the cuts consensus and the general election

by Dave Spencer

The 2010 general election will be a watershed for the politics of the British left.  Business as usual will not be an option because of the scale of the attacks on the working class that are coming. No matter which party wins the election or even if there is a hung parliament, it is clear that the ruling class has decided to make the working class pay for the economic crisis and the bailing out of the banks.

The left groups have failed over 14 years to form a united alternative to New Labour. If they use the same methods and politics as in the past, they cannot possibly be up to the tasks ahead.

Already there is talk among normally rational people in the broadsheets of “a bloodbath in the public finances” with 350,000 public sector jobs to go in the next 5 years.  This is John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in The Times:  “Job security and relatively generous pay and pensions are things of the past,” he concludes. An NHS Confederation Report mentioned in The Guardian declares that there will be at least  £10 billion cuts in the NHS over three years after 2011.  According to a BBC Today programme, local authorities are estimating cuts in budgets of at least 20%.  These are figures it is difficult to get your head round.  They are on a scale qualitatively different from anything seen over the last 60 years.  And this is gentle speculation before the general election.

All departmental discussions in the public sector at all levels about plans for the future of public services have this cloud hanging over them.

In early March I was at a conference discussing the alleviation of poverty in the West Midlands. The government spokesperson gave an upbeat list of achievements so far and of course more needs to be done. I pointed out the apparent contradiction between this past success story and the government’s plans to drastically cut future public services. The Chair commented, “I suppose somebody had to mention the elephant in the room!”  The point is that facts have to be faced and some new thinking is required — and it will be done whether the left is present or not.

The example of Canada is being used in meetings by Sir Gus McDonnell the senior civil servant, because Canada cut its public expenditure by 20% over 4 years in the 1990s to overcome a recession.  This is classic, neo-liberal thinking in the “Washington Consensus” mould.  The WC was a series of 10 policy points recommended by John Williamson in 1989 as guidelines for the International Monetary Fund, The World Bank and the US Treasury.

They have been used consistently as a basis for lending money to countries in economic trouble. Fundamentally they insist on a) financial austerity, loosening the power of the state and cutting public expenditure and taxes b) privatisation of all existing public enterprises and contracting out as many public services as possible, and c) liberalising market forces by removing trade barriers, all laws and regulations which get in the way of employers and introducing flexible labour laws to drive down wages and conditions.

The “Washington Consensus” was the basis of increased globalisation since the 1990s. Hereby hangs the snag. It may have worked in one state Canada in the 1990s but what we have now is a global recession and it is the global ruling class that is determined to make the international working class pay.  Already the results of that are being shown in Greece.

What about the working class and Marxism?  There is no united left as an  alternative to New Labour at this general election.  In effect the working class have no voice. The left groups have had 14 years to get it together in times of two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an economic recession.  It is not a question of them making an honest attempt which has failed and from which lessons have been learned. Rather it is a history of bureaucratic mismanagement and sectarian manoeuvring with every sign that these methods will continue.

There is of course a political  basis to their failure.  Simply put, it is top-downism, vanguardism, substitutionism where an elite “leadership” makes the decisions and the rest of us are supposed to follow.  Think of the No2EU fiasco and its recent manifestation TUSC.  These electoral conveniences were cobbled together in a back room by a bunch of bureaucrats from the National Committees of various organisations at the last minute before an election.

There was no attempt to create a mass organisation over a period of time that could democratically decide on policy and candidates and activate large sections of the population. It is a call from above to the faithful below.  This is old left thinking of the worst kind, reminiscent of the methods of Stalinism and trade union bureaucracy.

Linked to these politics of elitism is state-ism where socialism means taking over the state and nationalising everything from the top down. There is no concept of workers’ control or democratic functioning in the workplace or harnessing the creative ideas of workers themselves. The left groups are also characterised by an undemocratic internal life of their own that makes the Labour Party look enlightened. Their politics and organisational methods have made it impossible for them to build a united front to face New Labour over 14 years.  They feel the need to either control or destroy any campaign or organisation they are involved in.  How will it be possible for them to join any fight-back against the coming attacks without screwing it up again?

In any campaigns against job losses and cuts, and there will be many of these, democratic functioning and accountability have to be the rule. The voice of the working class must be heard.  We should resist attempts by the left groups to dominate or control.   Their record speaks for itself.

The fight-back will be a long process and within that process we should call for the self-activity and self-education of the working class to demand workers’ control within their workplaces and for communities to take their own areas under control.  Communism must be built from below democratically.  We need experts in the practice and theory of the various public services as well as in industry to come together to decide on policies and actions which will lead to the building of communism from below.

3 thoughts on “the cuts consensus and the general election

  1. Interesting piece though the final sentence puzzles me. Why would currently well-paid ‘experts’ in the public and private sector provide guidance on how to build communism – or do you envisage this as something that could happen during a revolution?


  2. Having heard Dave speak on these themes before, I imagine his intention with the word ‘expert’ is experienced community campaigners. He does after all attack the idea of top-down nationalisations so presumably wouldn’t want to advocate the rule of technocrats.


  3. Yeah, I understand it as a reference to an idea Dave has expressed before:

    “As an organisation it would be useful for us to have experts or to make ourselves experts on the various public services, as well as manufacturing sectors – for example the NHS, Education, Housing, Transport, Social Care, Waste Disposal – Energy, Computing, Cars, Steel etc etc.”


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