by Steve Arnott and John Wight
Democratic Green Socialist
Steve Arnott and John Wight look beyond the general election,and argue building a mass campaign against the proposed public sector cuts is not only the morally correct thing to do, but could re-invigorate the left and take the basic socialist message to a mass audience in a way that hasn’t happened for decades.
‘Regardless of who wins the general election, the scale of the public sector cuts being proposed from 2010-2014 to pay for the bank bailouts of 2008/2009 represents the biggest single transfer of wealth from working class people, the poor and the vulnerable to the super rich in the whole of human history’
-Graham Jepps. Highland Council UNITE steward and regular contributor to the DGS
Noam Chomsky has written eloquently in the past about the tyranny of ‘manufactured consensus’ in politics and the media. Although he was primarily writing about the state of the two party political system in the US, its inability to go beyond the interests of focus groups and swing voters who could determine electoral success, and the consequent narrowing of public political debate in the mainstream media to a thin spectrum in which certain orthodoxies simply were not even questioned, it is clear in recent months that the same tyranny of consensus has increasingly applied to the UK political system and media reporting.
With a few honourable exceptions, no-one in journalism or politics in the UK is questioning the biggest single economic con trick being perpetrated on the peoples of these islands for many years – perhaps the biggest swindle ever. In the course of the general election (which at the time of writing looks like it may result in a minority government of either the Manse blue or Eton blue variety) it appears accepted by all of the established Westminster parties that big cuts in public sector spending are inevitable to rein in the huge public sector deficit. This deficit was not brought about by profligate spending, but was occasioned by the decision of Gordon Brown to spend ‘whatever it took’ to bail out international capitalism from its deepest crisis since the Wall Street Crash of the 1929, and return banks and their corporate clients as quickly as possible to a position of ‘business as usual’.
Did Brown have ‘any alternative’ though? Wouldn’t working people and their families have suffered terribly if the whole banking system had been allowed to go to the wall? Of course we understand that due to the current structural weakness of the UK economy – a model of capitalism which places a distorting emphasis on the role of the banks and the City – there was no alternative to state intervention. However, in failing to take the next vital socialist step by nationalising the banks fully under democratic public ownership and control, and then using those economic levers to embark on major investment in jobs, homes, public works and renewable energy, the leadership of the Labour Party merely confirmed its continued attachment to the free market. We would bail the banks out to the tune of trillions – but leave them running things just as before.
That huge bill for the emergency hospital treatment and rehabilitation of capitalism was never ever going to be paid for by capitalism, however. In fact, capitalism in the modern era cannot survive by paying its own way – even the strategy of globalisation, of exploiting workers in the developing countries to produce goods cheaply for sale via lines of credit extended to workers in the advanced capitalist economies – proved to have a relatively short shelf life. Capitalism can only survive, let alone thrive, in the first decades of the 21st century by huge state subsidies, both open and hidden, and the strategy now advocated by capitalism and its potential UK political executives is now openly one of shifting a significant part of the surplus produced by society from the social wage – won over decades of struggle – to the direct needs and interests of capital.
The only debate heard from Cameron, Brown, Clegg et al as they conduct their election campaigns is over degree and timing. The Tories want to introduce swingeing cuts right away. Labour want to delay cuts ‘until the recovery is secure’ – whatever that means. The Liberal Democrats talk about building a fair society, yet at the same time say they will implement ‘savage’ cuts. There is a manic schizophrenia in their political language over the issue, as all of them seek to send signals to big business and international finance that they can be relied on to do whatever is necessary to reduce the UK deficit, while at the same time they all attempt to outbid each other in reassuring voters that their cuts will be ‘nice’ cuts; efficiencies; cutting out ‘waste’; getting rid of bureaucrats and bowler hatted civil servants while protecting ‘frontline services’ etc, ad nauseam.
