The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party


11:10 am - March 11th 2011

by Sunny Hundal    


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Peter Watt, former general secretary of the Labour party, thinks that we should leave the anti-cuts rallies and join the fuel protests because the latter are likely to be more politically beneficial to Labour.

This isn’t going to happen, not only because the cuts are more brutal and hard-hitting than the rising price of fuel, but because its difficult to see how anyone can push the anti-cuts movement in any one direction. But also – I think that some basic points are being missed on the Labour Right and on the anti-cuts Left.

For all the early talk of unity and building a broad movement (incl be me), the recent infighting and age-old cries of ‘betrayal’ have been entirely unsurprising. A shame, but unsurprising. I suspect there will be more coherence and less infighting in the coming years as some people realise they can’t topple the government just by occupying a few building and holding a few demonstrations.

The Labour party’s national response too has been tepid, for two main reasons.

1. They’re worried this is reminiscent of the 80s, and getting involved might mean wasting energy fighting with people who still think they’re living in an earlier era. Labour spent a lot of energy expelling revolutionaries in the 80s and there’s no appetite to go through that again (I pass no judgement on what happened in the past – I’m only pointing out what the thinking is).

2. They’re worried the anti-cuts movement will end up hurting Labour’s electoral prospects. I want to focus on this second point.

* * * * * * * * *

The Labour party is an electoral vehicle with the ultimate aim to be in government, since there is no substitute to being able to pass laws. You don’t think the Conservatives would have created SureStart centres or created the National Minimum wage do you?

The anti-cuts movement is an amorphous mass of people interested in protecting the services that directly affect them. Their aim isn’t necessarily to appeal to Middle-England or the Daily Mail: only to save their services, especially when it applies to local services.

I find it frustrating when people in either camp start demanding the other address their own concerns.

Labourites like Peter Watt should accept that the job of anti-cuts is to defend public services, while people in anti-cuts should accept Labour is in the business of winning elections. Those are over-lapping but distinct aims.

Keeping in mind that Labour’s primary aim is to win over enough people for an election, I think the party’s position is indeed precarious.

The anti-cuts Left want Labour to lead public opinion and fight the cuts strongly. While the party is fighting cuts locally (Labour council cuts aside), it is entirely naive to expect the party to lead public opinion nationally. Why? The media isn’t listening and the press is very hostile. And the public only pays attention to major political stories, not what the opposition leader is repeating day-in-day-out.

And while public opinion is slowly slowly moving in the right direction, it is still precarious. If Labour does not go along with public opinion (since it has little hope of leading it) – it can rapidly lose credibility with independents. This is the party’s line of thinking and it makes strategic sense, even if people are hurting now.

It is the job of the anti-cuts movement to lead that fight, to mobilise people, and find ways to shift public opinion.

However, I do agree there should be continual pressure on Labour as Jon Stone said earlier ‘Four reasons why broader opposition to the cuts matters‘.

* * * * * * * * *

The Labour Right (Peter Watt, John Rentoul et al) also have it wrong, because they think Labour can only win credibility on the economy by moving more to the centre and accepting the needs for cuts. This is a misreading of public opinion.

Labour has to accept the need to cut the deficit – but it does not automatically follow this can only be done by massive cuts. In fact, as Ed Balls and many economists have repeatedly pointed out, massive cuts can further depress the economy and exacerbate the deficit.

Labour did lose credibility on the economy – but mostly because it failed to regulate the banks properly. I’ve explained this already with our own polling.

With his emphasis on stagnant living standards and the ‘squeezed middle’, I think Ed Miliband is headed in the right direction. What he doesn’t have yet are big signature policies that define those themes. They’ll come eventually I expect.

In the meantime, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Labour party and the anti-cuts movement have to be at each other’s throats. As long as people recognise both are different (if over-lapping) entities with different missions.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Fight the cuts ,Labour party ,The Left ,Westminster

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Reader comments


It’s as though the 1980′s never went away.

“The anti-cuts Left want Labour to lead public opinion and fight the cuts strongly.”

I’m not sure what the wider opinion is, but I don’t want labour to lead public opinion – I want it to be forced to follow it. It is the job of people in the anti-cuts movement to lead public opinion and push the case. Labour are in the business of winning elections, it is the job of the anti-cuts movement to make sure that in order to win an election, the labour party has to adopt anti-cuts positions.

