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Cameron: cave canem!

Towards the end of his lecture at Nottingham University on 9 June 2011, Martin Wolff from the Financial Times argued that one of the most surprising facts of the current economic crisis is the silence of the Left. This is currently true, to some extent. The Left however may soon prove to be the dog that not only barks, but also bites.

Since the autumn of 2007, the global economy has been in turmoil over the financial crisis. Nevertheless, while banks are making profits again and bonuses in the City have soared, the rest of us have to pay for the government’s bailout of failing banks through a draconian programme of public sector cuts. And yet, there has so far been hardly a challenge by the Left. How can we understand this lack of resistance, this dearth of alternative proposals?

Thirteen years of New Labour in power are clearly an important part of the answer. Instead of challenging the neo-liberal restructuring by the previous Conservative governments, New Labour extended it into the public sector and intensified discourses of consumer choice and private sector efficiency. A lot of current coalition government policies including the partial privatisation of public services and the increase in university tuition fees of up to £9000 per year are simply an exacerbation of the previous government’s policies. Such policies have not only extended restructuring, they further contributed to a normalisation of the neo-liberal discourse of inevitable adjustment to global restructuring. As a result, Thatcher’s slogan of ‘there is no alternative’ was further cemented in people’s minds and contributed to their disempowerment.

And yet, this is only part of the story. Global restructuring has not only put trade unions under pressure, but as I have pointed out in this book it has also put weapons in the hands of workers, which make a progressive strategy possible.

First, several large demonstrations against the cuts have already taken place with students and academics taking the lead on 10 November 2010, followed by one of the largest demonstrations ever in London on 26 March 2011. This was complemented by several strikes as, for example, in Further and Higher Education during the same month.

Second, a range of trade unions is in the process of mounting a challenge to the coalition government. The National Union of  Teachers is balloting its members for industrial action over changes to the teachers’ pension system, as is the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is also asking its members to endorse industrial action over jobs, pensions and pay. The goal is to organise together with the Further Education section of the University and College Union (UCU) a joint day of action on 30 June. Other unions, although not part of industrial action on that day, have also indicated their intentions to intensify their activities against the cuts. The Higher Education section of UCU has just announced new plans of balloting its members for industrial action in the autumn, Unison, the large public sector union, and Unite, organising workers in the public and private sector, are contemplating similar steps.

What is in the making here is potentially large scale industrial action in the public sector and beyond with increasing calls on the Trades Union Congress to call for a general strike. Importantly, this resistance is backed up with alternative proposals. As the PCS makes clear on its web site, a Robin Hood Tax on currency transactions, a stronger effort by the state to tackle tax avoidance by large corporations or a withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan could save billions of pounds and be much more effective than budget cuts.

Trade unions are not alone in this struggle. Social movements such as UK Uncut and its direct action campaigns or the Right to Work campaign, but also NGOs including War on Want have joined the fight.

What is emerging is a broad left movement, which promises to mobilise large parts of society against the cuts. Under such pressure it is possible that the coalition government may well collapse – the Liberal Democrats are most vulnerable here. That the Business Secretary Vince Cable recently threatened tougher anti–trade union laws should there be co-ordinated strike action suggests the government is already feeling the heat.

In short – with Dave Prentis of Unison now promising the biggest walk out since the General Strike over government pension reforms – while Martin Wolff might not have heard it, the dog has already barked, and it threatens to become noisier still. So, as the Romans once warned: cave canem!

Andreas Bieler

Published inBritish PoliticsCoalition

One Comment

  1. Adam Spencer Adam Spencer

    It might be helpful to think about possible responses from Labour, as the main party of the British left, and the non-Labour left.

    The non-Labour left will certainly manage to put on a series of energetic anti-cuts campaigns. Some will be given energy by the SWP element within whatever this week’s broad front movement is called. The unions, as you suggest, will stage a few days of action. Some will talk of it as being the beginning of resistance to the government and express the hope of overthrowing it, although quite how and with what claims to legitimacy will be left unsaid. The people participating will get a feelgood glow and believe they are making a difference.

    The problem is that in the past such displays of opposition have not spread to wider society. Factor in that much of what remains of organised unionism is in the public sector and it will be fairly easy for the government and its supporters in the media to portray opposition as being in defence of a vested interest. Remember, during the ’80s, come election time it was the right that won.

    Labour’s response must be based on learning the lessons of New Labour. It must recognise that many people’s concerns centre around how to pay for their kids university education, around housing and around paying for the care of their elderly relatives. Ed Miliband’s ‘squeezed middle’ discourse starts to go some way towards this but is not, by itself, enough.

    ‘Next Labour’ may need to rediscover the protective and liberating power of the state. The banking crisis has opened up the possibility of support for both better regulation of financial services and, perhaps, for redistributive taxation.

    The sheer scale of university fees creates space for alternatives such as a X% rise in income tax to pay for education or some version of a graduate tax.

    Worries about the cost and quality of care homes may encourage support for Andy Burnham’s idea of a tax on estates in exchange for free social care in the community and in care homes.

    Housing concerns might lead to a resurrection of Bevan’s original idea of council housing for all and not, as has largely happened, council housing just for the underclass.

    In short, Labour’s response could be a revival of good old fashioned social democracy of the Crosland/Hattersley variety. After all, what goes around, comes around.

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