building alliances against cuts and privatisation of public services

by Gregor Gall

There is an old anarchist saying: ‘No matter who you vote for, the government still gets in’. The result of the 2010 general election puts a new complexion on this old saying for no matter which of the mainstream parties was elected to government, the result would lead to the same outcome in regard of cuts in public services and further privatisation of these.

In the election, three parties only differed on when, where and how much on these two central issues. The elephant in the room of the 2010 election was neo-liberalism. It was never discussed, being the unspoken and unacknowledged baseline upon which all the three parties operated.

However, amongst many unions, there is also some elementary appreciation that to effectively fight the forthcoming cuts and privatisation agenda in the public sector that new civil alliances of the providers and users of public services are required. This awareness is slight and muted at the moment. It will need to grow considerably and be acted upon if the potential of these alliances of resistance and opposition are to be realised.

So the union movement does not completely start from scratch here in these terms but this provides no room for complacency because the size and scale of the task facing the unions here is genuinely enormous. To put it bluntly, a rebellion the size and scale of that around the poll tax is needed.

The last mass popular and successful rebellion was that over the poll tax, and involved millions of people in a range of activities. The key to understanding the poll tax rebellion was not just the anger it generated. Nor was it just that it affected the overwhelming majority of citizens at the same time and in the same way.

Rather, the nature of the poll tax meant that the opposition to it had the leverage created by the government requiring citizens to register for it and then pay it (as it was not deducted at source as income tax is).  So there was a ‘holy trinity’ of a) mass, direct and undifferentiated impact, b) the cost and injustice were immediately obvious and quantifiable, and c) there was leverage to resist through non-payment because the tax was dependent upon cooperation. This meant the poll tax rebellion was a genuinely mass one, with hundreds of local groups made of thousands upon thousands of campaigners.

It is self-evident that individual unions on their own will be unable to effectively resist the cuts and privatisation. It is also highly probable that unions acting together as a single union movement – assuming even that could happen – are unlikely to be able to stop the cuts and privatisation for a number of reasons.  In this situation creating alliances of providers and users of services can help add to the strength of unions’ opposition. This is far more than just a case of increasing the numbers of activists and supporters involved, important though that is.

Rather, there is a key political reason for forming such alliances, and this has two dimensions to it. The first dimension is that critics will find it very easy to portray the unions’ action as nothing more than the protection of sectional and vested interests and thus to the detriment of the greater good in the new age of austerity.

By creating these alliances of providers and users this criticism can be potentially circumvented and negated because ‘vested interest’ is situated within altruism and on pursuit of the common good. The second dimension is that linking the providers and users of the public services helps establish the intimate and tangible link between the jobs and their terms and conditions of the job holders, on the one hand, and the quality of the services provided, on the other.

But these alliances cannot be just or remain as alliances of elite campaigning groups like the headquarters staff of a union and the headquarters staff of a non-governmental organisation. Difficult though it is to achieve, these alliances must be mass and participatory. This suggests that local groups are needed which can be active around the local dimensions and issues of the national agenda being pursued by the alliance.

Creating these alliances and making them effective will not be easy. The nature of the impact of cuts and privatisation means that not every citizen is affected in the same way and at the same time. For example, cuts and privatisation in the NHS most immediately affect the patient, their families and friends but we do not all use the NHS at the same time and in the same way. And cuts and privatisation are something that is done to us and we can be left feeling powerless and disenfranchised by it. By contrast, there was a level of dependence of government upon citizens in the case of the poll tax. Here, it was a case of what ‘we did’ rather than just ‘what was done to us’. In other words, there is a differential effect and one that does not necessarily lead to the possibility of citizens being able to empower themselves.

Even with such threats to members’ jobs, terms and conditions, a single alliance of all the unions, certainly the public sector ones, is far from assured. This is due to reasons of political differences and rivalry as organisations. While relations between Unison and PCS – arguably the two key unions for the creation of these alliances given the public sector being the locus of the attention – have improved over the last couple of years (and indicated by the signing of a joint agreement on campaigning in 2009), the two unions remain at odds with each other. Unison has a clear tendency to act on its own in the belief that it is big enough to be able to not only do so but do so effectively. This is mistaken. By contrast, the PCS has since 2001 gone out of its way to seek alliances with other unions but has often been rebuffed. Even when such alliances are formed, they do not stand the test of battle when timetables for the different unions diverge. The same points about difference of perspective here can be made when the cases of Unite, the GMB and Royal College of Nursing are considered.

Then, of course, is the issue of the Labour Party. Its role and influence are not inconsiderable and even after the 2010 election it is still likely to have a considerable impact on the ability and willingness of unions like Unison (and Unite and the GMB) to mobilise. This will depend upon issues like whether the party moves to the left or right, whether it wants to remain respectable or not by eschewing extra-parliamentary action and whether it thinks it will be back in office in five years again or is out for a generation. The overall point raised here of difference concerns not just the willingness and ability to fight across sections. It also concerns the ability of unions to articulate a common vision of not just what they are against but what they are for – in other words, their positive alternative view of what public services should look like. Motivating and inspiring citizens to become active campaigners will hinge upon have a vision of a positive alternative.

Finally, most users of services are not organised as collectives so that the unions do not have the luxury of having readymade potential alliance partners. So while it is easy enough for unions to make links with various charities and pressure groups that work on behalf of a range of deprived and excluded groups, these organisations are not organisations of the groups themselves. Often they are organisations of professional campaigners who are well-intentioned and often well connected but they last critical social weight and mass. Consequently, they do not have the capacity to act as mass organisations capable of mobilising their memberships.

The one clear exception is probably the National Pensioners’ Convention. Another exception might be parents of school children because Parent Teacher Associations already exist. By contrast, organisations of claimants and the unemployed are so atrophied that it would be an exaggeration to even say that they are no longer shadows of their former selves. The same kind of point can be made about the various quangos that represent consumer interests. They are created by government fiat following acts of Parliament and are watchdogs (whether toothless or not). They are not campaigning organisations with voluntary memberships that number hundreds and thousands of people. Therefore, the unions may have to help create such groups, like claimant groups or revitalise others like groups of the unemployed, by using their own resources and organisation.

Thus, in summary, there are not inconsiderable difficulties in creating these alliances, whether on the provider or user side of the equation. However, they are not insurmountable but will require deliberate and united actions from the unions to stand a chance of success.

Gregor is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire