The Long March against the cuts, by Heather Wakefield

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Well, what a turnout! It was no surprise to us in UNISON that half a million resolute  and angry people turned out on Saturday to say ‘no’ to the Coalition’s regime of social vandalism, ‘no’ to the front-loaded cuts in local government and ‘no’ to the mindless marketisation of the NHS.

Those of you who weren’t at the Embankment on Saturday will know by now that old, young, disabled and able-bodied, parents, teachers, black, white, nurses, lawyers and doctors all turned out in vibrant and self-confident opposition to the spiteful and unnecessary dismantling of our welfare state. My union, UNISON, was resplendent throughout in purple and green.

The march from Embankment to Hyde Park was pleasant and short and blessed by sunshine for those of us at the start. The drizzle that started not long into the speeches was perhaps a portent of less pleasurable and tougher times to come. The cuts haven’t started to really bite yet. No doubt the ostrich tendency of the Coalition will be working overtime to tell itself that it is not under attack and carry on regardless.

Carnival-like marches might win the short-term psychological battle, but they won’t win the political war. For sure, they keep spirits high, build solidarity and remind us that there are millions out there who want an end to Coalition cuts, but alone they are not enough. There is much more to do.

Those of us in trade unions, opposition parties, campaign groups, community organisations, academia (and, dare I say – football clubs) have to work tirelessly to dispel the myths that underpin the Coalition’s insistence on making the majority pay for rich minority’s mistakes. Now is the time to build local and novel opposition through simple messages, old-style community organising and new ‘relational’ politics a la Citizens UK, to challenge councillors and MPs supporting cuts at every turn.

We intend to develop local organisation throughout the UK which can come together in a truly Big Society, but a Big Society Against the Cuts. It must be long-term and sustainable to make sure that politics changes forever and that Labour too is forced to address the real needs of the poor and the ‘squeezed middle’ , acknowledge the contribution of public service workers and the ravages of privatisation. We must see off Coalition and anti-public sector candidates in the forthcoming local elections and vote instead for those who recognise that the welfare state exists not just for comfort, but as an essential ingredient of a strong economy and a cohesive society.

I may have shared this with Public Finance readers before, but I will share again the words of historian Caroline Steedman in her autobiographical work ‘Landscape for a Good Woman’. Recalling a south London childhood in the 50’s she says: “I think I would be a very different person now if orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had  a right to exist, was worth something”.

The Coalition ignores that message – and the No Cuts Big Society at its peril. Getting the terraces at Stamford Bridge behind the message will be a challenge, but I’m on the case!

Heather Wakefield is head of local government at Unison

About Heather Wakefield

Heather Wakefield is head of the Local Government Service Group of the UK’s largest public service trade union Unison, representing over 700,000 of the union’s 1.4 million members. She was previously a researcher and regional official for the union, and a women’s rights officer for NCCL (Liberty). Heather is a regular commentator on local government and women’s issues.

4 comments on The Long March against the cuts, by Heather Wakefield

  1. Neil says:

    Yes – you’re correct Heather:
    Those of us in trade unions, opposition parties, campaign groups, community organisations, academia (and, dare I say – football clubs) have to work tirelessly to dispel the myths that underpin the Coalition’s insistence on making the majority pay for rich minority’s mistakes.

    Unfortunately it’s those of us over 50 formerly in the private sector with no realistic pensions (after Gordon Brown’s raid in 1997), no realistic chance of work again, who have to pay through the
    nose for the fat cats’ (does a certain millionaire called Blair come to mind) mistakes.

    Yes, the bankers screwed everyone and should pay their share; yes the overpaid bureaucrats who you represent should have turned down their bonuses in every part of the public sector – NO-ONE should earn over £100K of public money – and that should funnel down to Deputies, Assistants, assistant deputies etc – but that would be missed by NALGO (or whatever it’s latest iteration is).

  2. Hilary Mellor says:

    Thank you Heather for your very clear picture of things to come. I only hope that those who work within local government lifted their heads when watching those who walked the walk and talked the talk on 26th March, I’m proud to be a Unison member and will fight to the end verbally of course.
    Thanks Neil for your comments and whilst I agree with your comment on pay etc, you are a little kinder than myself, as I feel the cap should stop at £80,000 within local government as if you can’t live on that than the rest of us have no chance.

  3. Public sector worker says:

    Neil – your misconception of public sector workers is risible. Are you a Daily Mail reader?

    I’ve worked very hard in the public sector for 23 years and never once had a bonus. Most of my colleagues haven’t either. And we’re not overpaid bureaucrats, we’re ordinary people who keep the things around you going. Every day you and millions of others depend on services we provide, services which, if you came in and spent some time at our workplaces, you might not have even realised you relied on. Come in and see what we do instead of standing outside, sniping.

    As for your assertion that no one in the public sector should earn over £100k, that seems at odds with the last Conservative government’s notion that to get experienced private sector managers into the public sector, they had to pay private sector rates. Think about your assertion….would you like to see positions of enormous public responsibility paid far less than the appropriate rate, thereby failing to attract the right skills, leading those posts to be taken by under experienced and under skilled candidates?

    The current government’s requirement that ideally no public sector employee should earn more than the PM’s allowance is misguided too. The PM is paid as the political leader, the national equivalent of the leader of the council if you like. The relevant salary to compare senior posts with should be that of the highest paid civil servant post, i.e. the chief of the paid workforce, not the political figurehead.

    All this talk of high salaries makes me wish I earned more than I do. After nearly 10 years of studying for (and passing) professional exams and the aforementioned 23 years work, I found out recently that local bus drivers earn more than I do, so please don’t believe the pro-banker anti public sector nonsense peddled by the likes of Sky, the Telegraph and others.

  4. Neil says:

    Hi Public Sector Worker. I can assure you that I am not a Daily Mail reader – just a simple statistic in the trail of the current sacrifices initiated by the failure of the bankers to understand their business models. They should not receive a penny until everything they have borrowed from the British Taxpayer has been repaid with interest – so maybe that puts my position in place.

    I’m sorry you have missed out on the bonus culture which appears to pervade the public and private sector now. Bonuses should be for exceptional performance over and above (for every £1,000 saved from the recurring budget by positive action, a 5% commission should be payable to the saver) – everyone who deserves one on those terms should receive their dues.

    I will agree with you that all pay should be linked to the highest civil servant post: however that, I suggest, should not exceed that of the appropriate departmental minister: e.g the Cabinet Secretary’s salary should not exceed that of the Prime Minister; the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office should not exceed the Home Secretary etc.

    My issue is that there has been a gradual upping far in excess of the private sector, especially when pension contributions are taken into account. The value of a fully indexed pension is far in excess of anything comparable in the ‘real world’ of contributions pots for the vast majority of us.

    It is a case that we all have to do our bit. I’m not decrying the hard work I’m sure you put in. It’s just that the deficit is nothing to do with the banks – it’s all to do with revenue spending far in excess of income, with the gap being met by borrowing. To cut Government expenditure means cutting staff and benefits dramatically – I’m very sorry – I wish it wasn’t so.

    Your reasonable post deserved a reasoned response. Unfortunately, IMHO, union leaders simply trying to adopt a head in the sand approach is just giving you false hope. The cuts haven’t started to bite yet – this is just the fat being trimmed. 2012/13 will go to the bone.

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