unison stirred by goverment cuts onslaught

by Matt Mansfield

The national leadership of Unison held an anti-cuts Conference in a hotel in central Glasgow on 4th September, which was billed as one of a number of similar events in different areas of the country. In many ways this event shows the fear of having large sections of its organisation smashed that haunts the Unison leadership: this fear is driving the union to seek out allies in the fight against the cuts.

The first thing of note was the publicity: it was circulated on left email lists and I thought it was a basic event held by Glasgow City Unison branch, which is effectively run by the Socialist Party in these parts. However, as far as I know it did not appear on the boards/network for Glasgow City Unison members, nor was there anything through my own Unison branch although this tends to be pretty insular in nature.

So myself and a friend turned up and we signed in with a glossy pack being given out and it was clear that anyone was being allowed in. We went into the main hall (the Ballroom!) and there we found the union’s general secretary Dave Prentis, no less, addressing about 400 people on the evils of the cuts and how this ConDem attack on all that’s good in the country is unnecessary.

The conference was made up of lay union officials, largely ex-members of left groups with some current members of the likes of the Socialist Workers’ Party and Scottish Socialist Party plus community activists including some local anarchists. A large swathe of central Scotland was represented: Glasgow, Edinburgh and most points in between.

Prentis was followed by Stephen Boyd of the Scottish Trades Union Congress who presented a series of slides which he has obviously been taking round lots of union branches outlining the Keynesian case against the cuts: debt levels are not historically high nor are repayment levels and the UK is not Greece because the economy is in a better state, it’s not corrupt as the Brits pay taxes (unlike the Greeks) and “we” have our own currency. The two things that jump out were that by implication the Greek government has no choice but to destroy the living standard of the Greek working class, but fortunately Britain has a choice. From this we can get the impression that this is all a terrible mistake and all we have to do is make the Keynesian case and this can be corrected.

In fact the ruling class in large sections of the world, such as the UK, Germany, France and the Republicans in opposition in the US, see the chance to drive home a major defeat of the working class and grind down living standards for at least a generation, and the current course has to be exposed as a conscious political decision not “a mistake” or an evil action by some misguided politicians. The entire Labour Party leadership has accepted the need for “cuts” in public spending which in reality mean a reduction in working class living standards. Their only dissent is over the timing.

During questions a comrade from the National Union of Journalists raised the demand that councils should refuse to implement the cuts and set illegal budgets. From the platform, for the benefit of this audience Dave Prentis enthusiastically agreed with this in his summing up. At the lunch break a comrade expressed his disbelief: “Did I just hear Dave Prentis call for illegal budgets? – he’ll be growing a wooden nose soon”. Since this was run by Unison HQ the Conference included a free lunch for the assembled masses.

There were eight workshops and I went to the one covering building alliances against the cuts. This was run by Unison’s head of Local Government. The standard form of address in this meeting was “comrade”, as opposed to “colleague” used from the top table in the opening session. Notably only two people in the meeting expressed anything other than hostility to the role of the Labour Party.

The convenor raised the issue of “building alliances with our elected representatives” and was told by a rep from Glasgow City Unison and their anti-cuts campaign that we should only deal with those councillors who sign up to undertakings to vote against any and all cuts and that in Scotland the cuts will be implemented by Labour and the Scottish Nationalists, not the ConDems. In this workshop alone five trades councils and anti-cuts campaigns of varying sizes and stages of development were represented.

In itself the whole event was extraordinary – a comrade complained to me how patronising the Unison bureaucracy is, which is true – but the real point is they are so terrified by the onslaught of the government they have opened the doors to anyone to form defence campaigns. This was a conference essentially aimed at activists, principally the left, and the bureaucracy has no alternative but to allow and support such campaigns.

3 thoughts on “unison stirred by goverment cuts onslaught

  1. “In fact the ruling class in large sections of the world, such as the UK, Germany, France and the Republicans in opposition in the US, see the chance to drive home a major defeat of the working class and grind down living standards for at least a generation, and the current course has to be exposed as a conscious political decision not “a mistake” or an evil action by some misguided politicians. ”

    I don’t beleive that is actually true. If it were that ruling class would have been in a much better position to have done that at the end of 2008 rather than push through historically high levels of Keynesian intervention! Moreover, the most powerful ruling class in the world – in the US – was pushing not just Obama, but Bush to carry through such intervention. The position of the republicans now stands in stark contrast to the stimulus pushed through by Bush, and IS a right-wing populist piece of electioneering that is also fuelled by pressure they are facing from their grass roots, and the Tea Party Movement, who like the grass roots of the tories in Britain are not made up of the ruling class, but of small Capitalists, the middle class, and even backward sections of workers!

    Its not just Left economists, but Right-wing ones too that are arguing that these policies are not in the interests of Big Capital. On the BBC’s “This Week” programme the former Thatcherite Minister, Michael Portillo, repeated an argument he has made previously that if the Cuts – which he argues will not be at the level being proposed anyway because of oppsoition to the effects – lead to reduced growth, the Government will change course. I think he’s right, but as Nouriel Roubini has pointed out it may then be too late, because the resources may not then be available to avoid a crisis. The current bust-up between the MoD, and Treasury is an indication of this rearguard action. If the MoD wins the other Departments will take their cue to follow suit. That happened even in the first year of Thatcher’s Government.

