Let’s leave the anti-cuts rallies and join the fuel protests

by Peter Watt

Cuts, cuts cuts. Across the country, local parties are campaigning to defend libraries, schools and jobs at hospitals. Every cut announced nationally and locally is condemned and the heartlessness of the government blamed.  In fact, to listen to Labour at the moment you would think that the only thing that people are talking about is cuts to public services. But I’m not sure that that is right. In fact, I think it may be a very dangerous assumption to make.

Sure, if you ask people do they agree with closing or their local library, children’s centre or whatever they will say “no”. But that doesn’t mean that they oppose “the cuts” in general. As Atul Hatwal powerfully pointed out on Uncut last week:

The net result of six months of battle on the economy has been literally nothing. No change whatsoever in the 23% majority who view the government’s approach to cutting the deficit as necessary”.

Presumably conscious of this, the two Eds have recently rightly tried to open up a new attack line on the cost of living and the cost of fuel specifically. They are absolutely right to do so. In streets across the country families on modest incomes are beginning to suffer as wages stagnate and prices of basic commodities rise. Last week, Ed Miliband spoke at the launch of a commission by the resolution foundation into the plight of the 11.1 million people in this country on low to middle incomes. Launching the commission, its chair, Clive Cowdery said:

People on low-to-middle incomes are a third of the working population and play a critical role in our economy. It’s now increasingly clear that the pressures they face – from flat wages to rising prices – stem from longer term trends than the recent recession.  The commission we are launching today will examine these trends and how best to respond.”

And in his speech Ed Miliband powerfully set out the growing pressures on families across the country:

For many decades rising prosperity benefitted the bulk of working people.  But that assumption is breaking down. While those at the top have continued to do well, middle earners are no longer guaranteed to share in our nation’s success. The result is a quiet crisis that is unfolding day-by-day in kitchens and living rooms in every town, village and city up and down this country”.

So this quiet crisis is being caused not by cuts but by rising food prices; by petrol, gas and electricity prices rising and by rising public transport costs. At the same time, national insurance will soon rise and VAT is already up. Schools are charging more for the “voluntary contributions” for school trips and prices at leisure centres and swimming pools prices are rising. The list goes on with people seeing a penny on here and a couple of pence there. With inflation expected to keep rising for the rest of the year and a likely interest rate rise that will hit all those with any credit, families who work hard and strive to make ends meet and who are already struggling will find things getting harder.

So it seems that Ed and Ed are onto something. But their efforts risk being undermined by the rest of the movement, who are seemingly trapped in the headlights of simply opposing cuts.  If the public think that the cuts are necessary (and they do) and that the last Labour government is at least significantly to blame (and they do), then our apparent stance on cuts looks ridiculous.

Of course, what we are actually saying is that the cuts are being imposed too fast, not that we shouldn’t cut at all. But the perception is that we, the Labour party, are not willing to take responsibility for the problem that we caused. Every leaflet that brands the cuts as “Tory cuts” merely reinforces this, and our shattered reputation for economic competence takes another hit. And wrongly: we might have cut more slowly but we’d still have cut.

So if we are to win the next general election then we will need to do two things. First, we need to rebuild our economic credibility; and, second, we need to demonstrate that we understand and are on the side of people on low to middle incomes. Spending our time opposing cuts does neither of these things; in fact it undermines both objectives.

Therefore, it is not “cuts” that we should be focusing on, but the price of petrol and diesel. That is an issue that goes to the heart of the daily struggle for millions of families across the country. Pump prices are now at over £1.40 a litre and likely to go higher.  Of this £1.40, 63% is tax.  The government is alive to this and rumours are rife of concessions on tax, the introduction of a fuel duty stabiliser, and so on. Both Eds have also rightly been talking about the issue by challenging the government to reverse the impact of January’s VAT rise on petrol prices. But they are being drowned out by the rest of the party who are busy opposing cuts.

So if Labour is serious about winning the next election we should stop joining marches opposing cuts and start organising protests against the price of petrol.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party. He is now chief executive of counsel and care.

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8 Responses to “Let’s leave the anti-cuts rallies and join the fuel protests”

  1. John says:

    I see and how exactly will Labour reduce the price of food and petrol?

  2. billgav says:

    Personally I go with make the bankers pay and save the NHS

  3. theboynoodle says:

    national insurance is not really going up for low-to-middle incomes, as the threshold is rising – the break even point on NI alone is £20k – and then there’s the increase in the personal allowance which is going to benefit those people.

    i know it would kill anyone in the labour party to conceed that, at least on the direct taxation front, that the lib-dems have pushed through exactly the sort of sensible and progressive policy that labour got nowhere near in it’s desire to pander to the middle class… but at least don’t lie and suggest that the opposite is happening.

  4. Tacitus says:

    The reality is surely that these cuts are a philosophical choice and not a practical need. By ooposing them we, as socialists are saying we will not stand for attacks on the working class.

    Why does opposition for cuts have to stand alone? Why can’t we fight increases in fuel as part of our overall opposition to the Tories.

  5. Joe says:

    the reason 40% of the public think we’re to blame for the cuts is becase last summer the Labour Party indulged in a four month navel gazing exercise and let the Tories set the total political context.

    now, who was in a position to have done something about that absurd process a few years ago?

  6. Hal says:

    Actually the problem started before the leadership contest: Alistiar Darling conceded the case for cuts before the general election. If he had stood up for the need for the deficit more robustly, we would have a coherent alternative narrative.

  7. Lisa Ansell says:

    When you have finished deciding whether or not their is enough political capital for you in exploiting the hardship the cuts will cause, how about this. Take your ‘support’ for either- elsewhere. Support for the fuel protests or support for those who are losing their futures- oh how will you choose. God forbid that principles should come into it. Stick Labour, stick and your support up your arse. What your question actually means is whose hardship can we exploit to gain the most political capital. Who can you exploit, and have a chance of winning with? Disgusting.

  8. Lisa Ansell says:

    http://lisaansell.posterous.com/political-capital-and-strategy Slightly more eloquent than my somewhat stunned reply, to this amazingly offensive piece.

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