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Wednesday, June 29, 2011 

The need to break a political orthodoxy.

Want an example of just how limited our politics has become over the last 30 years? I've been racking my brains trying to recall a politician of any stripe in a position with at least a semblance of power, including those in the shadow cabinet or opposition frontbench, giving even the slightest amount of support to striking workers, regardless of whether the action was richly deserved and necessary or the exact opposite. I could well be completely wrong, but I simply can't remember any such examples: the closest perhaps was the sympathy shown towards the sacked Gate Gourmet workers, mainly due to the echoes of the Grunwick dispute, and even then actual support for the action wasn't forthcoming.

The victory over not just militant but trade unionism in general in this country has been so massive that we're often treated to the dismal sight of those on the supposed left admitting the Conservatives and Thatcher had been right and openly welcoming the demise of mass, or almost any action to save jobs and livelihoods. Globalisation, without question, has triumphed, and those few, mainly in the public sector who remain in a trade union can be dismissed as a dying breed, treated as an annoyance which can be swatted away. Those remaining few leaders who can be considered a success, mainly as a result of being able to bring the public transport system to a temporary halt are attacked in a similar, if far more visceral fashion, their own pay and conditions subject to the highest scrutiny.

At least, that's the overwhelming view of both the media and politicians, nominal left and right united. The Labour leadership regards the unions as an embarrassment and liability despite needing them to survive, while the Daily Mirror and Guardian might make sympathetic noises but like politicians hardly ever actually support strike action when it comes down to it. The Conservatives and the right-wing press it almost goes without saying want to constantly rerun the battles of yesteryear, hoping to finally grind the small rump of agitators remaining into the ground.

Where this leaves the view of the public themselves is more difficult to tell. They might no longer feel the need to join unions for the protection it provides in the numbers they once did, but they certainly aren't as immediately opposed to stoppages as politicians and the media echo chamber either seems to imagine or believes. True, it depends massively on how long the stoppages are and where they happen: the shut down of the public transport system or airports quickly tries the patience, and if the dispute is over the loss of a perk which disappeared elsewhere long ago then sympathy is always bound to be muted. They're also usually realistic about the temporary difficulties strikes pose: if it's just for one day, and persuades the management or government to return to the negotiating table, much can be forgiven.

The build-up to tomorrow's strikes has followed this modern pattern and orthodoxy to a dispiriting degree, with the government portraying the proposed changes to public sector pension schemes as a necessity regardless of the reality. Alan Hutton's report dispelled the myths that the schemes were "gold-plated" and increasingly unaffordable as society ages: the cost will in fact peak this year and then fall, even if only slightly, over the decades to come. All the tricks in the book have been used, whether it's been Danny Alexander's "surprise" confirmation of the changes regardless of the ongoing negotiations, David Cameron's patronising softly softly approach, Francis Maude's belligerence, Vince Cable's informing of those about to strike that they lack public support or Michael Gove's laughable advice to parents to break picket lines.

The right-wing tabloids for their part have employed hyperbole that would have come close to embarrassing Kelvin MacKenzie at the height of his pomp: the Sun has titled its campaign against the strikes "stop the summer of hate", although it seems to be the one providing it. Yesterday's editorial, supposedly an appeal to the "moderate majority" to keep schools open, denounced the unions for "dragging down standards in pursuit of clapped-out Socialist dogma" while hoping for victory against "Neanderthal union militancy". The one day strike "would harm pupils" and "damage our children's education", as though a few extra hours without the guiding hand of a teacher would permanently stunt their mental growth. Tomorrow's Mail meanwhile invokes the "Dunkirk spirit" to beat the union bullies. Anyone vaguely reasonable returning from an extended visit abroad would have thought the country had returned to the 70s, despite last year showing the least number of days lost to strike action since records began.

This isn't to suggest that the unions have conducted themselves in the best possible fashion and have been open to all possibilities of compromise. Some have been agitating against every single cut from the outset, which simply isn't realistic, while Dave Prentis's claim that this will be the longest sustained campaign of industrial action since the general strike was both unhelpful and a laughable exaggeration. The presentation of their case has been similarly poor, although when everyone is going to be affected differently it's always going to be difficult to provide an overall case for opposition. No one is objecting to the general retirement age increasing, but there have to be some sensible additional exceptions: expecting teachers or prisoner officers to work until they're 68 stretches credulity to breaking point.

The key to winning more support will almost certainly be through broadening the campaign: as Mark Serwotka argues convincingly, the real scandal remains private sector pensions, where the state will eventually have to pick up the pieces. It's in the government's long-term interest to not pursue a race to the bottom, as it currently seems determined to do, unsure of whether a fight with the unions would see a temporary boost in its popularity. For the unions to have an overall win would be to break all recent political orthodoxy; exactly why this deeply imperfect battle will be so vital.

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