‘Divide and Rule’ is a well-worn phrase for good reason. It is such a standard component in the tool-box of the powerful. There was little sign of civic Scotland promoting a united front during the General Election campaign and there are no strong grounds for confidence that it will happen now. It is possible but it needs leadership. The pressure to protect sectional interests has understandably been great and will get much greater and the risk is that the emphasis will be on union versus union, local government versus Scottish Government, public sector versus voluntary sector. This is, of course, what the Con-Lib Government want and it is also what the previous Labour Government wanted. If we can’t develop a coherent, broadly-based response based on values to which the public will respond, the Westminster Government will drive through drastic cuts while the resistance is pulled in different directions.
There are good examples of building co-operative civic campaigns. The campaign for a Scottish parliament in the 1980s and 90s was one. Make Poverty History was another as was the opposition to the Iraq war. In Scotland there has been the anti-Trident campaign developed by Scotland’s For Peace and the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND). The main Scottish churches, certainly at leadership level, put considerable effort into promoting this as did the Scottish TUC and most of the unions. Campaigns may not achieve success but there is unlikely to be success without campaigns. We have not seen an effective campaign on the issues that have arisen out of the banking crisis and the economic outcomes. Individually people are angry and feel that there has been a complete distortion of natural justice but this has not been channelled into public protest because nobody has led it. Part of this was because there was a Labour Government in power and some of the unions who might have initiated protest were compromised by their party involvement. The SNP were also compromised because, while more radical than Labour on many issues, they were equally complicit in supporting uncritically an out-of-control financial sector. Nor did we have Left think-tanks to promote a radical analysis of what was happening and alternative policies. Civic Scotland did not have a clear idea of what to do and did not have the leadership to develop a strong campaign against the dramatic failures of neo-liberalism.
Now that there is a Tory-Liberal government and major public expenditure cuts are imminent (which would also have happened with the previous government), we will get some organised public protest. However will there be a clear alternative strategy and will there be any real unity beneath the slogans and the banners? When groups are pitted against each other in job and resource cuts, can there be an effective overarching national campaign? In the context of organisations that have loyalties to either Labour or SNP in the run-up to Holyrood elections, will civic Scotland demand that there is a united front against Westminster decisions? If any of this is to happen, there needs to be a lot of preparation with the potential divisive issues identified and addressed. Among the divisive issues that need to be examined are voluntary versus public sector, resource competition within public services and among user groups. If we let these fester, then we will get united demonstrations on the streets and bitter rows in the workplaces and communities.
One of the most sensitive areas of potential conflict is voluntary sector versus public sector and the roots of this tension go back to the Thatcher period. The idea of Compulsory Competitive Tendering was introduced by the Conservatives into public services to open up opportunities primarily for the commercial sector and to fragment the labour force, thus weakening its bargaining power. It was continued with minor alterations by Labour. Engagement with the ‘contracts culture’ was controversial in voluntary organisations at its inception but on balance it was felt that there was little option and some larger organisations saw opportunities for growth.
The voluntary sector covers a very diverse range of organisations and objectives and plays a crucial role in representing many of the least privileged and in innovative policy and project work. Most of the sector is radical and egalitarian in its ethos (if we forget the scandal of private schools having charitable status) but is in most cases very financially insecure. The concern is to prevent the sector being used as a stalking horse for the objectives of others while protecting the important work done and trying to develop a new division of labour. The English situation has been much more problematic than that in Scotland and this is set to increase. There was a clear strategy south of the border, driven by the Labour Government, to use the voluntary sector and pseudo-charitable organisations in the forms of trusts as a bridgehead to break public sector control. Typical of this was the Future Services Network launched in 2006 bringing together the CBI, the National Consumer Council and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. The Prime Minister’s Office briefed about a ‘coalition of the willing’ planning to take over more public service provision with the probation service, employment services and health as areas where the voluntary sector and business could work together. This was in addition to the aim of transferring ownership and control of schools to trusts, initially ‘not for profit’ but with private business encouraged to form partnerships. Foundation hospitals were part of this market agenda ultimately to contract out the public sector for the benefit of the private sector with pseudo-charitable sector organisations used as a bridgehead. The enthusiasm for this approach from groups like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute who hardly have a natural affinity with voluntary sector egalitarian values, tells us what we need to know. Genuine voluntary organisations will be discarded when convenient. They may be left with the more difficult, less profitable parts of a service that no-one else wants to take on, helping to manage residual social problems arising from poverty and inequality at cut-price. The Tory-Liberals will accelerate this in England. Scotland has not gone down this route to anything like the extent in England and it still has the protection of the Scottish Parliament but public expenditure cuts will produce tensions.