Labour has to accept the need to cut the deficit – but it does not automatically follow this can only be done by massive cuts

Surely the only ways to massively cut the deficit are by massively cutting public spending or by enormous tax rises?

@3 If you accept structural deficit estimates, yes (though they can still be introduced over a longer period of time). But some economists have argued that structural deficits are generally used to justify political ends rather than being a respectable economic concept. Non-structural deficits can be reduced by growth.

@Sunny: You know the headline makes it sound like the anti-cuts movement is a dead end?

since there is no substitute to being able to pass laws

There is certainly no substitute for having the laws you want passed. That’s not quite the same as being able to pass laws. No point in being elected if the cost to doing so is not being able to do the things you originally got elected to do.

Perhaps the reason that public opinion is not moving more quickly against the cuts is that Labour is making no real attempt to oppose the cuts itself? If all three major political parties are saying that substantial cuts are necessary, and just disagreeing on details of exactly what should be cut, or how much, then obviously the public are going to be likely to think that cuts are necessary (even if they disagree about the specific ones that should be made)

Labour probably can’t lead public opinion. But at the moment its stance is actively braking it.

Planeshift/2: I think probably the main thing that would drag Labour into properly opposing the government is the existence of anti-cuts candidates standing against Labour and doing one of:
– winning elections
– coming strongly forward in “safe” seats
– taking enough votes off Labour in a Lab/coalition marginal that they could plausibly have been the reason why Labour lost.

Since that’s not going to happen, Labour have no useful leftward anchor, so their current stance of “We’d make big cuts too, but we’d feel bad about it, and they wouldn’t be quite as big” is likely to be all there is from them for a while.

6. Cynical/Realist?

It would be a start if Labour had a position which wasn’t a throw away one-line PR tag line.

I’m very bored of ‘too hard, too soon, (you want to privatise the moon)’, now, its hardly leading the debate is it?

I’m still reeling from some Labour MP/campaigner sitting smug on the news on the forestry issue after coming up with, ‘I’m afraid the Torys just can’t see the wood for the FEES’.

7. Chaise Guevara

“I’m still reeling from some Labour MP/campaigner sitting smug on the news on the forestry issue after coming up with, ‘I’m afraid the Torys just can’t see the wood for the FEES’.”

A local Labour candidate once lost my vote by referring to the Liberal Democrats as the “Fib Dems” throughout his pamphlet. I don’t want to be represented by someone who either has the mind of a seven-year-old or thinks that I do.

8. An Duine Gruamach

“The Labour party is an electoral vehicle with the ultimate aim to be in government, since there is no substitute for the feeling of lovely, lovely power.”

Fixed.

Here – a bit more evidence for Labour being able to lead public opinion on whether the cuts are necessary, but choosing not to by saying that they would also make cuts – but different and/or smaller ones:

This is the most recent YouGov poll I can find on the question of whether the cuts are necessary. It shows the results for the three main political parties, but not for others and non-voters. But they’re easy enough to calculate from what’s there.

A majority of minor party voters and non-voters agree that:
– the cuts are bad for the economy (54% agree, 23% unsure)
– the cuts are unfair (72% agree, 15% unsure)
– the cuts are too deep (50% agree, 26% unsure)
– the cuts are too quick (60% agree, 17% unsure)
These are all statements Labour has been making.

However, a near majority of MPVs/NVs agree that:
– the cuts are necessary (49% agree, 28% unsure)
This is also a statement that Labour has been making (or at least, the distinction between “these cuts are necessary” and “some cuts but not these are necessary” is probably too fine to make a difference).

I think Labour is sitting on quite a lot of political power regarding the necessity debate that it doesn’t want to use out of fear of being seen as “unserious” or “not fiscally responsible” or some such. Whereas if it actually opened up the necessity debate, it’d probably take public opinion with it very quickly.

I’m certainly not going to get involved in any protests about fuel prices.

Reasonable article, well written.

Like all things in life there are two components… a critique and a vision.

Sunny has a the critique spot on for the most part… [immigration also hurt Labour]

Your vision of the way forward is patchy but with some encouraging signs…

Unless Ed Miliband makes significant moves to halt the centrist journey began in 1994, then the obvious synthesis is that UK politics are moving away from the Social Democratic consensus of 1945-onwards… and instead moving towards neo-liberalism.

