Like most Labour activists I feel like the fight against cuts has become an all-absorbing political struggle in the last few months. In Hackney we took a clear decision as a local Labour Party (both CLPs and the Labour Group of Councillors working together) to prioritise building for the TUC National Demonstration on March 26th. This work has included two “days of action” with street stalls across the borough (eight stalls last Saturday) promoting the demo, and a rally to mobilise Labour members to build for the demo, which saw over 160 members attend to hear speeches from Ken Livingstone, local MPs Diane Abbott and Meg Hillier, and Mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe. Members have been encouraged to leaflet and canvass their neighbours to get them to go on the march.
Alongside this we have had to deal with the trauma of setting our council’s budget after Eric Pickles cut our resources by £44 million. Thanks to a long history of achieving back office savings we were able to completely safeguard frontline services this year, but it won’t be as easy next year.
The council budget process was however, a wakeup call about which forces in the anti-cuts movement are actually interested in a realistic, united and broad-based campaign to defeat the Tories and which are just posturing to try to recruit or sell political newspapers or chisel away at Labour’s left electoral flank.
Passing a budget that protected every frontline service, despite being the victims of a huge attack by central government, Hackney’s Labour councillors understandably had reactions ranging from bemusement to incandescent anger when people from the SWP, Socialist Party, Greens and UK Uncut tried to shut down our democratic process with chants from the council chamber balcony of “Shame on you for turning blue” and (at least displaying a knowledge of Labour history if not of the limits of anatomy) “Shove your ‘dented shield’ where the sun don’t shine.”
Speaking at the Council budget meeting I said that “No Cuts” is just a slogan. In fact worse than that it is a classic Leninist transitional demand. That’s a policy that sounds superficially wonderful but is deliberately unachievable and undeliverable by democratic politics, and hence cynically designed to disillusion campaigners about Labour and the democratic process so that they turn instead to the Leninist revolutionaries who started chanting the slogan in the first place.
At a local government level the scale of the loss of resources Pickles has inflicted on us has forced Labour councils to expose “No Cuts” as a fantasy.
Former Labour General Secretary Peter Watt was right though to say yesterday on Twitter that we are at risk of eliding our own more realistic (if less catchy) message that the cuts are “too deep, too fast and unfair” into “No Cuts” nationally.
We have to be very careful in all the mobilisation work that we do for a huge Labour Party presence on the 26th March demo, whether that’s local leafleting or frontbenchers in the media, not to suggest Labour is the party of “No Cuts”.
That’s for three reasons:
1) It would be a lie. It doesn’t reflect our policy pre-election or the amended policy we are moving towards, or the personal views expressed by Ed Miliband or Ed Balls (in his Bloomberg speech) in the leadership contest. We are Keynesians, not economic flat-earthers who think you can spend money the country doesn’t have on an ongoing basis, so we have to have a deficit-reduction strategy even if it is very different to the Tory-led coalition’s one. It is unfair and dishonest to give people the impression our policy is something it isn’t.
2) A purist “No Cuts” line will take the anti-cuts movement to a narrow and extreme market. We need to attract to the ranks of the campaign people whose starting position is to think the coalition have a point about deficit reduction, and who do not see every line of 2010 government spending as sacrosanct, but who are horrified by the impact of specific cuts as the details emerge.
3) It will destroy our economic credibility, which we are going to struggle to rebuild anyway. There are a few thousand far-leftwingers who want us to take a “No Cuts” position. They hate the Labour Party and in many cases will never vote for us anyway. There are millions of ordinary voters who voted Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 but Tory in 2010 because they believed the Cameron line on the danger of the deficit. The impact of the cuts is opening their minds up to Labour again, but not if we appear to put the economy at risk with a reckless attitude to deficit reduction. If Labour associates itself with a “No Cuts” line it will put us back in the narrative of the ’80s: a party that is all heart and no head, and too risky to allow to run the economy. We haven’t won the argument with the public yet for our actual position of slower deficit reduction, let alone for “No Cuts”.
So I hope everyone in the Labour Party from Ed Miliband to the newest member is working to make the TUC demo the biggest possible expression of how strong public opinion is against government policy, but I hope no one falls into the lazy trap of shouting “No Cuts” and that as we go forward we get a lot more clarity about which cuts we would also have made, and which ones we wouldn’t.