Sunday, 19 September 2010

Union protests at Conference

I noticed that there was something resembling a demonstration outside conference today. A group of trade unionists, Labour Party workers, socialists and some liberals (!) marched through Liverpool to Salthouse Dock where there appeared to be a brief rally in the pouring rain.

I do have sympathy with public sector workers. I spoke to some of the protesters - some there, from the NUT particuarly, were hardly your normal lefty militant but came across as primarily concerned about the human and social costs of potential cuts to education. "And we're really not wanting these free schools..." piped up one of them. Fair point.

But they've chosen the wrong target. Coming to protest outside the Lib Dem conference, telling delegates who are liberal to their core that they're nothing but Tories, doesn't seem a terribly effective way of standing up for public sector workers. And their unrealistic mantra, "no cuts to jobs and services", simply demonstrates how both the unions and the left are completely devoid of any constructive or imaginative thinking on the subject.

It's easy, and I should add that it's becoming a little tedious, to point fingers and make accusations of "selling out". It's equally as easy to criticise the government for spending cuts without actively promoting an alternative plan or at the very least responsibly considering the consequences of inaction. Maybe the unions could also accept that even the Labour Party would have been forced to commit itself to significant and unpopular cuts, and that the mess the country is in is largely due to the ineffectiveness of Labour to curb the recklessness of the financial industry.

I'm not suggesting that we should get into a blame game. In one sense, while it in undeniable that the coalition has inherited a difficult position, the only thing that matters is the government's responsibility for tackling the problem. Those with creative and positive ideas for addressing the various ramifications of the nation's financial and economic situation are a welcome part of the solution. Others, who prefer to merely stand outside, make accusations, generate fear and complain about unspecified "cuts", are part of the problem.

There should be a debate on how best to reduce the deficit and how to budget for the coming five years. In this context, it is of course vital to ensure that the social and human dimension is not ignored or overlooked. It is imperative that serious and constructive thought is given to how to effectively manage public services in a socailly responsible (and liberal) way, without making cuts likely to hurt communities.

We are having such a debate within the Liberal Democrats. My own conviction is, as someone with a genuine regard for Keynesian principles, that the coalition is cutting too much, too soon. I know other party activists agree with me and are contributing to the "conversation"; in fact I don't know a Lib Dem who isn't concerned about the future of public services. But mortgaging our children's future for short-term gain is short-sighted and irresponsible. If the unions want to do what is in their members' best interests, I would suggest that sharing platforms with the Socialist Workers' Party, unnecessarily stoking public fear, peddling myths and reverting to party tribalism based on uncritical support for a failed Labour government isn't the best way to do things.

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