Chancellor George Osborne’s New Year announcement that 25 billion of further cuts in the welfare budget are needed after the 2015 general election is a stark reminder that the age of austerity will be with us until 2020 at least. And, that’s the case even if the economy continues to grow as it’s predicted to do.
If elected in 2015, Labour under Ed Miliband is pledged to carry on with the broad parameters of the current coalition government’s spending cuts. If increases in expenditure in some areas are to happen under Labour, they will be made from cuts in other areas. Consequently, Labour is not the hope of the white knight riding over the hill to save the poor and vulnerable.
This is the context for the launch in Glasgow on Saturday, 25 January of the Scottish People’s Assembly Against Austerity. The People’s Assembly was inaugurated last June in London at a meeting of 4,000 people. Its self-set task was nothing other than to stop and put into reverse the cuts in welfare spending that the coalition government has embarked upon.
It has been backed by the major unions as well by Tony Benn, the Green Party and a number of left-wing Labour MPs. It seeks to achieve its central task by providing the arguments against austerity to those most affected by it and by coordinating the protests of these people and their supporters. It is by far the most promising of the anti-cuts campaigns.
In Scotland, the People’s Assembly is backed by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and a greater number of unions than its British counterpart. Indeed, the STUC has previously played in Scottish politics the role that the People’s Assembly seeks to play, namely, the coordinator and mobiliser of resistance against cuts.
But whether the People’s Assembly in Scotland can play this role will depend on a number of factors. Just like its English and Welsh counterpart, it must go well beyond being “just the same old people, handing out the same old leaflets for the same old causes” (as one new Labour commentator said). This means it must be able to do more than the usual fare of holding public meetings and organising demonstrations – no matter how well attended they are.
The situation for the People’s Assembly in Scotland is a more complex one than elsewhere. The SNP government has shielded citizens in Scotland from some of the worst blows of austerity through the maintenance of existing public policy under devolution and by steering its own course. Yet, of course, with many areas of welfare spending not being devolved the cuts have an impact.
Then there is the effect of the referendum on independence to consider. It has a tendency to refract all the issues of the day on domestic policies through its lens. And while this is understandable, it is not necessarily very helpful. First, not all issues are reducible to a Yes or No vote. Second, the referendum campaigns may divert energies away from campaigning against austerity. Third, and probably most importantly, the referendum divides the political left that is the foundation of the People’s Assembly in Scotland.
Yet these challenges are relatively minor when set against a much bigger task, namely, that of how to connect popular discontent against austerity with political action that delivers a punch (and even a knockout blow). In other words, how can a movement be born that can put hundreds of thousands on the streets while at the same time as being so embedded in the communities as to frighten the political establishment?
The last time such a situation of mass civil disobedience arose was the poll tax rebellion of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The rebellion was able to take hold not just because the poll tax was seen as grossly unfair and the embodiment of a hated prime minister. It was also because it was happening to everybody at the same time, in the same way and in a manner that was easily quantified. And, the poll tax (registering, paying) was dependent upon the cooperation of citizens.
By comparison, the welfare cuts do not happen to everybody at the same time, in the same way and with the same outcome. The “bedroom tax” affects only certain people. The same is true of cuts to different types of other benefits and closures of communal facilities. Put starkly, people may not realise how bad things have become until they actually fall into a situation where they become reliant upon a particular part of the welfare state. Finally, spending cuts are also done to people where their active cooperation is not needed.
So when the activists of People’s Assembly in Scotland meet, they need to set aside the idea that simply telling people how bad or extensive the cuts are will do the trick of organising them into mass civil disobedience. Instead, they need to work out how to unite and mobilise groups of citizens that are affected by the cuts in different ways and at different times.
A starting point would be to create alliances of the producers and users of public services for the distinct parts of the public sector (rather than having a “one size fits all” organisation). The simple organising principle here is that both producers and users have a clear vested interest in protecting and advancing their services.
If this can be done up and down the communities and workplaces of Scotland, then there will be some justified hope that austerity can be successfully resisted. But time is tight. Cuts that go unchallenged become permanent and accepted. And, the campaign against austerity must become a movement against austerity just as the anti-poll tax revolt did.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford.