Monday 21 June 2010

Against the cuts: let a thousand stories bloom...

Across the left the question coming into focus is: How do we campaign against the cuts?

Labour is not in a good place to lead a campaign, if only because until a couple of months ago the Labour government itself was pledging substantial cuts.

The unions will obviously have a central role in any campaign against the cuts. But there is a strong narrative circulating out there in British society which sees unions as conservative, obstructive and reactionary entities. A campaign that relies too much on the unions, and on stressing the interests of public sector workers, will be very vulnerable to this narrative.

As some commentators at Liberal Conspiracy have pointed out (see comments by Richard Blogger and Cath Elliott responding to a constructive post by Sunny Hundal), it is vitally important that instead of just focusing on the interests of public sector workers, the campaign against cuts focus on the interests of public service users.

At present, politicians - of all parties - find it unthinkable to handle the deficit primarily through tax increases. But draconian cuts to public spending, putting many vulnerable groups at risk, are, apparently, eminently thinkable.

But this is at least in part because 'the cuts' are abstract. People hear of huge sums being lopped off budgets. They might hear that something called the 'Future Jobs Fund' or some quango called BECTA has been cut. But none of this necessarily means very much unless you are directly affected.

The challenge, then, is to make the abstract more concrete, to render the impact of the cuts on the wider citizenry vivid.

As some readers will know, I have a son with a serious medical condition (Duchenne muscular dystrophy). My wife, Kathy, placed an article last week in our local paper, The Oxford Mail, which explained what the condition is and how important it is that the government continue to support research and work to equalize standards of care for children with Duchenne across the country. Since then we've had numerous people - neighbours, parents of our son's school friends - come up to us and say how much they appreciated the article and to ask how, in a modest way, they can help.

These people might be for or against 'cuts' but they are pretty sure they do want to maintain services for children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The concrete need, rendered vivid, is something that resonates.

So perhaps there is a lesson here for the campaign against the cuts: the power of testimony.

The campaign against the cuts should be led by users of public services. And we public service users should use testimony and story to get our message across.

So, for example, what about setting up a website at which people can post their stories? Perhaps people could post short films - 2, 3, or 5 minutes - in which they explain how the cuts affect them. This website could become a testimony bank, a resource for campaigners, something to direct journalists to if they are looking for a story or for that awkward question to ask a Coalition politician. (I don't currently have the technical expertise to do this by myself, but I'm happy to discuss the idea with anyone who has and wants to help - or for anyone out there to just go and do it!)

Testimony matters both because it can be an effective way of engaging people who aren't directly affected by a cut, but also because in itself it is a kind of empowerment. Testimony is a way of making onself visible, of refusing to be the silent, invisible victim. It is an assertion of dignity.

There are many ways to fight the cuts. But high up among them is: let a thousand stories bloom....

1 comment:

Roger Thornhill said...

How about taking this one step further, so people can help others directly?

You know, voluntarily and not via coercion, reconnecting the giver with the receiver.