective when it features service users.
Unions will need to guard against the alternative fairness narrative that sees gold plated public sector workers as the cause of unfair cuts. We do not need just to stress the importance of service users, but make the case that the cuts are hitting the private sector and the whole economy as well. The cuts will cause just as many job losses in the private sector.
Unions are not the only organisations that will have to learn a new style of campaigning – and frankly, be allowed to experiment – in order to work out the most effective ways of promoting our opposition to the cuts.
If succesful this is going to be a big pluralist campaign – perhaps the mirror image of the USA’s tea-party movement. It will certainly develop in ways that we cannot predict.
But campaigning can sometimes get bogged down in activity at the expense of the big picture. Here are some tests that I have started to set against suggested initiatives.
- help shift the issue from an abstract national debate to a personal and emotional response to the effect of the cuts?
- help bring users and providers together?
- allow us to advance or inject an alternative economic approach to the deficit?
- effectively put pressure on the government?
- avoid own goals?
- do what our opponents expect or want us to do?