Ed has to think long and hard about what he wants to do to halt that… otherwise a Thatcher/Blair/Cameron consensus will prevail.

The reason a blatant anti-cuts agenda will fail at the crunch time of elections is that people can’t relate to the anti-cuts answer to the deficit.

Despite all shouts that the national budget is not like a domestic one, normal voters will relate to it that way. They know that if they are in debt they need to stress what they can control (their expenditure) rather than what they can’t (their income). I know I can save money by cutting my Sky subscription but getting a pay rise is up to my bosses. I might moan like hell that I’m missing those channels but I can easily grasp the consequences of not going so.

Until you can show the alternative to cuts isn’t massive tax rises or hoping the economy grows (and people know you can’t garentee that) the anti-cuts idea will lose at general elections.

Have been too preoccupied with trying to survive to notice what the Labour Party is doing.Thanks to Sunny’s summary of Labour Party thinking I now know I should support protests over fuel rises.

OK, I support many causes in which I don’t have an interest. I am prepared to be alturistic but there are limits. Why should disability benefit claimaints like me throw our energies behind a bunch of fuel protestors? Few of us can afford to drive so where’s the benefit for us? And that’s to say nothing of the planet.

Good article.

Worth noting in terms of people like Peter Watt and John Rentoul that they see all of this as part of the great struggle against Gordon Brown, and their aim is to get Labour to admit that it was wrong to spend so much money and more generally to prove that Tony was right and Gordon was wrong.

oops – I’ve changed the headline. It sounded wrong earlier, I accept.

planeshift: but I don’t want labour to lead public opinion – I want it to be forced to follow it.

True, but while public opinion is moving slowly in the right direction, I’m not convinced its moved as far as some anti-cuts people think it is.

cim: Perhaps the reason that public opinion is not moving more quickly against the cuts is that Labour is making no real attempt to oppose the cuts itself?

Again you’re assuming that Labour can decisively influence opinion – if the Tories can’t do it in their favour, what makes you think Labour can?

16. Robert Anderson

What is all this rubbish about Labour wanting to move to the centre. The centre has moved that far to the right in the last 30 years causing the massive problems we have today, deregulation mania, outright hostility to the state providing any services (without a profit motive). Pure greed above majority need etc etc. Wake up! The vast majority of people are against the wanton destruction of the welfare state and “society” in general. If the labour party don’t see this, then they will be left behind and serve nthem right!

Sunny/15: Well, the polls suggest that on the issues where Labour is trying to influence opinion away from the Tory position, it is having some success among unaligned voters (and even with the Lib Dem voters, on some issues), though not as much as it has among Labour voters.

On the issue of necessity, where it broadly agrees with the Tory position, there has been very little movement.

Or are you also arguing that the reason that Labour is saying the cuts are unfair, too deep, too fast and bad for the economy is because that’s what the voters believed in advance, and Labour is just following that view rather than leading it?

This is why I love survey-based research:

– the cuts are bad for the economy (54% agree, 23% unsure)
– the cuts are necessary (49% agree, 28% unsure)

i.e. 5% of people are insane.

Sorry, my last comment was nonsense. This is why I don’t normally analyse survey-based research at the end of a drinking night.

54% of people think the cuts are bad for the economy.
51% of people think the cuts either are necessary or may be necessary.

So 3% of people either think “the cuts are bad for the economy and are necessary” or “the cuts are bad for the economy and may be necessary” (I’m assuming an overlap between the contradictory people, just for simplicity’s sake – in practice there won’t be, but meh).

I suppose the 3% of people could be Greens who think that damaging the economy is necessary…

Fighting all these cutbacks is also about fighting all the lie’s,deceit and broken promises by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Remember how David Cameron promised to ring fence the NHS and other vital frontline services along with protecting the most vulnerable in society, how can The Labour Party have such a short memory.

People did not vote for a Coalition Government, it was born from the diabolical mess of the last general election and now David Cameron and Nick Clegg think that justifies them doing what ever they like along with making things up as they go along without comebacks.

The Labour Party cannot pick and choose what they want to do regarding the cutbacks. They need to Unite everyone and fight with one voice because the British people did not vote for this Abuse. Manifesto’s, election promises and pledges should be Legally Binding so that people like David Cameron and Nick Clagg are Legally Accountable for lies and wrong doing because they will say and do anything to get our votes, and that is wrong and a diabolical disgrace.

