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Back in April, Vince Cable said of public spending cuts: ‘Cutting too soon and pushing the economy back into recession will make the deficit worse, as tax receipts fall and benefit payments rise. The Conservatives’ so-called efficiency savings are particularly dangerous. They have no clue where or how these “efficiencies” will be made, making it likely they will be nothing more than a smokescreen for job cuts.’ Now he is part of a government forging ahead with £6 billion of cuts this year.
But public spending cuts are not just unwise policy, as Cable was right to point out; they are deeply unjust too. At the heart of the financial crisis that triggered the increase in the public spending deficit was an economy fuelled by consumer debt. This debt was due in part to the defeat of the trade union bargaining power that had maintained workers’ level of consumption throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Corporations wanted to both pay workers less in real terms, but also have them consume more in order to sustain growth and profits. Credit was the only way to square this particular circle, and of course offering credit was itself highly profitable.
With this critique missing from the public discourse across Europe (perhaps with the exception of Greece), governments from Latvia to Portugal are making ordinary people pay for a crisis of capitalism, with the firm hand of the International Monetary Fund or the credit ratings agencies (see page 54) at their backs. This would have been the UK’s fate whoever had won the election, but with the Conservatives in control we don’t even get the anaesthetic with the amputation.
An imminent emergency budget will soon act as a statement of intent. By the autumn, a comprehensive spending review will undoubtedly demand an attack on public sector pay and pension provision, as well as ‘efficiency savings’ across the board. How deep these cuts are, and how much they are diluted and offset by increases in taxation, depends largely on the level of popular pressure between now and then.
We have a matter of months, therefore, to create an unprecedented movement against public spending cuts. It must be a movement like we have never seen before, rooted in local workplaces and communities, but with national trade unions supporting local initiatives to stop the cuts. Thanks to ‘efficiency savings’ introduced by Labour since its 2007 spending review, scores of campaigns to stop the closure of daycare centres, care homes, libraries, hospital wards, university departments and schools already exist up and down the country.
These campaigns, and the many more that will have to spring up, will need to have ways to relate to each other, to learn from each other and to take strategic action together. Alongside the organising, we will also need to win the arguments. The consensus amongst the main parties during the election has created a sense of inevitability about public spending cuts. No matter how hard any particular campaign fights, without an alternative narrative making the case that cuts are both unjust and unnecessary, the left will remain isolated.
Such a movement can also learn from initiatives such as Climate Camp that have captured the public imagination with creative and radical tactics. This doesn’t mean that every threatened hospital ward needs to see patients locking on to their hospital beds, but rather that a movement is stronger with a diversity of tactics, and that direct action and the reclamation of public space can help create a dynamic movement alongside marches, rallies, sit-ins and strike action.
Red Pepper aims to assist with the process of organising, networking and developing an alternative narrative, both in future issues and via our website. We will also continue to argue, as we have in the past, for a pluralist movement. A progressive coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrats and smaller parties to keep out the Tories may never really have been on the cards, but a ‘rainbow alliance’ is now needed to fight the cuts. This could and should include those on the Lib Dems’ left who are unhappy with Clegg’s ‘orange book’ alliance with the Tories.
It is also a moment for the Greens to take the responsibility of their higher public profile seriously. Caroline Lucas has a brilliant record here, but for the Greens, having an MP elected on a platform of opposing the cuts puts the onus on them to be leading actors in the non-parliamentary sphere too.
Most importantly, though, a critique of capitalism must take root in the struggles to defend our public services. Despite anger at the bankers, our unjust economic system got off lightly when the financial crisis hit. Stopping the cuts is first and foremost about defending the poorest and most vulnerable. But if that struggle mobilises people in a new and more powerful way, we might just be able to halt and even reverse the backward shuffle the left has been doing for the past 30 years.