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.