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Make the Cuts Cameron’s
Poll Tax

Constructing alliances to oppose cuts in and privatisation of public services
SSP bannerSSP members join demo to protest cuts. Image: Eddie Truman

With huge cuts looming in public services Gregor Gall looks at strategies for fighting back.

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, cuts to our public services and their further privatisation. In the election, the big 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. Fifteen unions representing some 4.5m union members signed up to the Labour version of the neo-liberal cuts and privatisation consensus (which in the election campaign talked of ‘protecting’ only health, education and the police). The only no cuts and no privatisation agendas came from the tiny leftwing parties which have stubbornly remained an electoral irrelevance.

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. For example, recent demonstrations on the 10 March 2010 in Glasgow, organised by the Unison union, and in London, organised by the National Pensioners’ Convention and supported by many national unions under the banner of ‘Defend the Welfare State’, are some indications of this. So was the demonstration held a week later by the EIS and Musicians’ Union. And, so too are Unison’s campaigns like ‘One Million Voices (for public services) and ‘Positively Public’ and the move by the Glasgow City Unison branch in early 2010 to bring together the voluntary organisations that have an interest in fighting the cuts and privatisation because of the client groups they represent. Outside Unison, the Public Services Not Private Profit pressure group led by leftwing Labour MP John McDonnell and supported by many different national unions is another while the Keep our NHS Public, NHS Together, and Defend Council Housing are examples of further pressure groups. A few years back the RMT union ran a campaign and national tour of Rail against Privatisation. So the union movement is not starting from scratch with this type of campaign, 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 activities ranging from non-registration and non-payment to more public forms of activism such as demonstrating and stopping warrant sales. 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 pretty much 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 kind of 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 that up and down the land the poll tax rebellion was a genuinely mass one, with hundreds of local groups made of thousands upon thousands of campaigners. These aspects will be used in the following assessment of the possibility and probability of the unions being able to construct the necessary alliances from which the mobilisation can ensue.

The Proposition

It is self-evident that individual unions on their own will be unable to effectively resist the cuts and privatisation. This is not simply a question that they individually will not take the action required. It is also the case that they individually do not possess and are unlikely to ever possess the necessary power and resources to do because their members do not occupy positions of strategic leverage by virtue of their role and place in the organisation of the services. Even if this was the case, such power is seldom ever exercised as service providers usually wish to avoid hurting patients through withdrawing the provision of the service. Moreover, most unions are also too small to pack the kind of punch that is needed in regard of mass mobilisation.

It is also highly probable for the same kinds of reasons that all unions acting together as a single union movement – or certainly the majority of unions doing so - are unlikely to be able to stop the cuts and privatisation. Here, there are issues about whether all or the majority of unions are capable of acting strategically and in concert with each other. Then, there are other issues concerning whether the unions together still possess the necessary size of activist base to facilitate the organisation of effective resistance.

It is not a magic panacea for these problems to suggest the establishment of alliances of providers and users of services. But, nonetheless, the balance of strengths and weaknesses of the unions are potentially reconfigured by such alliances. 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 (government, press, the right etc) will find it very easy to portray the unions’ oppositional action as nothing more than the protection of sectional and vested interests and thus to the detriment of the greater good when the logic goes ‘we all need to make sacrifices to help the country out of the hole it’s gotten itself in’. However, 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 the terms and conditions of the job holders, on the one hand, and the quality of the services provided, on the other. It is to unashamedly say that good quality staff - on good quality terms and conditions of employment - are needed to provide good quality services (alongside more general levels of adequate funding for equipment and buildings).

The most obvious alliance would see a single unified campaign which all public sector unions sign up to, led by Unison and PCS as the main unions. Here, Unison and PCS take the initiative and create the momentum which the other smaller public sector unions can get behind. Yet while this will be necessary it will not be sufficient. Already – certainly on paper as per various TUC motions at its annual congresses – there have been many statements of intent that all the unions will work together to fight back against a common opponent. Come the crunch the unions did not stick together, and neither did they fight individually (with the odd honourable exception). Fighting cannot just be taken to mean lobbies and demonstrations, necessary as they are. Instead the key will be civil disobedience which was the foundation stone of the poll tax rebellion. 

The final key element of these alliances is that for them to be successful they 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.

Potential Problems

But creating these alliances and making them effective will not be an easy task. There are a number of principal reasons for this.

The first is that 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 and his/her family and friends but we do not all use the NHS at the same time and in the same way. Even more extreme is the case of the fire service – we seldom need or use it (even if we do fear its absence). 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.

An indication of these factors is that despite having seven million members facing looming cuts in their jobs and the services they and their families use, in the demonstrations referred to above only a tiny minority had the foresight and prescience to take part in them – 2,500 in Glasgow and between 5,000 and 10,000 in London. The same was true of the 2010 London May Day demonstration which has as its theme resisting the impeding cuts. The turnout on this demonstration varied from 2,000 to 5,000 with the latter being a generous estimate. To emphasise the point again in terms of the benchmark of the poll tax, successfully resisting the cuts is going to necessitate at least demonstrations in the regions and provinces of 5,000 to 10,000 in minor (not major) cities and those of in excess of 100,000 in the major cities, meaning one million plus in London. However, it is also the case that demonstrations alone will be insufficient for industrial action and civil disobedience will also be required.

The second is that even under such a threat to members’ jobs and associated terms and conditions of employment 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 RCN 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. In Scotland and Wales, there is another dimension as to how Labour will choose to respond because of the devolved governments. In terms of rhetoric, the SNP may well be helpful in terms of opposing the cuts but it is to give the SNP a large measure of the benefit of the doubt as to whether it will in any way put words into action by helping organise opposition (as opposed to saying after unsuccessfully making the arguments against cuts that they now need to be managed as best as possible).

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.

The third is that the 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 lack 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 (as do the Boards of Governors) where parents are represented and thus in close contact with teachers. Moreover, the teachers also have another link to the parents through the school kids. 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 watch dogs (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, such as 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. There are some examples of recent campaigns against the transfer of council housing and the closure of hospitals that were successful and may provide some tangible outlines as to how these alliances can be constructed. Although going further back in time, a number of the direct action tactics employed over the poll tax and motorway building projects also will need revisiting.

Conclusion

Time is not on the side of the unions and their potential allies. The cuts and privatisation are coming. There will only be so many occasions and opportunities when the unions can test the ground and run pilot projects before they step up to the plate or walk away from the fight. In order to prepare the ground, union leaderships and their activists need urgently to begin discussion on the practicalities of how they organise themselves to make alliances as well as to who their alliance partners should be. Approaching these partners, laying out the agenda, establishing common ground and trust, and then acting upon this are the next vital steps. But alongside this, unions will need to be able to ‘fart and chew gum at the same time’ by not only coordinating their industrial action against the cuts in order to pack a bigger punch and make the issue a political ‘hot potato’ but also identify where the most strategic points of leverage are in terms of revenue generation and service impact. In doing so they need to get acknowledgement from the users of the service that their members providing the service are taking such action for the benefit of all even if this means short-term inconvenience.

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire