On Wednesday evening around fifty trade unionists, political activists, community group leaders and rag tag left-wingers assembled for the launch of the Plymouth Fight-back Against the Cuts. The public meeting was called by Plymouth Trades Council to officially set up a group affiliated to the national Right to Work Campaign.
And it was good. I shan't go into the facts of what was said, because you can read that here: http://www.plymouth-tuc.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=44:sucessful-meeting-launches-plymouth-right-to-work&catid=3:news.
I'd much rather let you know my own thoughts about the meeting, and what can be learnt from the campaign that Plymouth is launching.
Firstly, although the Right to Work Campaign is a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) initiative, this meeting did promise to set up a campaign that would embrace people from all parties, and those belonging to no party at all. But how far reaching can this this commitment be? It is all very well for politically aware trade unionists to call for a coordinated plan of action, but how does that reach the general public?
This problem becomes more apparent when the views aired in the open discussion after the main speakers are considered. To say the atmosphere was militant would be an understatement. Concerns ranged from the hard left, near anarchist, call for a movement to end capitalism, to more practical administerial desires for a federal steering committee to coordinate the actions of the various affiliated groups.
While it is important to have a democratic steering committee, if a group spends its time endlessly voting and coordinating, does it risk alienating itself from the public? I'm not going to dwell on this point, admin is admin, is admin.
But the hard left element comes to the crux of the matter.
I am a Marxist. I am a member of the Communist Party. I want to see an end to capitalism as much as the next person. But is an anti-cuts movement the place to do it?
Imagine a local library is closing. The librarians are protesting about losing their jobs. Mothers are protesting about the closure of the toddler reading group. Local people are concerned about the loss of an important community resource. And then up comes a bearded left-winger who starts ranting about the crisis in global capitalism, financial commodification, alienation, surplus value, an end to the wage system, the abolition of private property . . . And they stare at him blankly.
More disastrously for our movement, we will be brushed aside as looney left socialists.
The fact remains that many of the people whose library is closing will also be Conservative voters. Some people will even argue that "the deficit does need to be cut, perhaps libraries are just something we can't afford". And if someone doesn't care about a library, they will positively demand a cut in housing benefit for the "scroungers".
An anti-cuts alliance needs to do what it says on the tin. It needs to oppose cuts. Yes, it does have to offer alternative ways to manage the deficit - which is not the same as finding ways to cut the deficit. We all know the best way to cut the deficit is through growth, and taxes. We cannot rely on Keynesian economics alone, but investment in public works is not even on the table at the moment. We need to educate ourselves to be able to put forward realistic alternatives to the cuts agenda. Personally I hope that September's TUC will put forward an alternative spending review and give lead in this.
But perhaps the lack of a strong Trades Council in Exeter actually to our advantage. As long as an anti cuts campaign is rooted in trade unionism, it will always be labelled as "public sector workers only looking out for themselves". We mustn't forget that a significant proportion of the population actually believes that the public sector is well paid and has "gold plated" pensions. Many also believe that there are too many civil servants who are nothing more than pen pushing admin managers. By not being trade union dominated, we may actually be able to reach more people and engage in wider debates.
The battle we need to win is an ideological one, a cultural one. While there is such low class consciousness, we cannot appeal to a working class uprising. We need to convince the home owning, two cars and a pet dog, middle class that cuts are bad. We need to break the hegemonic neo-liberal agenda that offers up "choice", "freedom" and "localism", as a mask for privatisation.
That is easier said than done.
We need to combat the "big state is bad" ideology.
We need to destroy the myth that conservatism means freedom, socialism means a loss of civil liberties.
Rather than argue for a big state, we need to use the language of democratic ownership, public accountability and social responsibility.
To strengthen our own ideology we must highlight the alternatives on offer.
If not the state, then we will have private companies running services - people understand the contrasts between the UK and USA systems. People do not want privatised police, firemen etc.
This contrast in say, US healthcare vs the NHS, can then be applied to the utility companies, transport sectors, investment in green state owned technology.
Finally, we know this is a crisis of capitalism, but "banker bashing" will only get us so far. We need to do all we can to undermine the Conservatives. The Tory party did not win the general election. Labour did not have the catastrophic loss that will banish them to the wilderness.
The anti cuts movement is about resisting everything we can, until a truly progressive government can be formed.