March for the Alternative . . . but what alternative?

It is vital that trade unions take a more active role in defining the anti-cuts movement.

The demonstration in London on 26 March was billed by the organisers, the TUC, as the "March for the Alternative". The march did, as the unions hoped, "give a voice" to those affected by the cuts and it showed that "people reject the argument that there is no alternative". What is still missing is a clear sense of what the alternative is, or might be.

The ambiguities created by the relationship between the labour movement and the Labour Party didn't help. The organisers decided not to give a platform to anyone from UK Uncut, for example, though that group has done more than anyone else to popularise an alternative to public-sector cuts. It has done this by using direct actions to focus attention on offshore finance and the large-scale tax avoidance and evasion it enables.

UK Uncut has recognised that an alternative to the cuts must be understood in terms of an alternative political economy, one in which the interests of large concentrations of capital do not trump considerations of the public good.

That this campaign group was absent from the schedule of speakers, while Ed Miliband was given a platform to present an "alternative" to the cuts that is itself a programme of cuts, highlights the problem organised labour now faces. In the past, the unions have sought to focus on issues of distribution within a capitalist economy and left the Labour Party to handle the politics – parliament was where the responsible and informed representatives of the working class would preside over a gradual, indeed sometimes imperceptible, move towards social transformation.

But once New Labour dropped even a rhetorical commitment to socialism, the trade unions' efforts to separate the political from the economic would come to seem increasingly irrational and self-destructive. One can only wonder what trade unionists thought when they heard a Labour prime minister boast in 2000 that Britain had "the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world". This is surely not what the unions had in mind when they set out on the long road to political power.

There is a choice

The Labour Party the unions created now believes that there is no alternative to a financialised economy run by privately owned, but publicly guaranteed, banks. Those who control credit must be given every encouragement and inducement and nothing can be proposed that might unnerve the financial markets.

That is the position of the leader of the opposition and his front bench. Union leaders can call on the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party as much as they like. They will not get it while the Labour Party, like the rest of the political class, remains overwhelmingly committed to the neoliberal settlement.

The vast majority of people in the country can see that there is something wrong with this settlement. They can see that Britain's industries have not flourished in the years since 1979. They can see that the public sector has not been improved by the introduction of market mechanisms.

The privatisations that were advertised as a way of introducing vigorous competition and innovation have instead created lazily piratical cartels in one sector after another. Above all, people can see that the financial sector has not used its control of credit to build viable businesses that deliver well-paid jobs to the working majority. Instead, it connived in a vast Ponzi scheme that combined the ethics of organised crime with some bewilderingly complicated mathematics, to devastating effect.

Those who belong to trade unions now have a choice. They can either remain committed to a defensive agenda, which leaves the question of political economy untouched. Or they can begin to ask what an alternative would actually look like.

The UK Uncut movement is a useful place to start. But as one begins to consider taxation, one soon becomes aware that the demand that large businesses pay more tax has profound political implications. Besides, as Ann Pettifor and others have pointed out, the debate must extend beyond taxation and expenditure to embrace the structure of the enterprise, the system of credit and the communications industry.

The British economy is in trouble. The cuts agenda will make things worse, certainly. But it isn't enough to resist them. The model of economic and social organisation adopted in 1979 has failed and will continue to fail.

Fiddling while Rome burns

As for the leaders of the trade unions, they too have a choice. They can remain committed to a narrowly wage-and-conditions agenda and pretend that they have no control over the political party that they bankroll. Or they can begin to re-create their institutions as venues for debate about the common good.

It is workers that create value – both marketable goods and the commonwealth of hospitals and schools and clean streets and safe drinking water. It is workers who must now meet and decide how best to reform matters. Parliament is not responding to the needs of the country. It is fiddling its expenses while putting on a serious expression and insisting that there is no alternative . . . and anyway, it is the other side's fault.

The trade unions have the infrastructure and the organisational ability to host this debate. It also offers them their best chance of survival. This will mean an intense period of discussion and conversation. The relationship with the Labour Party will have to be reconsidered. The role of the unions will need to be reconsidered, too.

The unions can grow and reassert themselves in the national life only if they are able to articulate an account of political economy that addresses both how we distribute private spoils and how we secure the common wealth. It must discover this account in the free conversations and deliberations of its members and it must create the institutional means to share it with the wider nation. The unions will have to go back into the publishing business and will have to stop leaving the politics to others.

If the unions accept, and attempt to negotiate with, the neoliberal settlement they will die. Because capital, aided and abetted by the Labour leadership, will kill them.

Dan Hind is the author of "The Return of the Public" (Verso, £14.99). He blogs here and is on Twitter here.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories