Why I’m proud the TUC is hosting Netroots UK
The British people are not yet quite sure what they think about the cuts. The government’s homespun metaphors about not spending what you don’t earn and talk of paying off the nation’s credit card bills work with many.
But fewer and fewer accept that we are all in this together, and a big majority expect to be personally affected by spending cuts.
Resistance is therefore growing. The student campaign against higher tuition fees may have been dismissed as middle class self-interest by some, but quickly broadened to include a defence of educational maintenance allowances and in any case is about fees for future students. Campaigns to defend science spending, school sports and children’s books have secured at least partial victories.
Yet tactical retreats by a government carefully attuned to the media mood do not add up to any fundamental reshaping of government policies. So how do we take a broader campaign forward?
We should start by learning from the past. The most significant u-turn carried out by the last Conservative prime minister was the end of the poll-tax.
This had to go when it became clear to government MPs – even in their safe seats – that it offended the deep British sense of fairness. London riots may still be the media’s stock pictures for the poll tax, but he campaign was won in the constituencies of middle Britain when voters stood up and said no in numbers that were quickly taken back to Westminster by MPs in fear of their seats.
These cuts are even more unfair. The poor and those in the middle will pay a heavier price than the rich. Those in banks and finance who caused the crash are quickly getting back to a bonus-as-usual culture that floats free from the misery that their excess has imposed on too many of the rest of us. Ordinary voters have to pay their VAT, big corporations and the super-rich consider large parts of their tax bills optional.
Yet while the poll tax is a good starting point for the campaign – particularly in its emphasis on fairness and local campaigning – we live in a very different world today.
The mainstream media is less dominant. Political parties are smaller. Trust has declined. The kind of social infrastructure in which my generation began our political lives is still around – with unions as a prime example. But alongside this, particularly for the young, a new more mobile and networked world has grown, with perhaps the UK Uncut protests as the prime example.
The challenge for the cuts campaign is how best we can combine the two. The energy, immediacy and informality of the new networks has just a valid contribution to make as the reach, resources and different style of us traditional campaigners. The real test is whether we can meld them together in a way that reaches out beyond both to put the maximum pressure on government MPs.
I hope the starting point today will be mutual respect for our different styles. Unions certainly recognise that none of us should be trying to stitch together a new organisation. Instead we are setting out to build a movement that will take many forms – autonomous local groups, online campaigns and more traditional – yet still vital events – like the TUC’s March for the Alternative on March 26th. While doubtless there will be initiatives that are counter-productive, and some that simply don’t work, giving people as many routes as possible into a broad movement must be the right approach.
Some said the last general election would be the first internet election in the UK. They were wrong, but the anti-cuts movement is perhaps already proving to be the UK’s first great web campaign.
Netroots has been an important part of the progressive movement in the USA.
I’m proud the TUC is playing its part in bringing the same kind of initiative to the UK.