Journalists and bloggers like to make predictions at this time of year. Michael Carty published a good roundup of the thoughts of some writers on economics and management, plus a few thoughts of his own, at a minute after midnight on New Year’s Day. I hope it was done using some pre-timed thingy and that he wasn’t sitting there waiting to hit his keyboard while everyone else was sinking into drunken oblivion.
Of course, some of the things that will happen in the early part of this year are predictable. The welfare bill is rising, which has surprised no-one except the government. Equally predictable is the confetti of public sector redundancy notices in January. Most bosses don’t like giving out redundancy letters before Christmas but we are three months away from the start of the next financial year when public sector budgets fall off a cliff. There is a 90-day consultation period and many middle-to-senior level workers are on three months notice. The window for handing out the remaining redundancy notices is going to be pretty tight. Hey, I’ve worked in HR; I know how these things go.
An increase in strikes and protests by public sector workers and students is almost a dead cert too. The government is almost certainly prepared for this, or if it isn’t, it damned well should be. But what if the protests become more widespread?
Most people expect students and public sector workers to protest. OK, the recent student demos have been the biggest for years but the popular image of students is still shaped by the radicalism of previous generations. As for public sector workers, well they are practically the only people who still go on strike, so you’d expect them to kick up too.
In the short-term, protests against spending cuts are likely to be dominated by public sector workers. They are the ones who will feel the pain first. For everyone else, the cuts are still a bit abstract. That will only change when cuts start to affect the services people have come to rely on.
After the poll tax legislation was passed in 1988, relatively small protests by left-wingers and trade unions went on for the next eighteen months or so, trying to convince people that the poll tax was going to be really horrid. But it was not until two months before April 1990, the date the first tax was due to be paid, that mass public unrest started. Only when the payment demands arrived did people realise what the poll tax meant for them and their families.
Something similar could happen with the spending cuts. This will be the year that the public spending cuts move from the abstract to the concrete. By this time next year, most of us will have been affected by the cuts in some way. The extent to which this gets people angry enough to complain, and broadens the protest movement from the usual suspects to the wider public, will determine how uncomfortable things get for the government. There is already some evidence that this is starting to happen, for example, the revolt against corporate tax avoidance led by people with no previous experience of political protest.
We have been talking about public spending cuts for the best part of two years but, for most people, nothing much has happened yet. 2011 will be the year when the spending cuts move from the government reports and newspaper articles and into our daily lives.