The starting point in developing a co-operative approach to voluntary/public sector relations should be a shared understanding of the wider economic-political context. With markets that are close to saturation-point in many aspects of personal consumption in the richer countries (without a redistribution of wealth to the bottom 20%), the one big area of potential growth in which corporate power has been restricted is that of public service provision. We have seen the drive, promoted by the IMF and the World Bank, to take over aspects of this provision in poorer countries but the real prize would be the European public services. The opening up of these services to private capital was the Thatcher contribution, continued with enthusiasm by New Labour. Lobby groups like the US-based Coalition of Service Industries have been pushing the case to allow service corporations greater rights to enter the markets of other countries. UK corporations like Serco are actively seeking business. Recent privatisation like Air Traffic Control, Prisons, Search and Rescue and the massive PFI programme has kept up the momentum but the drive is to open the doors wider in health, education and welfare. These services are long-term in their implications, have major social costs if they go wrong, have a high ethical dimension and are not simple commodities that can be easily traded. We need to get rid of market approaches and instead to develop other reforms in the public sector together with a valued role for the voluntary sector. The aim should be flexible team working, multi-tasking, clear and simple lines of accountability and continuity of personnel, with the voluntary sector given a respected role. Long before CCT or Best Value had been heard of, there was a substantial voluntary sector presence in elderly, child, disabled, homeless care and in recreation. Greater understanding of the complexities of social problems and the desirability of testing different approaches e.g in treatment of offenders, rough sleeping, ethnic integration, children with behavioural problems – will bring in voluntary sector vision and expertise because it is needed. Much of the community-based voluntary work gives good value for low cost. We need to get unions, local authorities, voluntary sector umbrella organisations working together and not fighting it out with mutual recrimination.
Seeking to minimise the tensions between different public service workers and users will be challenging and will undermine any campaign against cuts. It is already underway – teachers promoting their case, police pushing theirs, nurses theirs. Who and what will bring them together for more than a token demonstration? The ‘who’ probably needs a specific new body to campaign against public service cuts which is broader than the unions, bringing in other civic groups, representing users and the voluntary sector with the aim of developing both a critique of Westminster policy and a programme of action. That programme is needed. Even if we can build up an effective campaign of resistance, the best we can expect in the short run is to modify the extreme expenditure cuts the Coalition is proposing. If we don’t work out the values that should guide decisions on expenditure priorities, then the decisions will be reached on the basis of political expediency, on the basis of who can exert most pressure or simply on the basis of incoherent drift. Can we reach agreement on priorities? The crude reference to front-line services does not offer much guidance – it is election-speak. But we can start to look at principles. If we decide that the important thing for social reasons as well as to maintain services is to keep jobs, then accepting a sharing of costs with a pay-freeze plus a reduction for the top earners should be accepted. But only accepted if it comes with maintaining jobs. If we want to sustain much of the community work carried out by voluntary sector groups, then we need to end the council tax freeze even if it is a flawed tax. Do we need to revive the ‘penny for Scotland’ option and use the Scottish Parliament’s tax power? These are the questions that need to be discussed with the difficult aim of reaching a civic consensus in Scotland that could be presented to the public as fair and which would be difficult for the parties to ignore even in the rancorous run-up to the 2011 election. It will need the unions to accept decisions which some of their members won’t like but if it comes with less unemployment and fewer service cuts, there is a big social gain. It will need the wider public to pay a bit more in tax when other costs are also rising but there will be social gains. The only way this will work is if we are clear about the principles underlying decisions, can reach a broad agreement on them and promote them to the public. For all of this, we need real civic leadership. Who will provide it?