Just a reminder of the lies and deceit by these despicable Coalition Leaders, listen to the vomit:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UvqmZlaAPY

Did we vote for this?

21. Planeshift

Its the usual contradiction in politics:

“We want excellent public services”
“We want low taxes”

Winning elections usually involves balancing the 2 forces. That is keeping taxes low enough, but not too low that people start noticing the services are crap.

If Labour want to be elected then they need to look like a government. Sitting back and letting others take the lead may work for now, but sooner or later they have to prove that they stand for something.

So far I’m sad to say that it appears their policy is to be not-tory and not-lib-dem and hope the coalition becomes so unpopular that people turn back to them. It’s a sadly negative solution at a time when we need leadership with a strong vision of an alternative to the bleak prospects we face under the tories.

23. Charlieman

@19: john b: “Sorry, my last comment was nonsense.”

That’s becoming a habit, isn’t it ;-)

“54% of people think the cuts are bad for the economy.
51% of people think the cuts either are necessary or may be necessary.”

Given that “bad for the economy” (this month, this year, this decade?) does not have a time scale and that “cuts” (military expenditure, social services, councillor expenses?) are undefined, the survey figures do not demonstrate irrationality. Some cuts have short term economic costs and long term savings; others the opposite.

Whilst we are on the subject there are two petitions currently running to Stand Up For The National Health Service and Protect The National Health Service. If you are interested take a look and spread the word.

http://www.38degrees.org.uk

http://saveournhs.org/

Labour may (or may not) have been right to reinvent itself following a negative public reaction to the winter of discontent, when it was seen as being too pro-union at a time when there were a number of high profile strikes. But Labour is completely wrong to believe that what the country needs now is a party that is obsessed with holding the centre ground.

The extreme right wing actions of this current government, (which are nothing short of the total destruction of the welfare state) require an all out attack from a no-compromise left wing ethical position.

The current deficit is primarily due to a bail out of the bankers. Make them pay for it. Tax them, seize their houses and yachts or hang them for treason. Labour should not make the same mistake of the coalition – or indeed the French government of the 1780s – i.e. when times are tough and you need to tax either the rich or the poor – go for the most vulnerable option.

What is happening in the middle east and North Africa should be a warning to be taken seriously . The people do not trust the establishment – and anyone who is not a champion of the people’s cause against the establishment is a potential enemy.

Maybe Britain is too civilised a country to go down the road of out and out revolution. Presumanly Charles the first thought the same. But people will only be treated as mugs for so long before they turn on their leaders.

There is no neutral ground in this battle. Either Labour takes up the banner of the unemployed, the low paid, the young, the old, the sick, the disabled, the public sector workers and the unions – or it ceases ti be relevent to the principles on which the party was founded. A party can only rely so much on spin before it is challenged on its core principles (if it has any).

Ed – you have a choice, but it’s not one you can put off for much longer.

26. Lisa Ansell

I think your piece again misses out some basic facts.

Political affiliation is not an indicator of whether or not you are affected by the cuts, and certainly being a ‘lefty’ is not a qualifier in opposing the cuts. The cuts are a complex agenda which will reach the corners of every town and every government department of this country, and it is by no means a straightforward assumption that people opposing the cuts either define themselves politically at all, or on ‘the left’, or as potential labour voters- they may be fighting just to save a service that affects them. The left/right spectrum is almost useless when looking at how anda why people may oppose this agenda.

The recent ‘in fighting’ and factionalism you mention- hasnt actually been within any ‘movement’ for fighting the cuts- although people have regularly asked taht commenters in our core political blogs cease to frame what is a very real situation in the narrow confines of their own narrow political belief systems.

THere has been a great deal of ‘discussion’ amongst people largely unaffected by the cuts, as to how and what people affected should be doing, or believing. Much of it coming from this site and similar. THe endless declarations about which parts of ‘the movement’ are dead, wrong, lacking ideological direction are not coming from a complex and emergingn anti-cuts movement at all-but from people who are neither part of it, or affected by it.

The legal challenges nationwide are still going ahead, marches are still going ahead, individual and group campaigns are going ahead, we are seeing a rise in direct action- and while embryonic- I dont see much evidence of factionalism outside a group of people who see the cuts agenda as little more than an opportunity to regenerate a movement that only exists in their heads.