Almost every commentator meanwhile accepts that the scale of the cuts already being proposed, even before the new government is safely ensconced in power for at least five years, will be greater than those carried out by rabid right wing Tory ideologue, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in the eighties. The credit based, debt ridden economy was pulled back from the brink in 2008/2009 only by the biggest injection of state capital to the private sector ever seen on a global scale. To get that money quickly, governments borrowed trillions from the very international financial system that was to be the beneficiary of the loan. In other words, capitalism has been propped up with a huge capital injection that remains principally fictitious, until real resources and real money pay for it.
No serious socialist would object to making inroads to the awful tick box managerialism and accompanying layers of bureaucracy brought about by New Labour’s imaginary ‘Third Way’ -but cutting a few layers of fat from management would barely begin to address the structural deficit that now ‘worries’ the international markets. Simply put – from the class viewpoint of capital – that means massive cuts in wages and living standards for hundreds of thousands of public sector employees, tens of thousands of job losses, and massive cuts in spending for councils, education, health, transport and community services that will have devastating impact on the lives of many of the most needy and vulnerable in society.
You don’t need to be a Marxist or even a socialist to find this a morally reprehensible proposal. And ordinary folk across the country will not accept it. Whoever wins this X-factor beauty show lying-through-the-teeth election, we are about to face the biggest explosion of class struggle since the poll tax.
The scale of the cuts
Already, in some areas of the country, some idea of the scale of the cuts in the offing is beginning to percolate through to the general population, as council or NHS trust officials, already hemmed in and in hock to ludicrously expensive PPP/PFI projects foisted on them by New Labour, prepare for round after round of budget cuts.
In Highlands Region for instance, the Labour/Lib-Dem/independent run council in the last few weeks published a ‘consultation’ on proposed cuts to reduce its spending by £36 million over three years. When the main local newspaper in the capital, Inverness, published the consultation proposals there was shock and outrage.
Here are just a few of the 26 cuts in services being proposed.
· £1.5 million in school closures
· Privatisation of council care homes
· Closure of care centres for the elderly
· Closure of up to four community centres in Inverness
· Possible swimming pool closures
· Closure of either Inverness Museum and Art Gallery or the Highland Folk Museum
· Fewer bin collections
· Cuts in street lighting
· Less road repairs
· Freezing pay for all council workers for two years (with inflation at 3.4% and rising, effectively a massive pay cut in real terms)
In other words, the good citizens of the Highlands are being asked to pay an appalling price to keep the champagne flowing in the City of London and the bankers’ bars of Edinburgh. The point here is that the cat may have firmly escaped the bag in the North of Scotland, but this kind of scale of cut is what every single council and public sector provider could face in the coming months and years. This is not a trimming of fat from an overweight body, but social cannibalism.
Cuts in the block grant will affect every council in Scotland. Already, before the next government conducts any review of spending, Alistair Darling has announced what amounts to budget cuts in real terms of £500 million per year from the block grant to the Scottish Government. Although the SNP have made noises in this election about resisting ‘London’ cuts, we should probably not hold our breath waiting for the Scottish Government to lead a mass movement against the cuts in the way that Liverpool City Council and some others did in the eighties. Unless it is prepared to lead such a mass movement, cuts in the block grant will inevitably feed through to NHS, council and other public sector bodies very quickly. If your council isn’t already planning cuts it will be soon, and although the funding mechanisms elsewhere in the UK differ slightly, that picture will be repeated in all of the countries of the UK.
A report for the NHS confederation in England recently predicted a real term budget reduction of between £8 – 10 billion pounds. Capitalist economic commentators have been falling over themselves in the Tory Press and the financial consultancy journals to gleefully predict the number of public sector jobs required to be shed.
For instance, one report for ‘macroeconomic’ research consultants Capital Economics by Vicky Redwood predicts
…the fiscal squeeze could require about 750, 000 job losses in the public sector, meaning unemployment should easily surpass three million.
ITN, in a recent election report was a little more optimistic, reporting that whoever wins the election ‘around 600, 000 public sector jobs will go.’
