Here are three ways to respond to Tory cuts

11:45 am - June 23rd 2010

by Clifford Singer    

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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.

I would add a third approach: 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.

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About the author
This is a guest contribution. Clifford Singer runs The Other Taxpayer's Alliance website. You can join the Facebook group here.
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Reader comments

There are good histories around of staff, unions and elected representatives working together to protect services and keep service provision in house. Bristol care did it (the council was threatening to outsource care services, but unions and staff were able to put a cost-effective case to keep the service in house, and keep the service full stop). It was also done in Newcastle when BT put in a bid to provide a sort of Newcastle First service – the centre for public service worked with staff and unions there to put forward a proposal for the continuation of a service by cost-effective means.

The problem is that there are incentives for the cheapest options and cheap doesn’t always turn out to be cheap (often, inhouse bids for services lose because private contractors put in loss leader bids, and look to claw back money by cutting wages/staff, etc, or approaching councils and other public sector buyers later for more money (see Catalyst Housing and Barnet council, who are in arbitration over £10m over and above initial agreed costs).

The only problem I see with your piece, Cliff, is that although it is very good, is that it assumes a level playing field. The facts are that the argument for public services takes place in a hugely unbalanced environment, where there are incentives to cut, outsource and go (apparently) cheap, and not many for working sensibly on solutions that’ll keep people in jobs and be cost and service effective in the long term.

The other big problem at the moment is that unions – particularly Unison, since you reference it – are weak. They’re still under the impression that they have a direct route to government – a direct route that wasn’t actually utilised on behalf of workers too well when Labour was in, if successful (ie not) implementation of various Warwick agreements was anything to go by. There are also huge ructions in the union at the moment, because of the union’s disciplining and expulsions of leftwing activists. Things are rather rotten, and an awful lot of union time and money has been spent on infighting. I’m not convinced it can turn the ship around in time to take on the coalition – especially not a coalition which is inclined to dismiss unions out of hand. There’ll be no olive branch stretched to unions by the Lib Dem arm of the coalition, if Clegg and Cable’s pre-election statements on unions are anything to go by.

I do think that community action and publicity about the the costs of cuts is an important part of the left’s work, because there is an emotive argument to be won here, as well as an economic one. The facts are that those who can least afford it are going to take a real hit for a deficit caused by the excesses of an out of control City. I’ve talked to quite a few people who are pissed off about that, and they’re not all on the dole – they’re just not of the opinion that public services should be cut so that Fred Goodwin can keep his place in France, etc.

You’re right to say an economic argument needs to complement an emotive one, though. And I do like the idea of community action groups, because I think we need something that is independent of political parties. For all Labour’s good council wins, the rhetoric coming out of councils is feeble as I’ve found first hand And Labour is tainted goods at the moment. It can’t win an argument for better public services while those associated with City excesses are still there.

2. Shatterface

One problem you’ve got is that while public service providers and those they serve may have common interests theoretically, in practice the relationships are actually antagonistic.

The public sector is target-oriented and these targets are often at odds with the welfare of individuals who come into contact with them.

If you’ve had any dealings with the State recently you’ll most probably have found them unsympathetic at best.

“Compass offered a strong contribution to this case with its In Place of Cuts report earlier this year.”

Snigger: if you’re going to start basing your plans on the fantasies of Richard Murphy then you’re a great deal deeper in the doo doo than I thought you were.

There are plenty of decent left wing economists out there, ones actually in contact with reality, that you could use.

Heck, I could write a better left wing tax manifesto than Ritchie can.

In support of Shatterface’s point, it always concerns me that the only branch of government that I normally get an instant reply and follow up on it from are the Inland Revenue, whose phone service is excellent and consistently helpful.

Otherwise, most people’s experience of civil servants (not nurses or teachers etc, who have their own categorisations) is people telling them what to do, putting them on hold, failing to answer questions or simply not addressing the problem (I’ve been unemployed enough to know that job centres cannot help me for example). So presenting a narrative of cuts – essentially framing the cuts as hurting people – needs to be aware of a very powerful counter-narrative of anger at government and bureaucracy, of regarding civil servants alongside politicians, and also big groups like unions and corporations. none of which are seen as caring for individuals. And therein lies the danger – by presenting a narrative of the cuts as bad, you risk alienating those who find the cuts have not really affected them more than they expected (remember, voters mostly voted for parties saying they would cut, so they have accepted the reality). But the alienated then become pray to the counter-narrative, and see you as one with the big government, the unions, the corporations and above all the unhelpful faceless person who is more concerned with the target than the person with whom they are dealing.

There is potential for a line of attack on the damage the cuts are causing, but done badly it makes you into the party of spending and inefficiancy, allied to the bureacrats against the general population.

@Mr Worstall… and Compass is politically aligned. A good place to start would be with (the fabulously named) Dexter Whitfield and the centre for public services. They’ve assisted unions, staff and communities with successful bids for service provision (they helped write the Newcastle bid) and compiled a mass of work about service provision. If you’re in the union movement and serious about services, you don’t move without consulting Dexter.


