Doth they protest too much?

The TUC protest in March set the tone. As Michael White writes in The Guardian: ‘It was billed as the March for the Alternative: Jobs, Growth, Justice. But [it]… never got much beyond sloganising about cutting less and taxing the rich more’. It exhibited a ‘lack of well-honed alternatives’, he says, in what was largely an ’emotional gesture’. For all that the organisers sought to distance themselves from the antics of UK Uncut (of Fortnum and Mason infamy) they had this much in common. Last week activists dressed as doctors and nurses, in a typically melodramatic gesture of their own, occupied banks and turned them into pretend operating theatres and GP surgeries. This ‘radical’ group, who until recently spent their time exposing alleged tax avoidance practices on the High Street, have now widened their campaign to opposing public sector cuts and arguing for banking reform.

And yet, beyond the impressive numbers on that TUC march and the rhetoric of the self-regarding few that went on a trashing-spree of Oxford Street, the battle-cries coming from union leaders this month are too little too late. There is reportedly industrial unrest to come as the unions ballot their members. But without a cohering argument about why we should defend the public sector against cuts, public sector workers are likely to be marching alone. Dominic Lawson argues in The Independent that there is a ‘silent majorityin favour of the cuts. It looks more like indifference to me. The ‘well-mannered alternative‘ march organised by pro-cuts campaigners this month confirmed that they are as marginal as those opposed to them. It wasn’t just the poor showing either. As one of the organisers put it, there is ‘no common position beyond our basic concern about the huge public sector deficit’. Until either side come up with a ‘common position’ we can expect more of this farcical theatre of protest.

Public services … cut the crap

There has been a bit of a spat between critics of the ‘cuts’ and supporters of ‘savings’ being made in public services. But the focus on the language used is perhaps a distraction for those who lack a political alternative. But what of the substance? The Centre for Social Justice argue that the cuts have proceeded on the basis of ‘hunches’ rather than a considered view of where efficiencies can be made. (The use of PFI is reportedly on the increase.) Too many public services are failing to ‘tackle real problems and improve people’s lives’ say CSJ. Instead, there continues to be a focus on ‘crude outputs’ over outcomes. But its not just cuts to spending that the public sector is faced with, there is also a campaign to cut carbon emissions by a quarter over the next five years. What is missing in all of this is an alternative. Even the likes of Ed Balls who used a mildly critical report from OECD on the government’s economic policy isn’t opposed to the cuts in principle. While he objects to the coalition’s decision to ‘stick with deep and fast cuts and refuse to even consider a plan B’, the opposition don’t really have a plan B themselves. They just want the cuts to be a little shallower and to take a little longer to implement. Its severe pain now, or long drawn out but not quite so bad pain under Labour. Which would you prefer? Despite this Ed Miliband had the audacity to campaign in the local elections as the ‘community’s first line of defence’ against the cuts! Of course, the Liberal Democrats came out the worst in those elections, and wasted no time in blaming their poor showing on the cuts. Clegg even outdid Miliband in bare-faced cheek distancing himself from Cameron’s Tories and its cut-happy supporters who ‘demand it and like it‘.

Reforms? What reforms?

So what are we to make of the public service reforms promised in the much anticipated white paper? Cameron describes them as the most profound since the creation of the welfare state. Critics say the reforms, or at least the public statements made about them so far, lack coherence. What is going to change then? The state monopoly on services will come to an end, says Cameron. I’ve spent most my career working in social care and, believe me, the state is far from having a monopoly over the provision of those services – and it is no bad thing. But there is clearly a lot more of this to come. There is much excited talk, for instance, about the creation of new social enterprises, co-ops and employee owned mutuals.

Cameron’s new head of policy development Paul Kirby wants to  ‘shift decision-making about solving the fiscal problem from Whitehall to the millions of people who produce and consume public services’. He also wants to see the end of block contracts and budgets based on historical spends, and more ‘payment by results’ and budgeting decisions delegated to individuals and communities. But is any of this especially new? Polly Toynbee warns of Pickles’ ‘anti-public shock troops’ bent on invading a  rather idyllic sounding public sector: a ‘precious, civilising embodiment of our best collective endeavours’. While the cuts will no doubt do their damage, these reforms are only the latest in a long line of ‘modernising’ initiatives aimed at public services.

