A meeting that may be a sign of things to come took place in London a few weeks ago. Two former Liberal government bureaucrats from Canada – Jocelyne Bourgon and Marcel Massé – met with leading British Tories and senior civil servants.
Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, chaired the meeting, at which Tory shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Phillip Hammond was present.
The subject discussed was the lessons of what happened in Canada when it drastically cut its budget in the 1990s in the aftermath of a recession.
Bourgon and Massé were key figures in implementing these cuts. The meeting showed how serious the Tories and top civil servants are in pushing through attacks on public spending after the next general election.
If the Tories intend to follow in the footsteps of Canada’s Liberals, then there is trouble ahead for workers and the poor.
The Canadian Liberals took office in 1993, reducing the Tories to just two seats. The Tories had earned the justifiable anger of the electorate by presiding over a recession that pushed unemployment over 10 percent.
This recession had sent budget deficits to record levels – £22 billion for the federal government, more than $32 billion if provincial government deficits were added. The Liberals announced that this had to end, and they acted ruthlessly.
Finance minister Paul Martin – working with Bourgon and Massé – began to make cutbacks that devastated health, education and social assistance across the country.
In a very short time central government spending had been slashed by 20 percent. Close to 50,000 public sector workers, employed were sacked.
That was just the tip of the iceberg. The principle mechanism the Liberals used to slash spending was to change the rules by which tax money was shipped out to the provinces.
This reduced the amount of money given to the provinces – which fund healthcare, education and social assistance.
The Liberal cuts created an environment that brought the most vicious and right wing Tories to the forefront. In Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, Mike Harris took office in 1995.
He was only too happy to see state money drying up. He was a real Thatcherite, eager to cut as deeply as he could.
He wasted little time. Social assistance was cut by over 20 percent with one blow. Suddenly Toronto was a city full of beggars. Food bank use soared. Education budgets were slashed, leading to crowded classrooms and fewer education assistants while high school students saw one year of schooling eliminated entirely.
Healthcare budgets were slashed, leading to crowded emergency rooms, lack of beds, and patients abandoned in hospital corridors.
All of this took place in an atmosphere of racism and scapegoating, culminating in the 1997 police shooting of young First Nations’ Aboriginal rights’ activist Dudley George.
Trade union leaders had no idea how to respond. The New Democratic Party (NDP) – Canada’s Labour Party – led the government that presided over the recession. This had paved the way for Harris’s cuts.
Many of the attacks had begun under the NDP. Union leaders closely tied to the NDP were frozen.
But a response did come. Students led the way in January 1995, staging a nationwide strike that prevented a massive increase in tuition fees.
A September 1995 protest against hospital cutbacks saw 10,000 hospital workers in Toronto walk off the job and march to the seat of government. A series of small community coalitions sprang up which hounded the Tories at every turn.
Finally, when the Ontario Federation of Labour met, the 2,000 delegates – who were much closer to the anger of the rank and file than their demoralised leadership – voted to launch a series of one-day, one-city general strikes to oppose the cuts.
These “Days of Action” were magnificent. The first, in December 1995, shut down the industrial city of London, Ontario.
Thousands of workers illegally walked out, some of them carrying signs saying, “London, Paris” – inspired by the great wave of strikes breaking out in France. The February 1996 strike in Hamilton, Ontario, saw a massive crowd of 100,000 people take to the streets.
The high point was the inspiring Toronto strike. On 25 October 1996 one million people stayed away from work. The next day 350,000 marched past the Tory conference.
Tragically, the union leadership threw away this anger. Again and again, they used the days of action as safety valves, letting workers blow off steam but refusing to mobilise effective action.
In the autumn of 1997 the best chance to take decisive action occurred. Tens of thousands of Ontario teachers walked out in a two-week illegal strike.
Had the call gone out for a sympathy general strike, the Tories could have been stopped. It didn’t happen, and the days of action petered to an end.
The lessons for workers in Britain are clear. If the Tories or Labour copy Canada’s Liberals and Tories, then deep cuts are coming.
To stop this happening workers in Britain need to copy the best part of what happened in Canada.
This is the militant tradition of rank and file opposition which resists the cuts even when union leaders refuse to fight.