It’s pretty obvious that, as Seumas Milne has pointed out, the focus put on public spending cuts by the Tories has succeeded in diverting the political debate away from the inherent instability of capitalism (and neo-liberal capitalism in particular) and the crimes of the banks towards the need to clear the debt by slashing public spending.
Labour, of course, after putting out mixed messages over the summer, has acquiesced to this agenda. This is only natural given that they now share the same fundamental world view as the Tories.
The Left does need to continue to point out that cuts would not be painless as is suggested, and that they would mean workers paying for the folly and greed of the bankers and the capitalist system as a whole.
But as always, we don’t set the agenda, the capitalist parties and the capitalist media (the BBC included, being a semi-autonomous arm of the capitalist State) do. This means that we have to respond to the questions and situations posed by that agenda. The ‘common sense’ position being spouted by all three main parties, and in general the media as a whole, is that the national debt is too large, and needs to be reduced to make it more manageable. Spending cuts and, to a lesser extent, tax rises are posed as the only way to do this.
The Tories are positively salivating at the mouth at the prospect of cuts. The dirty little secret is that despite occasional hints that they will agonise over every cut, Labour are relishing it somewhat as well. New Labourites get a special little glint in their eye when they are doing something that is Right Wing and that will be perceived to be ‘tough’, and proving that they can be ruthless slash and burners will give the likes of Mandelson a warm fuzzy feeling inside, to last them until they take up their lucrative directorships next Summer.
So how do we respond to the talk of cuts? We make our arguments as always, and also point out that countries such as France and Germany, which threw even more money at bailing out their economies, and have no immediate plans to clear the debts, are already out of recession, and have not experienced the levels of job losses that the US and Britain have.
We can also point out that there are plenty of measures to reduce spending that the main parties don’t consider, but would be popular and effective. Scrapping Trident and ID cards are the two most obvious measures, as is a complete ban on public bodies paying outside consultants, who usually only recommend job cuts and are largely ignorant bullshit-merchants.
In the NHS, the sheer cost associated with the operating and regulation of a market can be swept away by abolishing that market. The PFI hospitals and companies could be nationalised without compensation, as should the pharmaceutical companies, who overcharge massively for drugs, and whose efforts at introducing and aggressively implementing intellectual property restrictions on medicines condemn millions to an early grave.
In education, again PFI can be despatched, and also the exam boards nationalised. Exam costs take up an unjustifiably high proportion of school budgets, and this money could be freed up to provide more teachers, technology, equipment and books.
The expensive plans to monitor every single citizen either by CCTV cameras (which don’t reduce crime) or by paranoid vetting procedures could also go, and the legalisation of drugs would not only reduce the costs associated with prohibition, of crime, enforcement of drug laws and imprisonment, and damage to health, but also provide a stream of income from the taxation of the narcotics, sold on licensed premises as alcohol is.
Defence is a budget we could gladly take not a scalpel, but a meat cleaver to, with cuts here accompanied by a complete withdrawal from foreign lands, including Germany and Cyprus as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. The subsidising of the murderous arms industry can end as well.
The transport budget can certainly go further than it does at the moment, and a good way of doing that would be the nationalisation of the railways and buses. Not only do they cost more for the passenger in private hands, they cost more to subsidise, as millions are inevitably shovelled into shareholders pockets.
As for welfare, we should always defend the benefits that exist, and seek to improve them, as they are at insultingly low levels. But we can make the argument that if work were shared out on the basis of full employment, the budget for this department would shrink. It’s worth bearing in mind that the social security budget rocketed under the Tories in the 1980s, and is a sign of a damaged society, with millions permanently on the scrapheap.
There is scope to raise money also, and this can be done by properly nationalising the banks that were given State aid, and not paying out any bonuses. A State monopoly of foreign trade combined with sharply progressive taxation of individuals and businesses would also contribute.
We should agree that there is a tremendous amount of money wasted in the public sector. But it is wasted on profiteering spivs, not the wages and pensions of hard working public servants.
The problem with all these measures is that no Government under capitalism will be allowed to carry out such a programme, it would be cut short before you can say ‘military coup’. The greatest thing the Left can do is to take our very reasonable suggestions to workers, responding pro-actively to an agenda not of our own making, and point out that none of the main parties would do it, and even if they tried to, the system would never let them.