Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 29 October 2010
I can’t be alone in feeling that the immediate response of the Labour leadership to the coalition government’s savage cuts programme has been appallingly lacklustre.
All right, no one knew exactly what George Osborne was going to unveil in the comprehensive spending review last week – and, because Labour wasted four months on a leadership election campaign that could have been conducted in six weeks, members of the shadow cabinet had just 10 days to master their briefs before Osborne got to his feet.
And OK, Labour was stymied by the fact that the speed of deficit reduction was one of the few issues on which the candidates disagreed during the leadership campaign and one of the few on which Ed Miliband had to do some swift manoeuvring after winning. Miliband knew that anything less austere than sticking to Alistair Darling’s pre-election plan for halving the deficit in four years would be portrayed by the Tories and their allies in the press as a deficit-denying lurch to the left. Hence the appointment of Alan Johnson rather than Ed Balls as shadow chancellor.
In the circumstances, I suppose, Johnson did a decent ad lib job of the instant riposte to Osborne’s speech in the House of Commons – and Yvette Cooper’s denunciation of the government’s plans for disproportionately targeting women was well made. John Denham was pretty good on Question Time, Darling more-or-less convincing on Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, Douglas Alexander all sweet reason on Andrew Marr – and Ed himself had a cogent piece in the Observer.
But, and it’s a big but, there’s a limit to the impact of well improvised speeches in Commons debates and lucid contributions to the highbrow media – and there’s a limit too to the credibility of Labour’s excuses for not having done much better.
The cuts programme had been widely trailed even if Osborne did spring a few surprises. More important, the grotesque iniquity of making the poorest bear the brunt of the cost of crazily rapid deficit reduction through swingeing cuts in various benefits is so easy a target that Labour should have hit it hard at once, regardless of lack of preparation. It didn’t. Ditto the proposals for throwing public sector workers on to the dole, the slashing of local government services, the giant reduction in higher education spending, the massive hikes in train fares – and the failure to make the bankers pay for the mess they got us into. If the party’s leaders don’t give it a bit more welly than they have this past week, they will soon find either that they have lost the argument to the coalition or that they have lost touch with a rapidly growing wave of popular anger at what the coalition is doing.
Not that the trade unions have been any better. The union leaders all knew way back in early summer what was happening on October 20 and do not even have the excuse that they are all new to their jobs. They dutifully turned up in the TV studios to denounce Osborne on the day. Yet despite four months’ notice they did virtually nothing to mobilise their members to protest, except in Scotland. Last weekend’s anti-cuts demonstrations south of the border were poorly publicised and thinly attended.
Why do we have to wait until next March, for heaven’s sake, for an official TUC march in central London, when even by the government’s own admission some 500,000 public sector workers are going to lose their jobs as a result of the spending cuts and large swaths of the welfare state face destruction? Isn’t this the sort of vicious assault on working people and what used to be called the “social wage” that demands an urgent response – at very least a major national demonstration In November?
And no, I’m not turning into a bulging-eyed Trot chanting “They say cut back! We say fight back!” I don’t think that a simple anti-cuts campaign is a panacea for Labour or for the trade unions, even in the short term. I know that the coalition’s assault on “welfare scroungers”, however mendacious, is popular. And I accept that the deficit needs to be reduced as soon as economic recovery is secured (which seems unlikely for some time under any circumstances and even more unlikely once the cuts have sucked demand out of the economy).
But the coalition’s plans are so callous, so dangerous, so unfair that they demand an immediate and vigorous co-ordinated campaign of opposition not just in parliament but on the streets, in public meetings, in the media, in workplaces and on the doorstep. We don’t need to wait until spring, let alone until Labour has worked out every last detail of its alternative to the coalition’s slash-and-burn gamble.