3- Labour are not currently opposing the cuts that will have the most serious effects- and even if those people affected were all on the left(which is an absurd leap) there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Labour are part of that opposition yet. Or are a political vehicle willing to begin to represent those affected.

4) before the ‘movement’ there was a considerable issue which developed over a long time of political dissaffection, or at least dissafection with mainstream politics. The unveiling of the Liberal Democrats as a third neo liberal party has not automatically ensured that people’s dissaffection has morphed into sudden support for Labour. Especially given Labour have no said they will do anything differently apart from speed and scale.

I agree that Labour are coming to a point where they need to choose. They are certainly attempting to have themselves perceived as opposition and this is certainly never going to be successful without them choosing to actually oppose. And they certainly dont want to shift onto political ground that would involve opposing specifically the welfare cuts, cuts to local authorities, or the kicking that adult social care and childrens services are receiving- because they see the centre ground as the only place they are electable.

This is little to do with opposing the cuts, and quite frankly- largely irrelevant to those who are not opposing the cuts because they like the romance of revolution, or have a political party they would like to see re-elected.

27. Lisa Ansell

Do you know, in all the wranglings about whether there is more political capital in opposing cuts or joining fuel protests, I see very little which is about what those protests are about. Very little.

28. George Hallam

@ Lisa Ansell

Excellent analysis. This fits with what is going on in Lewisham.

We held a ‘Carnival Against Cuts’ last month. The response fron ordinary people (not just the usual suspects) was fantastic.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_m_-G_eTnKk

29. Lisa Ansell

And is there a dividing line about who is affected by cuts, and who is affected by fuel duty- for most of us this just adds to the pressure. And as they are both economic symptoms of very similar problems, I am not seeing why it is either or.

When parties become simple vehicles for elections and stop being vehicles for policy they stop being meaningful entities.

And when a party starts reacting to opinions and stops engaging in meaningful dialogue with the public to challenge preconcieved ideas they end up as hollowed out vessels with dangerous characters at the helm.

It is a serious concern for pluralist democracy that so many Labour supporters seem to be intent on becoming blockers to the reforming instinct and dismantling the system of political debate in this way.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  2. Crimson Crip

    RT @libcon: The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  3. Tom Griffin

    RT @libcon: The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  4. Pat Oddy

    RT @libcon: The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  5. Andy S

    RT @libcon: The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  6. sunny hundal

    The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party. The two have to co-exist http://t.co/0woYhQ8

  7. Jane Phillips

    RT @sunny_hundal: The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party. The two have to co-exist http://t.co/0woYhQ8

  8. Nick Drew

    The anti-cuts movement isn’t going anywhere, Labour party | Liberal Conspiracy – http://bit.ly/fqBomP

  9. Naadir Jeewa

    Reading: The anti-cuts movement isn’t going anywhere, Labour party: Peter Watts, former general secretary of the… http://bit.ly/f0Emji

  10. sunny hundal

    The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party. A response to @peterwatt123 http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  11. Crimson Crip

    RT @sunny_hundal: The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party. A response to @peterwatt123 http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  12. Adam

    RT @sunny_hundal: The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party. A response to @peterwatt123 http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  13. Joseph O'Brien

    RT @sunny_hundal: The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party. A response to @peterwatt123 http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  14. Nick H.

    RT @sunny_hundal: The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party. A response to @peterwatt123 http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  15. Stuart White

    The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/jDgNWJO via @libcon

  16. ManyVoicesOneWorld

    RT @sunny_hundal: The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party. A response to @peterwatt123 http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  17. Samir Jeraj

    RT @libcon: The anti-cuts movement isn't going anywhere, Labour party http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  18. Emma Burnell

    “@PeterWatt123: RT @sunny_hundal The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away. A response to @peterwatt123 http://t.co/olmPdKw > spot on Sunny.

  19. Stephen Lintott

    RT @sunny_hundal: The anti-cuts movement isn’t going away, Labour party. A response to @peterwatt123 http://bit.ly/ebClPC

  20. Lisa Ansell

    http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/03/11/the-anti-cuts-movement-isnt-going-anywhere-labour-party/

  21. Dani

    RT @lisaansell: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/03/11/the-anti-cuts-movement-isnt-going-anywhere-labour-party/

  22. Matt Senior

    Agreeing w/ Sunny 4 once RT @lisaansell: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/03/11/the-anti-cuts-movement-isnt-going-anywhere-labour-party/





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