From the TUC

False choices in the cuts campaign

01 Dec 2010, by in Politics, Public services

Over at Left Foot Forward Aaron Peters argues that anti-cuts networks are more flexible and effective than big organisations.

Progressive organisations in the UK don’t come any larger than the TUC – we are after all Britain’s biggest voluntary movement – so I guess we are in Aaron’s sights.

But rather than respond with a defence of the formal and traditional institutions which the TUC typifies and the kind of campaign initiatives we favour, I think Aaron’s mistake is to set up a false choice between network and organisation. Network may be a more modern concept, but movement v organisation is an old debate among campaigners.

Both have advantages and disadvantages. Aaron argues that the recent protests such as the student demos and anti-tax avoidance actions against Vodafone and Arcadia are part of a:

paradigm informed by decentralised and self-organising networks that are inherently more flexible, dynamic and are more capable of reacting to fast changing events than those of centralised, hierarchical organisations with bureaucracies that by their very nature hinder quick and effective decision making.

While I try to avoid the word ‘paradigm’, it is certainly true that new technology, and in particular social networking tools, make it possible to organise events extremely rapidly. And of course it is not just the left who can do this, it is also how the English Defence League marshal their troops.

Big organisations can be slow and cumbersome. The TUC tries to work through consensus as much as possible as our strength is in our size, diversity and reach, beyond the committed, into workplaces. Sometimes our policies are agreed by slim majorities, but this is never ideal as we are much less convincing when people know we are divided.

When unions want to work together on a sustained campaign then there does need to be a process of policy development and consensus building about the campaign. That takes time. Once it is in place, we can take rapid decisions – or we would not be in the media most days – but it can still be frustratingly slow to get messages out through formal organisational channels.

But loose networks find it much harder to think strategically, plan for the future and deploy resources. Big organisations are also more resilient, able to recover from the setbacks that are inherent to most campaigns. Much of the 1980s seemed like one long setback at the time – and I doubt whether having the benefit of Twitter would have made that much difference.

While the student campaigns have grabbed media attention and put astonishing pressure on the Lib Dems MPs for making a U-turn on what was a central election promise, we have not see the same type of campaigns develop around every coalition cut. One that makes me particularly angry is the 10 per cent cut in housing benefit for anyone who has been unemployed for more than a year. Yet this has not attracted flash mob mobilisation. It’s needed organisations to research the issues and speak up against this particularly nasty cut.

Indeed the coalition are learning that they can cut benefits for poor people relatively easily – and are therefore switching cuts from public services and public sector jobs to the welfare budget.

I don’t say this to knock people campaigning against service cuts or higher tuition fees. Getting the government to shift on anything is a great morale booster (even school sport, which I hated every minute of!). But the ultimate objective has to be a different economic policy based on growth and fair tax.

So let’s not argue about a single exclusive model for campaigning against the cuts. Flash mob style events have their place, but so too will the TUC’s national demonstration next March, if we make it one of the biggest ever.

Let us all recognise that the campaign is going to be messy, pluralist and sometimes even argumentative. Different issues require different responses. What works with young social media enthusiasts may not work with pensioners. Sometimes the campaign will be respectable (particularly at the TUC end), sometimes not. Sometimes people will do stupid counter-productive things, but mostly everything adds up to a sense that the government is facing mass opposition to the cuts.

The challenge is how best do these different forms (other than the stupid) work with each other and come together in an effective movement. The new website False Economy, which we helped develop is part of our thinking on this, and provides a space for all kinds of campaigners to work together. Nor do we think people should do nothing until our March demo. This is the time in our view to build local groups and broaden our alliances.

Aaron says networks are both more ‘flexible’ and more ‘effective’. Flexible for sure, but effective? If by that we mean securing a strategic victory – loose networks have a valuable place, but we also need more.

4 Responses to False choices in the cuts campaign

  1. steve howard
    Dec 1st 2010, 8:10 pm

    The problem large institutions have is that once their origional purpose has been met they then set about finding an alternative , whereas theloose knit student demo style are only alive while their purpose is there. Once the issue has been dealt with, the individuals who were part of it move on to support other issues maybe miles apart in some cases. The common bond having been broken.

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  3. Jonathan Green
    Dec 2nd 2010, 9:46 am

    What is clear from the student mobilisations and the anti-tax avoidance campaigns is that they have got people on the streets in a very visible way, whether this is through networks or old-fashioned organisations like NUS. There is so much going on that the news organisations can’t keep up with it. On the last day of student action I saw a march of 100+ very young people (may have been school students, they did n’t carry banners) marched in support of the Cambridge University occupation. This was absolutely inspiring.

    The speed that this movement has developed is important. Activists have been able to link up in real time in a way that just could not have happened before. The innovation of signing up for events is something we could learn from. If hundreds sign up for an activity we know our message is getting across.

    The strategic question for us is how we keep this momentum going forward and broaden out to issues like the savage cuts in benefits that Nigel highlights. I think that is where the TUC, with its structure and ‘respectable’ organisation, can play an important coordinating role. Steve is right the campaign will have ebbs and flows but not all those people will go away if the Fib Dems let the Tories get their way and the great thing about student occupations is that a lot of people are discussing alternatives and what’s next.

    By the way looked at the False Economy website, looks really good, just what we need.

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