01st Dec 2011

Mediating the Strike

For those non-UK readers of this blog, a brief explanation: yesterday (30.11, or 11.30 if you must!) saw Britain’s biggest day of industrial action for over thirty years. Many of the country’s major trade unions took part, more than 2 million people refused to go to work, and approximately 80% of schools were closed to students. If you were flying in or out of the country, God help you.

Much of the debate about public sector pensions has so far taken place via the media; not, strangely enough, around a negotiating table. So who, thus far, is winning this mediated battle of hearts and minds? The unions or Cameron’s Coalition Government?

What’s most intriguing about the battle is how it compares to previous industrial disputes of the 1970s and 198os. Union leaders and picketers of this era were portrayed by ruling politicians, largely successfully, as loony lefties lacking responsibility and posing a threat to national security/welfare. Mostly infamously, NUM leader Arthur Scargill was represented by Thatcher and the right-wing tabloid press as nothing short of an insane folk devil.

Today’s unions and their leaders, however, are a different kettle of fish. Far from labelling them extreme loonies, articulate voices like TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber and Unison leader Dave Prentis are widely perceived – and portrayed by all but the Daily Mail and publicity-seeking Jeremy Clarkson - as mainstream representatives of a lower-to-middle-class public sector.

So the current tactic of Cameron, Gove, Osborne et al, to attack the unions and pretend that the strike was a damp squid, is not achieving the same desired effect as it did during previous disputes involving Tory regimes and trade unions. A recent BBC survey, for instance, showed widespread public support for the union-led strike action. Scargill and other loonies before him never enjoyed such mainstream backing.

At present, then, the battle is being won by the unions, with most of the media coverage focusing on the fun as well as the good intentions of protesters, and very little violence or confrontation to write home about. It seems the unions are managing to portray themselves as moderate yet solid and strong, which takes some doing.

Cameron et al, on the other hand, appear out-of-touch and arrogant. Perhaps the biggest symbolic blow to the Government was the decision by Head Teachers to back the strike – the first time the NAHT has ever voted in favour of industrial action.

But the opposition Labour Party are walking an increasingly perilous tight-rope at the same time. They cannot be seen supporting the industrial action partaken in by their core voters, like teachers and health/social care workers, and yet they must somehow gain political points from the Government’s anti-union stance.

The crux of the question: yes, the pro-strike brigade may be winning the battle of hearts and minds, but who will win the political war come the next General Election? If pro-public sector Labour are wise and avoid taking sides, and if the unions, staying unified, continue to represent mainstream public opinion against the economic failings of a cuts-obsessed regime, then there’s only one winner.

But will a future Labour government, interestingly beginning to court the Coalition-joining Liberal Democrats in a possible attempt to stage a parliamentary coup before 2015, give prospective public sector pensioners a better deal? Promises are not well-kept in political circles - but promises there will have to be.

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