    The left should not get hung up on simply opposing the Cuts, but on putting forward its own political solutions. The lesson of Greece is that simply striking is no solution.


  2. The difference being that intervention in 2008 was to subsidise big Capital itself and attempt to stabilise the system of finance capital at least temporarily. What is being done now is to attack the living standards of the working class. There is no question the ruling class itself is split on whether to proceed with this attack or carry out a limited reflation of the economy as Obama wants to do.
    The proposals of the the ConDems are far more savage than anything Thatcher ever came up with, they want a real terms cut in public spending – under Thatcher public spending grew steadily as unemployment rose and sections of people were removed from the workforce entirely.


  3. But all State spending subsidises Big Capital to one extent or another. The Fiscal Stimulus introduced in many countries in 2008 was not entirely a direct subsidy to Big Capital. Some of it took the form of Tax Cuts such as the cut in VAT, some took the form of big increases in Government spending of other types. The fact remains that given the scale of the crisis at the end of 2008, if the main objective for Big Capital was to “drive home a major defeat of the working class and grind down living standards for at least a generation” that was the time they could have done it. And, the Cuts would just as equally be a removal of that “subsidy”. The closing of the BSF programme is an obvious case.

    The reality is that in developed economies consumer spending – which is largely done by workers and the middle class – accounts for around 60-70% of aggregate demand. The concomitant of the attack you think Big Capital seeks to make would be a direct attack on the profits of Big Capital as a result of the reduction in demand. As Marx says every Capitalist only ever sees his own workers as workers, every other worker he sees as a consumer. That is why Big Capital has a far more rational attitude towards promoting economic stability – which involves also avoiding huge reductions in wages, for the reasons set out above – than small Capital ever can.

    Its certainly true that over the longer period western Capital needs to reduce the Value of Labour Power in order to compete with the much lower wages of workers in China and the rest of Asia. But, the whole approach from the late 80’s onwards of encouraging debt in order to sustain consumer spending was designed to spread out that process of adjustment over a 50 year timescale, because to have done otherwise would not only have sent those economies into a 1930’s style Depression at that time, but would have created the kind of social instability that Big Capital has spent most of the last century trying to avoid. The solution for Big Capital in the West does not lie in the kind of class warfare you envisage, but of a slow adjustment of wages for some workers alongside a move of production into those areas of high value and skilled labour where the West can maintain some kind of comparative advantage. In fact, the kind of class warfare you envisage would be counter-productive to Big Capital in achieving that. Central to such an economy is a fairly contented, well-educated workforce.

    Actually, the Liberal-Tory proposals are not significantly more savage than Thatcher put forward. Thatcher was initially guided by Hayek whose Misean approach required not just a reduction in Money Supply, but also tight cash limits to prevent Public Spending increasing. Even within the first year those Cash Limits had to be broken because they could not constrain the spending. That was not at all just because of increasing Welfare Spending, which kicked in later. Milton Friedman as early as 1982 gave up on Thatcher, because he said that the policies were being undermined from within the Cabinet. That is because in the end every Minister goes native, and becomes captive of their Departmental Full Time State officials. The same thing happens with Chairs of Committees in Local Government.

    Additionally, the proposals for cuts being made of 25% amounts to around 6% p.a. for the next 4 years. During the 1990’s when I worked in Local Government, and had some responsibility for drawing up Departmental Estimates we were asked every year I can remember to look for cuts of between 5-10%. Best Value itself required a 2% p.a. efficiency. At the end of the process even real terms spending will be higher than it was in 1997.

    That’s not to minimise the effects of that. The consequences of those 1990’s cuts was to hollow out a good deal of infrastructure. To coin a phrase the Tories left the roof to rot to such an extent that even with the massive increases in Public Spending undertaken by New Labour it only managed to repair the holes in the roof at best. There may be divisions within the ruling class as to whether this course of action is desirable. Money Capital might have a different approach to Productive Capital. Some sections of Productive Capital able to quickly switch to exports, or to locate overseas might be less concerned about a big reduction in aggregate demand, and Commercial Capital may be most concerned at the effect of reduced demand on its business model of high volumes and low margins. But, this is not the main division. As Engels said long ago Big Capital abandoned these penny pinching means of extracting Surplus Value in the 19th Century, and instead saw its interests in a Social Democratic consensus approach of social and economic stability. Its not the dominant section of the ruling class – Big Capital – that is in favour of these measures, but those sections of small capital who as Engels pointed out need such measures in order to survive against their larger brethren. It is those sections of the petit-bouregoisie who can see no further than their tax demand, and who like those backward sections of the working class who are driven by a schadenfreud approach of hostility to the unemployed and others on Benefits see an opportunity to attack those least able to defend themselves.

    That is the driving force behind these policies, and it is that political base which has pushed the Tories and their co-thinkers in Europe and the US down this road. Big Capital can if it has to live with it until it can change the course, but it is not the policy of Big Capital, and is not in its interests.


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