With the political, media and public focus rightly on the life-and-death international crises in Japan and Libya, it is easy to forget that this week could see the two set-piece events that will decide who has won the political argument over cuts.
Even that phrase “decide who has won the political argument over cuts” may surprise some comrades. I worry that there is an assumption, based on wishful thinking on the Left that everyone shares our concern about the future of public services, our horror about the scale of the cuts, and our fear about a double-dip recession, and knows that the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ Thatcherite approach to economics is to blame.
We have only half won the argument in that Ipsos Mori’s most recent polling about the budget shows that we have won the “too fast” argument: 70% think it is better to cut spending more slowly in order to reduce the impact on public services. We haven’t yet conclusively won the “too deep” argument though: 43% agree with us that the government is cutting spending too much but 20% think the government is increasing taxes too much (i.e. they are to its political right) and 28% think it has got the balance right (a total of 48%). We certainly haven’t won the argument on who is to blame. The same poll shows 49% of the public blame the previous Labour government for the cuts, only 26% blame the coalition. By relatively protecting health, education, pensioners and their own local authorities, the coalition has made sure the cuts are impacting predominantly on public sector workers, service users and benefit recipients who already vote Labour. There are plenty of voters who will be delighted rather than distressed to see local government staff made redundant who they resent paying taxes and council tax to fund and who primarily deliver services to the poor and deprived. 71% think the cuts will hit the poorest hardest which suggests 28% (that 71% minus the 43% who think too much is being cut) support cuts even though they know it will hurt the poor.
This week is our best, perhaps our last, opportunity to decisively shift public opinion to a position of the Tory-led coalition being to blame and the cuts being too deep as well as too fast.
On Wednesday, the budget gives us the opportunity to set out not just our critique of the government’s economic and fiscal stance but also to set out our alternative policies and establish in the public’s minds that they are credible. The two Eds will need to strike a careful balance between reassuring the 43% who already agree with us about the cuts that a Labour government would have protected essential public services and generated more growth, and convincing the other 57% of the electorate that we have a responsible approach to reducing the deficit.
If Wednesday is the day when the two Eds have to hit the ball out of the park, Saturday is the day when the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the rest of the movement. The TUC National Demo against the cuts is the key opportunity for a mass public statement of opposition to the government’s policies. It is brilliant that the TUC has taken the lead in organising the march. The leadership of the anti-cuts movement could not be left to the student movement: the rest of us needed to stand up and be counted.
But there are risks implicit.
If too few people march, if this is not the biggest demo for decades, the Tories and Lib Dems will take apathy for acquiescence. If extremists hijack the demo and it ends in violent confrontation with the police, it will turn off the swing voters we need to convince that there is a credible alternative to this level and speed of cuts. That’s why every single trade unionist and Labour member or supporter needs to get themselves to London for 11am on Saturday 26th March to be on the demo. We have to make it so big it cannot be ignored and cannot be hijacked by a small minority. No excuses: I can’t walk brilliantly as only a year ago I was in a wheelchair but I will be there hobbling along on a walking stick with my Hackney Labour comrades.
I look forward to seeing everyone on Saturday for a successful, united and peaceful demonstration that ensures the anti-cuts message gets the maximum possible positive media coverage.