“If you’re in the union movement and serious about services, you don’t move without consulting Dexter.”

Isn’t that rather an indictment of the union movement? For a start, you could of imply that some in the unions aren’t serious about services (which I suppose could be true – I read the manifestos of the Unison general secretary candidates…), but you also imply that there is no expertise there in actually being efficient and proactive. Does that not rather weaken the unions likely effectiveness in opposing cuts?

@Watchman – sorry, not sure of your point (not being sarcastic – am just not sure what you mean).

There’s an intense complexity to submitting inhouse bids for service provision, and I think a lot of union branches would happily say that that’s not a particular skill of theirs. I was a branch officer for a long time myself, but wouldn’t claim to have expertise in that area by any means.

There are some people who do have that expertise and the guy I mentioned is one of them. A lot of people in the union movement do go to the centre for public services for advice and instruction, because they do have considerable knowledge.

Is that what you were getting at?

@Shatterface As it happens I agree with some of your comments about targets but you blow your case by making crass generalisations. I’ve encountered good and bad service in the public sector, just as I have the private sector. The systems theorists – probably the sharpest critics of top-down target-based management – would be the first to tell you this is problem of management that afflicts both sectors.

A good antidote to this was indeed the Newcastle approach that @Kate Belgrade mentions. We wrote about it here:

@Tim Worstall Thanks for the offer but I’m wondering how we can get you write this manifesto WITH Richard – that would really be putting co-production to the test.


Being slightly flippant I’m afraid…

But I do wonder whether the fact the unions do not have the in-house expertise to do such things, whilst managing to host the likes (if there are others like him) of Charlie Whelan might suggest a slightly misplaced sense of priorities. Opposing the cuts outright rather than trying to discuss and negotiate about them is like being obstinate rather than reasonable…

Interestingly, ITV are doing a segment of bring out stories of people hit by cuts:

A good piece – the proposal of collecting individual ordinary people’s experiences is a good one. There will be plenty.

I do think the stimulus vs austerity debate is less important than the cuts vs taxes debate. There is a logical limit to stimulus even in a recession: the state cannot provide it infinitely, as Greece and now Spain have found out. Where that limit is, no-one really knows, without a crystal ball – my personal belief is that more than we would like to think it comes down to fairly irrational groupthink among international financial traders. If they turn out to be well-disposed toward us, we could probably spend far more, but if not… In other words there is no clear answer that stimulus today is “right” and austerity today is “wrong”, because it depends entirely on the personal judgement of various factions of economists as to the UK’s future credibility in world markets.

On the other hand, cuts vs taxes is very much a debate worth having and with a clear answer, and one that’s far easier to win since most will sympathise. The belief that taxes on the wealthy are “punishing success” and “attacking wealth/job creators” – although still strong among the political establishment – is probably at an all-time low among the public.

@Watchman – I certainly think that union hierarchies have a misplaced sense of priority – there can be more effort put into cosying up to politicians (particularly when Labour was in) than fighting attacks on public services in a practical way (by which I tend to mean allowing strike action).

At the branch level, however, there has been real motivation to fight public sector cuts and privatisation (which so often leads to costly, ineffective service provision) and that’s the level that has sought expertise. You need expertise to put in competitive inhouse bids. I believe Unison will fund that input from time to time, but sometimes, branches have had to find the money themselves.

Regarding blanket opposition to cuts – I think a lot of union concern is that the cuts aren’t necessary, certainly at the speed that Osborne proposes for deficit reduction. The union argument generally is that Osborne is hellbent on an ideology.

My own opposition to attacks on the public sector is sourced in a considerable experience in dealing with the fallout from privatisation, which tends to be costly and detrimental to both staff and service. The only way that private companies can make money out of public sector contracts is by sweating assets – and too often that means reducing staff pay, and cutting staff and resources. The service suffers and the community suffers, and you don’t necessarily get an improved, cheaper service. I’m thinking particularly of the care industry, but the same could be said of providers like Capita and Jarvis.

check out our film and random cuts generator at

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Here are three ways to respond to Tory cuts

  2. Liberal Conspiracy

    Here are three ways to respond to Tory cuts

  3. Cai Wingfield

    RT @libcon: Here are three ways to respond to Tory cuts

  4. Niall Millar

    RT: @libcon: Here are three ways to respond to Tory cuts

  5. Other TaxPayers Alli

    My piece for @libcon – Three ways to fight the cuts

  6. Rooftop Jaxx

    RT @OtherTPA: My piece for @libcon – Three ways to fight the cuts

  7. Chris Fox

    Read this and retweet it. Immediately. Vital stuff for an intelligent fightback for the left

  8. Renu

    RT @libcon Here are three ways to respond to Tory cuts
    it is abt time

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