Ed’s Catch 22

Today, Unison leader Dave Prentis, speaking at the TUC’s annual conference, warned of impending strike action by public sector workers over pensions.

Mr. Prentis revealed he was giving 9,000 employers formal notice that his Unison’s 1.1 million members would be balloted. In fact, Unison, Unite, the GMB and the Fire Brigades’ Union will all seek to consult their members regarding co-ordinated industrial action starting in November.

He added, “We’ve had enough. We’ve been patient, co-operative and we must say enough is enough. If we don’t say it now, they [the government] will be back for more and more and more again.”

Unions and the Government have found themselves locked in discussions over pension contribution rises since the beginning of the year and with no resolution in sight strike action is becoming ever likely in the coming months and year.

As typical with a Conservative government, the unions are finding themselves vilified and portrayed as uncompromising nuisances. Francis Maude, the man charged with leading the pension negotiations for the Coalition, said, “Unions need to think about the effect on the public and the damage that will be done to public sympathy for the public sector.” Adding, “Widespread strikes would leave the public ‘disappointed and angry’.”

This brings me to Ed Miliband. Only yesterday the Labour leader, also speaking at the TUC conference, was heckled by trade unionists angry with his decision not to support public sector strikes over pension reforms. Instead, Ed suggested strikes should be seen as a ‘last resort’, and claimed it was a ‘mistake’ to strike while talks continued.

Ed Miliband’s speech at the TUC part 1/2

Ed Miliband’s speech at the TUC part 2/2

Was this a politically wise move from Ed? Or should he have offered support to the unions in their battle against pension reforms?

The argument against

In choosing to appear moderate and firmly against a strike, the Labour leader has taken leaps and bounds in disproving all those who labelled him ‘Red Ed’ in last year’s leadership election. Ironically, the recipient of much union support, which pushed him over the winning line, Ed’s ‘left’ credentials are now firmly under the microscope.

Rightly or wrongly, Ed has been highly critical of the New Labour era, a period that defined itself with a movement away from the unpopular left and into the realm of catchall party politics. Clause IV was re-written, Michael Foot became a distant memory and Blair ushered in this new era with previously unseen electoral success and a subsequent 13 years of Labour governance. And with this perhaps ‘left’ politics in a traditionalist sense died in British politics.

As a result, it could be argued that the British public have over the years become increasingly ideologically polarised and in the process grown intolerant towards the type of strike action being mooted by the unions. It has long been my personal belief that the British public, blighted by apathy, now care far more about inconvenience than politics and have been desensitised to real political causes for so long they lack the empathy to truly comprehend the merits of the unions and value their beliefs.

In fact, perhaps in many ways unionists are seen as fringe members of society, archaically minded, disruptors of public services with little interest or care for anything or anyone beyond their own niche interests. The PR disaster that has befallen the unions since the 80s has gone some way to erode support for their actions. The Labour leader and his advisers are undoubtedly conscious of this. For this reason, any politically savvy Labour member or backer is painfully aware of the dangers in appearing too supportive of the unions.

This is not helped by the current socio-economic climate in Britain. Figures released today highlighted that 2.5 million Britons are now unemployed. Considering this, the troubles of employed workers and their pension contributions seem even less likely to garner sympathy.

Pooling these factors, one can begin to understand Ed’s apprehension in backing the unions’ strike action. He knows ongoing strike action from the unions could signal political disaster for the Labour party. If strike action was to become increasingly frequent and hard-hitting, then any public support could waver and eventually disappear, perhaps leaving Ed to find his party marginalised on the ideological left and facing another term in opposition with a likely Conservative majority imposing their reforms on the country.

However, despite these points, others would suggest that Labour has stood idly by for too long and abandoned their duty as the people’s party.

The argument for

Advocates of this view would say the Labour leader has failed to read or understand the current public mood. National morale is low, every study, report and statistic points to bleak times ahead. Living standards are declining, joblessness is increasing and soon there will be no services left to cut. As a result, perhaps there has never been a more opportune moment for the public to be won over by the left. In this case, they need a champion.

This raises a pertinent question. In distancing himself from the unions’ actions has Ed missed a massive opportunity to thrust himself into the national limelight, and anoint himself a bonafide political heavyweight?

If the answer to this question is yes, what does this mean? Arguably, for far too long, the Conservatives have demonised the public sector and its workers. Setting out to truly create this image of gluttonous individuals, living on good salaries, with winters of fortune awaiting them in the twilight of their lives. This has stirred up anger and jealously from the private sector. Instead of understanding we are all in these tough times together, many have forgotten this and chosen to place their flag behind this notion of unjust prosperity that must be combated.

In the bluntest sense, Labour have done nothing effective to counter this perception, they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the general public and find themselves in the midst of an identity crises. Supporting strike action offered a chance to resolve these issues.

Ed Miliband could have pounced on this opportunity as a means to articulate the wrongness of this public vs. private divide. It would be a difficult and taxing argument to win, but in showing the British public that we are all in this together, instead of sector tribalism, Ed could have captured much public support.

On top of this, he might do well to outline why strike action is required by the unions. Rather than allowing them to become increasingly alienated organisations, Ed could be proving to the public the importance of backing the unions and the mutual benefits this can have on our society. After all, pensions affect us all. To do this, demonising the real culprits responsible for this socio-economic malaise would be key and would also offer protection to public sector workers mindful of their own futures.

An impassioned, motivating Labour leader full of emotive thought-provoking rhetoric could really capture the public imagination. Encouraging unity and proposing a well-thought out alternative to current economic policy could perhaps challange the engrained British mindset. Fire and brimstone might just be the way forward.

This is not to say Ed has made a mistake. Simply, instead of choosing the road less travelled, Ed has chosen the safe path. It’s difficult to tell which will give him the bigger electoral payoff. One can but speculate at the moment. But, Ed has failed to set himself apart from the New Labour stalwarts he has so fervently criticised.

Dave Prentis on ongoing discussions with the Coalition government and proposed strike action.

Kenneth Way.


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