We all want a Better Way – anyone know what it is yet?

All roads point south this morning as thousands of hardy souls cram trains and charabancs to descend on London for the TUC’s March for the Alternative

Here’s hoping everyone arrives and returns home in one piece, though it isn’t a given, for the Met Police are already counting on there being trouble which they will need to contain.  Helpfully, they have revised their approach to kettling and insist they won’t keep anyone with children or with “frailties” any longer than is necessary.  Good of them to be so considerate.

The burd thought about going but other things got in the way.  Had I been free, I still would have hesitated for a number of reasons.

Call me a hoary old parochialist but I don’t totally get the point of us all trailing to London to demand an alternative or protest about cuts to services in our communities.  Like the anti-Iraq war protests, wouldn’t it have been better to have had country specific marches all happening on the same day? Everyone congregating in London means the network broadcasters will cover it but Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish channels and newspapers will pay it scant attention: much more effective, surely, would have been a total UK hit in media terms.

This would also have enabled more people to participate: 160,000 from all over the UK isn’t a huge statement out of over 50 million.   But perhaps the model is also at fault.  Why was the tiny Stop the War coalition successful in creating a much bigger response to its key aim?  Because it brought trade unions, churches, political parties, activists and concerned individuals, charities and voluntary organisations in and used their reach to cascade support. 

Today is quite clearly a trade union led and dominated gathering, which in itself puts many people off.   Consequently, opposition to today can stand back and point to the narrowness of the base of their appeal.  It’s all about public sector workers protecting their own jobs at the expense of everyone else, they will chime.  The more inclusive and expansive your coalition, the harder it is for opposing forces to poke holes in its defences.  Most of those marching today will quite clearly be of a leftie bent – takes one to know one, after all – yet there are many people in the centre and on the right in voting terms who would undoubtedly support the idea of an Alternative and are certainly unhappy with the slash and burn approach of the ConDem government.  They just wouldn’t want to associate with the left in order to make that known.

But the main reason I hesitated is the one which has made me pause all along – and fits with the theme of many blog posts in recent months.

We all want a better way but does anyone know what it is yet?

There is much to agree with and commend in the STUC’s platform for a Better Way but reading it, I can’t help seeing at its core, a yearning for a return to the supposedly halcyon days of the 1970s.  Certainly, back in those days, people enjoyed better employment rights, though it could also be interpreted as the unions enjoying disproportionate power.  And yes, we made things, very often big, tangible things that we could all be proud of, but wasn’t our workforce, partly because of entrenched attitudes but also because of cultural mores, much more male dominated then?  As for public services, don’t we actually have more and better now than we ever did then? 

A living wage and fairer taxes are probably something we could all sign up for.  But there is also a gaping big hole on what the “alternative” actually looks like.  The section on jobs is fairly two dimensional and adopts some very big assumptions: if our “modern industrial strategy” was predicated on toxic waste disposal and arms manufacture, would we still want it?

The STUC also supports the Green New Deal – as does the burd – but again, its key tenets are narrow. One of the SNP Government’s biggest triumphs, which it does not trumpet enough in terms that ordinary folk can understand, has been its adoption of and investment in the renewable technologies of the future.  It’s not just about supporting research and development, it’s about training and skilling our young people to benefit from the opportunities that will exist in years to come.   It is coherent but cannot add up to a whole economic strategy:  the approach always prompts me to ask, what about the rest of us? 

There are many other areas requiring investment in innovation and new technologies to future proof our economy and society – the health and care sector is a key one.  We need to find ways to support an elderly population at much less cost, and fast.  The assumption currently – practically everywhere- is that the NHS is required to fix us all well into our 80s and 90s, deploying a top down, producer interest focused approach that disincentivises people to keep well.  Yet we will not be able to afford that kind of NHS and need to be creating the technologies, social care practices, skills and knowledge that will keep ourselves, our economy and society functioning on a more than “good enough” basis.

Yet, you won’t find this kind of Alternative anywhere in the STUC’s platform, nor in any political manifesto this election.  Partly because it requires a huge shift in economic thinking to strategise about a sector that is currently low paid, low skilled and largely female dominated, but mainly because such an Alternative requires acknowledgement that we need wholesale public sector reform and an entirely new way of designing, planning and delivering public services.  When the vast majority of your members are currently employed in that sector, and the two main rivals for government are fighting to secure the vote of these workers, well, you can see why this ain’t anyone’s current idea of a better way.

Of course, there is an Alternative to the ConDem slash and burn approach to public services.  Undoubtedly, there is a Better Way.  But it doesn’t involve going back to the future, nor maintaining the status quo.