Setting aside the enormous human cost of such an onslaught on jobs and services for a brief second, the wisdom of such an apocalyptic course of action is questionable even from a capitalist viewpoint. Given the weak nature of the recovery what do the strategists of capital think the loss of the spending power of 600, 000 workers, plus the corresponding reduction in public sector procurement from the private sector, will do to an already battered economy?
And those whose jobs and services are threatened will not – thank goodness – lie down quietly.
Building the fightback
Although the political focus right now is on the election that will rapidly change once we know which set of scoundrels will be overseeing the attacks on the public sector and when the size of the cuts being proposed across the board becomes clear.
Already there are some green shoots of an organised fight back beginning. In the Highlands the users and staff of the community centres threatened with closure have rapidly organised themselves, and trade unionists have been discussing the necessity of linking up with community groups and service users in a united struggle to defend services and jobs. In Glasgow, the local authority Unison branch has already organised a meeting bringing together the unions representing the workers whose jobs and wages are under threat and community groups and activists campaigning to defend their vital services. There has already been one sizeable demonstration marching through the streets of Scotland’s largest city saying no cuts to foot the bill for the bailout of the banks.
We believe this picture is being repeated, and will be increasingly repeated, across the whole of the UK in the wake of the general election.
The government, local authorities and NHS trusts, together with an army of economic ‘experts’ and the ‘manufactured consensus’ of the media will increasingly repeat the mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ and attempt to use the tactic of divide and rule; setting up one group of services against the other; or attempting to counter pose a pay freeze in the public sector to less cuts in the community. To defeat the power of the ‘TINA’ mantra and cut across attempts to divide and rule it is essential that in every area of the country we bring together all of the sectors of our community that are under attack and unite them in common purpose.
The organised left can play a critical role in giving a political voice and leadership to this growing struggle. In every area, where possible, socialists and progressives should urge local unions, community group and service defence campaigns to come together in a united broad based campaign prepared to take vigorous and imaginative action to defend services and jobs, and prepared to mobilise the widest sections of the community in action to defend their interests.
If a network of local or regional anti-cuts campaigns can be built, then perhaps they can be brought together at an appropriate point in a national, then all-UK, federation. Many tens of thousands of people – maybe many who are currently apathetic and cynical towards politics because of the antics and broken promises of generations of Westminster politicians – could be mobilised, enthused and empowered, initially in defence of their local services, but, as the movement grows, in a broader movement about who should pay for the crisis of capitalism, and what our social priorities should be.
To the incessant wail of ‘There is no Alternative’ a carefully and solidly built grass roots movement based on such a model could see millions shout back the answer ‘Yes, there is!’ A different narrative about how to pay for the bailout can be built – one that involves the scrapping of £90 billion proposed Trident nuclear weapon replacement programme, and the multi-billion euro fighter; one that would see the scrapping of big brother ID card scheme and the abolition of the feudal anachronism that is the House of Lords; a narrative which would say we preserve jobs and services by bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and by taxing the super rich and big corporations at a higher rate.
A struggle to save the local swimming pool becomes a general political struggle over who owns and controls the surplus – it becomes a class struggle.
To paraphrase the redoubtable Karl Marx, whose relevance, 150 years after he first analysed the fundamental nature of the capitalist mode of production, has never been greater, ‘all political struggle is a struggle over ownership and control of the surplus’.
We opened this article with a quote from a UNITE shop steward who will soon be facing the sharp end of the greatest assault on the public sector in our lifetimes. He is right. This assault represents the biggest single shift of wealth and resources from the world’s billions to the world’s billionaires we have ever seen. It poses fundamental questions about the way society should be organised and run and what kind of vision we have for the human race in the 21st century and beyond.
The left can gain huge political and moral authority in the battles that lie ahead, simply by telling the truth, and helping unite all those who face the brunt of these gargantuan cuts into one unstoppable movement.
In a common battle against the great bank bailout/public sector cuts swindle; in a common struggle against what amounts to the theft of a large part of our social wage to prop up a rotten, venal and corrupt system, we can rediscover our own ethical strength, transform the axis of political debate, and open up a world of new possibilities.