Indeed, it all sounds very New Labour to me. Which is perhaps why, as Toynbee rightly points out, Labour find themselves ‘conflicted by a hundred quandaries’ in opposing them. But there is also a real nervousness in the coalition – particularly in the ranks of its junior partner – about how the reforms will be received. The last thing they want is to be accused, as they are being, of privatising public services. Far from the proposed public service reforms revealing Cameron’s ‘runaway ideology‘, as Toynbee has it, the botched NHS reforms point to an absence of conviction and a profound loss of nerve in government.

Forget public service cuts: it’s the size of the state sector we should worry about

“The main reason people come to work in the public sector is the desire to make a difference to society.” So said Andy Robling, director, public services, at recruitment agency Hays. And yet a recent survey by Hayspaints a depressing picture of mass redundancy and poor morale. It led David Brindle to argue that the sector needs to rebrand itself around the “ethos of public service“.

After more than a decade in local government I have to admit I don’t know what this means any more. I was made redundant a couple of months ago and, perversely given the implications for my own situation, I felt like one of the lucky ones. The truth is that these crumbling institutions need more than a lick of paint. The brand has been out of sorts for some time now – both for those of us “on the ground” and those unlucky enough to depend on public services.

With the exception of those whose livelihoods depend on it – reportedly half a million took to the streets in March – there has been a notable absence of opposition to the cuts from the wider public. The funny thing is that for all the official plaudits, nobody dare mention the apparent indifference of the supposed beneficiaries of public services. The institutions borne of the welfare state are far from “cherished”, as the leader of the opposition would have us believe. If anything, they are endured because of the lack of an alternative.

Of course this isn’t helped by the hypocrisy of their supposed defenders. We should be asking searching questions of those who claim to oppose the cuts and yet, scandalously, are simultaneously implementing them. When Joe Anderson, the leader of Liverpool council, joined threatened staff on their march against the cuts, he was rightly booed for his shameless hypocrisy. But he is just one of many local politicians claiming impotence in the face of cuts rather than truly opposing them. Town halls up and down the country are guilty of such doublespeak.

Still it is depressing, not least for those of us who have made our living in a sector that we once held out at least some hope for, to hear the relentless obsession with cuts. And yet, for all that this myopia suggests an absence of ideas about how to improve things, can we really afford to ignore the implications of the growth of the public sector? That the public debt is at unprecedented levels is well documented. But it is worth reminding ourselves that more than 6 million people are working for the state, and state spending accounts for over half of the nation’s GDP. While that no doubt bothers market economy enthusiasts, it doesn’t bother the rest of us nearly enough.

Anyone with a healthy hostility to officialdom and a creeping regard for society (big or otherwise) should be concerned by this. It is not so much that the state is a drain on private enterprise; it is more that the political culture it gives expression to inhibits social enterprise. It crowds out – to borrow a phrase – the social action on which a healthy society is dependent. If we are to revive the public service ethos and defend public services that people need and want, we must first develop a respect for people’s autonomy and begin to recognise their capacity to run their own lives.

Public service or victim support?

Patrick Butler at The Guardian says we have ‘entered into a new phase of the cuts’. His Cutswatch blog is tracking how ‘local cuts are changing the lives of individuals and communities in small but often significant ways’.  ‘The effects will be seen from mental health, substance abuse and homelessness to libraries and swimming pools’ he says. Amelia Gentleman explains that while local government will continue to carry out its statutory functions, ‘people with requirements that are one notch short of urgent will have to fend for themselves’. But even this is in question. ‘Dead bodies could start piling up, strip clubs could be set up on any street corner and vulnerable children could be left without care’ according to one report. Unison, it turns out, are worried about the catastrophic impact of proposals coming from Pickle’s CLG to remove certain statutory duties.

We hear about how vulnerable this or that group is and how they’re going to get the worst deal as the spending cuts bite. ‘Young people bear brunt‘ concludes a recent survey of local authorities. No its not, its refugees who will suffer, says another study, as funding is withdrawn. Then again, another finds that women will be the ‘worst-hit by spending cuts‘, particularly those in abusive relationships and single mothers struggling to cope with less money. People with disabilities, not to be outdone, also claim to be the most put upon as their benefits are cut. They even called their march the Hardest Hit. Given their less than sympathetic public profile, the Police Federation’s recent ads resort to adopting victim status by proxy. Featuring a child cowering from an abusive parent, the strap-line reads: ‘Consequences of 20% cuts to policing?’.

Of course you might argue that some people are genuinely vulnerable and need support. But is this competitive victimhood really the best way of arguing for the public services that they, and the rest of us, need? Hiding behind the supposed vulnerability of members of the public is not a good argument. While the impact of the cuts will no doubt have a disproportionate impact on the worse off, public servants and campaigners need to make a positive case for public services.