o recent government has managed to provoke a half million strong demonstration within less than a year of its election. Yet this was the number the TUC mobilised for its March for the Alternative on March 26th – a figure confirmed by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons two days later.
Whilst the numbers attending took most by surprise, it is not hard to explain why so many wanted to take to the streets. Despite a strong campaign last year by some on the left for a December demo, the TUC deliberately held off until the end of the financial year on the grounds that the scale and speed of the cuts would become obvious when they really started to bite.
No-one expected the march – however well attended – to result in a Prime Ministerial press conference the next day in which an ashen-faced David Cameron owned up to getting austerity wrong. It can only ever be part of a wider campaign.
The direction of the TUC's work was set in a statement agreed at last September's Congress. It contained two key insights that have stood up well since then. Opposition to the cuts would develop as people became more aware of what they would mean in practice. That the campaign would be diverse and pluralistic, rather than a top-down national campaign. In discussing what next for the cuts campaign it makes sense to look at what has happened so far.
Opinion polls confirm the predicted shift in public opinion. After the election the coalition wanted voters to think that the cuts would be:
- implemented in a fair way: ‘we're all in this together'
- confined to ‘waste' and back-office services
- the route to economic recovery; and inevitable ‘we've maxed out the nation's credit card bill and now have to pay it off '.
Straight after the election they were winning. But YouGov polls show just how much opinion has moved.
YouGov's data shows many people think the cuts are unfair. Immediately after the election only one in three said that they were unfair. Now that has gone to almost two in three, a big shift. YouGov have been asking whether you are likely to “suffer directly from cuts in spending on public services such as health, education and welfare”. This seems a pretty fair definition of frontline services. Those saying yes to this question show thatministers have never won this argument. From the word go, around 70 per cent expected to suffer from the cuts. The government message is that cutting public spending gives room to the private sector to drive an export-led recovery.
There is a big increase in those who say that the cuts are bad for the economy. It was about one in three just after the election, but is now over half. It is not surprising that just over half the population (52 per cent) said that they agreed with the aims of the march.
Assessing the campaign
Cuts protests have taken so many different forms that it is hard to speak of a campaign in the singular. The TUC backed False Economy website reveals a huge range of initiatives across the country.
Some are very local and specific, set up to save a particular well-loved community facility. Others are bringing together those interested in particular sectors. Social media and online activity are increasingly important. Many campaigners have come from outside the traditional ranks of union and political party activists. There has been non-violent civil disobedience from young radical environmentalists – organised online - through to ‘respectable' establishment figures fighting for libraries and forests – and new kinds of campaigns such as those run by website 38 degrees. The great success of March 26th was that it brought so many of these together – a role that probably only the TUC can fulfil.
It makes more sense to talk of an anti-cuts movement rather than a campaign, and whilst some initiatives are undoubtedly counter-productive and distracting, set piece discussions on the best way to fight the cuts are mostly a waste of energy. The key to building a movement is to provide as many ways as possible for people to get involved, neither pretending that tactic A is guaranteed success whilst tactic B will fail nor drawing up a grand strategy to be followed.
The next steps
The TUC is still discussing its next steps after March 26th, but themes are already emerging. The poll tax campaign of the 1980s showed that pressure on government MPs with small majorities at the constituency level works. Specific sectoral issues capture voter and media attention and as I write the government is clearly in difficulty about its NHS reforms.
The one argument that the coalition is still winning is that a majority still think that cuts are necessary, even if they think they are too fast and too deep. As it becomes more and more obvious that the cuts are failing to boost the economy as the private sector fails to take up the public sector slack, the real test will be whether we can win the campaign for a thorough going economic alternative based on stimulus, investment and green growth.