With the coalition’s cuts set to impact all areas of public spending, many civil society organisations, community groups and charities are growing increasingly concerned about the effect they will have on the people and causes they represent.
For all the rhetoric around the Big Society, the reality so far has proven rather different, with charities losing funding and many of the most vulnerable sections of society bearing the brunt of the cuts agenda.
Some charities have focused solely on defending their own area of funding, while others are looking to build a united front – and representatives of this latter group met in London last week to start initial discussions on how charities, community groups and civil society can build a united resistance to the cuts.
The meeting was off the record, so I’m not going to quote people or give a line by line account – save to say that it was productive and focused on strategy – but here are some of the suggestions and ideas that emerged during the meeting. As will be apparent, it covered a fairly wide range of topics.
Just to note, these aren’t necessarily my suggestions – just some of the points that were raised:
- A key period will be between the finalising of the Labour cabinet on 30th September and the Spending Review on 20th October – the Labour leadership will be working out its approach to the cuts agenda during this time, making it the key three-week period when we (or those in Labour, at least) will have to try and exert maximum pressure on the leadership to take a solid anti-cuts line (etc). Labour will be stuck with whatever it says on Oct 20th until 2015, so it’s a crucial one-off chance to try and influence them as far as possible.
- Tax avoidance was repeatedly raised as a key issue that needs to be highlighted, both on the fairness point and as a means of reducing the deficit without cutting services. Many organisations that have in the past focused on the impact of tax avoidance on poorer countries are acutely aware that it features heavily in the deficit debate here in Britain.
- The C1C2 group of middle income voters is a very powerful block that isn’t being engaged properly – we need to identify set piece government cuts that affect C1C2s and mobilise that group (e.g. bus passes and winter fuel payments).
- We in the anti-cuts movement have to be ready to suffer some defeats over the next year, as the government will be able to drive through much of its agenda through at first – so we will have to be able to maintain people’s confidence during these setbacks in order to win the long game. It’s important to find high-profile set piece ‘wins’ that can be achieved during this first year – specifically chosen fights with the government on big issues that we can win. However, we need to do so without pitting one campaign against another.
- Local government could provide local campaigners with a chance to score early victories, albeit on individual cuts rather than the entire local government cuts programme. Scotland and Wales also provide opportunities for early breakthroughs, together with London in advance of the 2012 mayoral election.
- Different sectors must avoid ‘nimby’ campaigning to protect their ‘bit’ by arguing that the government should cut some other sector instead – a form of cutthroat defence. There was a suggestion that different campaigners should enter into some kind of ‘non-aggression’ pact that would avoid different sectors competing against each other for funding. It might also be a way of working with those many charities and lobby groups that are wary of taking overtly political stances against the entire cuts agenda, but are protecting their own sector.
- Developing that point further, it’s important that we try and spot in advance issues that could divide sections of the anti-cuts movement, and act early to reach some kind of accommodation to defuse any potential trouble. An obvious example would be possible tensions between certain environmental groups and industrial trade unions.
- Since bailiffs coming to evict non-payers were a major focal point of anger at the poll tax, there was a suggestion of holding protests at county courts when there are eviction hearings of people forced out of their homes due to housing benefit cuts.
- Co-operation between campaign groups may work best on the basis of mutual support rather than a formal coalition. Trying to get all the member organisations of a formal coalition to agree to joint statements can prove more hassle than it’s worth.
- Legal challenges to elements of the cuts agenda (judicial reviews etc) could be an important tool. Austerity programmes rely on making a lot of headway in the first year or two – if the austerity programme gets bogged down in the first couple of years, people start losing patience and the programme is in trouble. Judicial reviews and other forms of legal challenges could help put a spanner in the works, and drag things out. Unison have clearly adopted this approach with regards to Andrew Lansley’s NHS White Paper.
I’d be interested to hear readers’ thoughts on those points and others. There’ll be more on this civil society initiative as it progresses.
P.S: Apologies for the rather sporadic updates of late – I’ve been very busy compiling some large Freedom of Information requests. More on those when they come through. Updates will continue to be sporadic until early-mid October.