Today I heard about the town that emptied its library’s shelves. The people of Stony Stratford spent a week frantically borrowing until all 16,000 books had gone. The ‘Wot No Books’ action was a protest against the proposed plans to shut the town’s library.
As the pain of the coalition’s austerity crusade becomes real, so does the fightback. From the game-changing student protests to the high street blockades of corporate tax avoiders, the anti-cuts movement has been born. Local workplaces, communities and institutions are finding new ways to work together and show that people stand opposed to the cuts.
While the student protests have filled the headlines (see page 53) and UK Uncut actions occupied the Twitter-sphere (see page 39), there are a growing number of local campaigns combating the cuts at the coalface (see page 10). Creative and diverse tactics, like those employed by the book readers of Stony Stratford, will be crucial if this growing movement is to capture the insurrectionary imaginations of the public.
The protests have brought some victories, with campaigners gaining useful commitments from sympathetic councillors prepared to for fight for employees whose jobs are outsourced to private companies.(see page 14). The rhetorical tide is starting to turn as more and more people recognise that the austerity frenzy is ideologically driven and the splutters from the Lib Dem pressure cooker increase.
The existence of an anti-cuts movement, although to be celebrated, should also be nurtured. People must be convinced not just of the harm that is being done by the government but also of a coherent alternative.
Trade unions will be crucial in developing this movement. So far the union leadership has been caught on its heels, slow to react to the real anger felt by people. As Unite leader Len McCluskey wrote in the Guardian, ‘Britain’s students have certainly put the trade union movement on the spot.’ Not only have unions failed to lead the charge, they don’t even seem to be following behind. With the exception of the University and College Union (UCU) and the RMT transport workers union, they were notable only for their absence on the student demos.
There are signs that the unions are upping their game, though, recognising the need to represent their members more proactively and to lend their support to communities bearing the brunt of the government onslaught. The TUC’s planned national demonstration on 26 March is giving unions a focus for their campaigns and many are working hard to mobilise new members. They must build on this demo to support strong strike action and community campaigns.
One important argument against the cuts centres on the distinction, so lucidly drawn by Tom Paine, between justice and charity. Benefit payments, state services and public goods exist because it is the duty of the state to ensure the rights of its citizens are respected. David Cameron is intent on stripping these rights away and offloading the state’s duties to whoever will take them, more often than not a profit-making company (see page 22). Yet this is done in the name of charity, a ‘big society’ in which the better off altruistically give to the needy.
Crucially the question is not what services will be cut, but whose rights will be violated. The current round of local authority budget-setting reveals that it is going to be the poorest, with the most deprived areas being hardest hit by cuts to council budgets.
On 14 February the government ends its ‘consultation’ on changes to the disability living allowance, including the proposed scrapping of the mobility component, a budgetary restriction that will affect 80,000 people. This weekly payment of up to £50 is used by recipients to run specially adapted cars, pay for powered wheelchairs or fund taxi fares. The removal of mobility allowances will deny many disabled people the right to choose when they leave their home, making them reliant on the willingness of others to transport them. Disability lawyers have warned that this proposal could violate the human rights legislation.
Campaigners are mobilising against the disability living allowance changes. By the time this issue of Red Pepper appears, a demo will already have taken place at the offices of Atos Origin, the private company profiting from deciding who loses their disability benefit (see page 13). If the anti-cuts movement is to be successful we must support the rights of these activists, just as we must support the rights of teaching assistants, council workers and library users. Together we have a chance of victory; apart we will only fight each other.
Recognising that rights are central to the cuts struggle means that there is much we can learn from anti-capitalist movements of the global south. These have shown that justice is a much stronger call to action than pity or guilt. One organisation that has defined its actions on the basis of justice is War on Want, profiled this issue (see page 26). Its slogan is one that could be usefully lent to the cuts resistance. As people stand together in the face of Cameron’s onslaught, they reject his notion of charity and instead fight in solidarity with those whose rights are being jeopardised.
Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.