Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Brown fudge

The Prime Minister's speech to the TUC today conceded the ground that everyone expected him to concede: there will be cuts in state spending and public services. This has been flagged relentlessly for weeks, and the announcement has allowed the shadow chancellor to claim that the Tories have won the debate on this issue. Phillip Hammond, the man the Tories have trusted with the spending axe, also welcomed the basic thrust of Brown's remarks, while lamenting that he did not go further.

Brown's attempt to square the circle of shoring up core support in the labour movement while moving toward cuts, privatization and asset sales, is to say that "frontline services" will be left unharmed. Even if this was good enough, even if cuts of any sort didn't clash with the commitment to support employment, this claim is disingenous. It is disingenuous in part because Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, has already announced that frontline services will not be spared. I doubt that he did this without backing from the rest of the cabinet. But the real reason it is disingenuous is that Labour aren't going to win the next election, and Brown knows this. This speech was always about how Labour would position itself in opposition. When Mandelson attacked the "big state" and called for "far-reaching" privatization, he affirmed that New Labour was committed to restoring the neoliberal status quo. And this will make them as useless in opposition as they have been nasty in government. Whatever the Tories do, the shadow cabinet will not be able to pretend that it has a principle opposition to very large cuts in the public sector, and it will thus not be able to claim any credit if (most likely, when) the cuts contribute to another economic plunge. With Vince Cable demanding even more cuts from the government, we now have a cross-party consensus that substantial cuts to the public sector are in order. One might add that Brown's mention of "realistic" pay settlements signals the intention to push through, or support from opposition, real terms pay cuts for public sector workers.

Now, note the reactions from the trade union bureaucracy. The current joint leader of Unite, Tony Woodley, says Gordon Brown has "got it absolutely right here". Derek Simpson, the other joint leader of Unite, said that Brown had "put clear water between Labour and the Tories". Paul Kenny of the GMB, Dave Prentis of Unison, and Brendan Barber, the head of the TUC, also welcomed the speech. The only sceptical reactions came from Mark Serwotka of the PCS, Matt Wrack of the FBU, and Bob Crow of the RMT. Now, the TUC has been predicting social mayhem if Cameron's proposed cuts, ostensibly to reduce the budget deficit, become policy. They may be right. But are they really confident that Brown's cuts and sell-offs won't increase unemployment, reduce demand, and increase the scale of social misery? Of course they aren't. They are not stupid or naive. But the majority of trade union leaders see New Labour as 'their' government, and they have evidently decided to defend it in advance of the next election. Notwithstanding the militancy that is breaking out in various, often unofficial, channels, the commitment to supporting New Labour at all costs remains a hugely conservative force in the labour movement.