Thursday, 5 June 2014

Why is austerity and cuts to public services the consensus?

There's been stories going around for a while that Labour is to join, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the austerity agenda. Despite the obvious negative effects it has on public services, all of the established parties have signed up to it. In some senses they all had in 2010, but there still remained some economic differences between the big three. So the question I ask myself is why the anti cuts movement and the obvious public dislike of cuts to public services and public spending not materialised in either of the Westminster parties?

The effects of austerity are profound and it is obvious the most needy are the worst effected. Some of the prime examples in Cornwall include the shutting down of vital respite centers in Redruth and Truro, the closure of cottage hospitals like Poltair in Penzance (and perhaps soon St Michael's in Hayle too). The ending of council tax support in Cornwall meaning council tax benefit is greatly reduced, compounding the government's bedroom tax policies. But it's not only the most vulnerable individuals but also the most hard pressed of institutions, schools have a massive backlog of infrastructure and maintenance and the most obvious example is the much needed works at Helston school. Roads that at the start of this government were in need of repair are now in a worse state, although a lot of this has been due to the bad weather (which it would probably be unfair to blame on the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.) There is also a myriad of other things that have greatly effected individuals, redundancies, pay freezes, government raids of people's pensions. Cuts to public transport effected the people that live and work in the rural areas the hardest. I don't imagine everything would have been perfect if a government had taken power in 2010 and pledged to stimulate the economy with spending and safeguarded front-line spending. But it is clear things would be different, how would our roads look with the budgets necessary to keep up them of a good standard? What would our town centers be like with public toilets? and the list carries on....

My criticism of austerity has been the same as it has always been, not only the destruction of public services but also the raised prominence of figures in columns, above everything else. Take this passage taken from the Telegraph from Labour's Ed Balls for example:

The shadow cabinet have been told to design policies within the overall spending limits that the Coalition will announce later this month. He said Labour must prepare to operate within “very tough spending plans from this year's spending review”, adding: “They will be our starting point.”
“We will plan, we will expect in 2015-16 that we will inherit the current spending plans that the Chancellor sets out and we will work within them,” Mr Balls said.
“For us to come along now and say we will plan to spend more in 2015-16 would be completely irresponsible.”

It is all about fiscal discipline, there is little consideration for how this will effect public services and what kind of society this ideology will bring. To my mind it focusses on the details so much that the bigger picture is completely lost. I don't mean to overly criticise Labour in this blog they are only doing what the Tories and the Lib Dems have been doing in government for the last 4 years. But I'm sure the coalition would happily endorse the shadow chancellor's sentiments and the only furrowed brows in Westminster will be how to present exactly the same economic policies without giving the game away. I can well imagine meetings between the parties and long acrimonious arguments over who will take the mantle of the Popular Front of Judea and who the Judean People's Front.

This comes as no great surprise to many, the big three (+the small one UKIP), believe in the neoliberalism dogma. Debates over the fundamentals of economics, socialism, capitalism, Keynesian, industrialisation and even privatisation versus nationalisation are not ones heard in Westminster, they are largely now the concern of economic historians and activists outside of the mainstream of UK politics. No doubt there are nuanced arguments within neo-liberalism between Labour, Conservative and the Lib Dems, like how much deregulation is enough? How much should private business dictate working conditions? Should it be Serco or G4S that take over this or that public service? But much like Labour's rather weak opposition of 'the cuts are too far too fast' it's a minor criticism. It approaches the subject from the same angle, the general thrust is agreed and the debate is on minor tweaks. This neo-liberal consensus continues with similar policies on austerity.

This is now a situation we find ourselves in and it is a situation that will continue for the foreseeable future. Local government has been at the forefront of cuts as it is at the forefront of delivering services and this has had a real effect. But it will continue to do so, no one from the major parties has ever campaigned for the cuts to councils to be abated. Sure individual decisions have been questioned, but there's been no uproar at Westminster for cuts to local government to be stopped or for money to be found for specific services.

I don't quite know what to do about this situation and what activists and others can do. Whether they be on the left, in an anti cuts movement or just people that want decent 21st century public services. There's some interesting thoughts from Mike Sagar-Fenton on the subject in a column titled: Close Cornwall down and defeat government greed. A must read which advocates local Councillors telling government politely to stop. Which in a roundabout way echoes Mebyon Kernow's earlier call for Coalition Councillors to resign over cuts. Send a message to the governing parties that they will not be members of parties that are destroying the fundamental services of Cornwall Council. But the fundamental problem in both cases, in my opinion, is that these councillors are signed up to their respective party's policies. That they either don't want to criticise their parties or they are fearful to do so. As we saw with the case of Deborah Hopkin's summary dismissal from the Labour party that critique of the economic order will not be tolerated, I know her's is a special case as the tweets were intemperate and in some cases offensive, but not really wrong in matter of fact and principle. But still it goes to show that local representatives are there to tow the party line and stay 'on message' and for the moment that line is tied firmly to austerity.  

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