It is possible to feel in the build up to the annual gathering of the TUC the media desire to generate a sense of some good old-fashioned industrial strife. Union leaders need to be careful though; not to allow media (still generally positioned on the right, and more importantly more influenced by the politics of the right) and the coalition (looking for heat to be deflected elsewhere) to replace one ‘baddy’ (government making massive cuts) with another (unions going militant).
If all anyone hears is Tories and Lib Dems saying they have to make the cuts because of Labour profligacy; and their opponents saying there is no need for any of these cuts and we should all take to the streets in protest, then the Tories will not be in as bad a place as they deserve to be.
The key to this is the argument over time. All the parties went into the election making clear that some cuts would be needed as part of varying plans to bring down the deficit. The Tories in particular pursued an agressive strategy to pin the deficit as being all Labour’s fault. The polls (and indeed the result) suggest that did not work as well as they intended. The public are not daft and they know there was an international, and indeed US-led, dimension to the economic crisis. They know too, however, that when anyone stands up and says ‘no cuts to anything’ that is unrealistic.
So the political argument to be mounted against the coalition rests on the strengthening impression that the cuts now are going beyond what even they had planned to deal with the deficit, and are in fact driven by an ideological belief – held most strongly by George Osborne – in dramatically shrinking the state. They have not successfully made the economic case for that.
Their opponents, Labour and the unions in different ways, need first to win that argument – that ideology every bit as much as economic neccessity lies behind the cuts; and that they will impact disproportionately on the poor, of which there is a growing body of evidence.
The media will be out in force to cover the TUC. It is often the case that he who shouts loudest gets heard the most; he who makes the biggest threat works his way to the top of the bulletins … so the pressures will be there to match extremism with extremism.
But actually the unions are well placed to get attention for making serious and rounded arguments that will chime with growing fears many members of the public have about this government’s direction of travel.
Thanks for another great piece AC. I think the unions could also adopt different tactics which would keep the public onside. For instance, instead of striking, why not work as usual (especially on public transport and other paid for services) and not take fares from the public? I remember travelling through France a couple of years ago and there was a dispute affecting autoroute workers. The toll barrriers were all in operation, but staff were waving drivers through for free – brilliant. It would be a way of helping the ordinary worker in these austere times by giving him/her a free journey.
Interesting piece. Don’t know if you heard Brendan Barber on the radio this morning, but he sounded aware of the tensions you allude to. John Humprheys was trying to goad him by implying there was no such thing as a campaign without strikes, stoppages, civil disobedience. Barber did ok but he knows there will be plenty of those shouters you also refer to, and they don’t make his life easy.
There was a comical column in one of the papers yesterday in which ministers were bemoaning the fact that quangoes they had planned to scrap in opposition were harder to get rid of because – wait for it – they did useful things and were staffed by real people..
If there’s one thing the French know about it’s how to campaign! Obviously there’s the wine & food thing too… That’s a cracking idea that really should be suggested to the Unions though.
Brilliant. Back in the day when I was a politics student the unions were far mightier than they now but even so they have an important role to play right now. When they get the general public on their side over these savage cuts it will pay dividends – might even bring the coalition down. If George Osborne did not live in fairyland things woudn’t be so dire; yes we know we need cuts but we need to tread carefully and the unions are there whether the coalition likes it or not. I’m all for the unions
The truth about the cuts is as follows.
Ideological government wants a smaller state. Spending cuts are central to this plan. The Tories would have done most of these cuts even if the books have been in balance.
The cuts are ideological because David Cameron has said that they will not be reversed when the good times return. The cuts are oversized because Labour had a credible plan to reduce the deficit, but the coalition has added tens of billions to that.
Britain´s last government is not to be blamed for this “mess”. Britain´s debt before the financial crisis was only 40% of GDP. Labour did not overspent! The deficit was caused by bank bailouts and the recession. The financial crisis which caused the recession started in the US.
Under the coalition Britain´s debt will peak at 70% of GDP, but only at 90% of GDP debt becomes a problem.
During the economic crisis the Tories opposed all measures which saved Britain from depression. They did so because of ideological reasons. Had the Tories been in power during the crisis, there would not be much left now to cut.
The Tories wanted even less regulation on the City than Labour, so please stop blaming Labour and Big Government for the crisis which was caused by the banks.
Public services and welfare state are guarantors of civilized society. There is still time for George Osborne to change his mind. Recent comments by OECD warning about spending cuts can give him cover for this.
The 1981 Mrs T/Geoffrey Howe Budget is the reason why Britain does not have a proper industrial base.
Britain needs to rebalance its economy. New economic model is needed to replace neoliberalism.
In the new capitalist model state regulates finance sector more, but is in some respects somewhat smaller than today.
I feel that the unions could play a crucial role in decreasing the damage to be done to society by the conservative government (and the lib dems).
The conservative cuts are so drastic that it occurred to me that maybe the intention is to create a polarised society. This would be a repeat of the 80s of course.
If the unions can oppose conservative government action in a way that is a representation of the society as a whole then I think they will win.
The conservative government only represents the interests of a very small group of people. This is what the unions must capitalise on.
So how long do you think the bus companies would keep the buses on the road. 1 Trip without fares at a rough guess. Come away from fantasy land and get real.
Olli, you are as ever so wise and logical. Would just add to your argument that, in the US, even right wing Republicans on an austerity drive only want to take spending back to pre 2008 levels. But here, where there’s a lot more state to roll back, our government wants to return to 1990s levels. Says everything!
Agree completely with everyone’s comments about the unions. They have right on their side but not the media. Tactics and tone are crucial.
Thanks for getting back on track Ally, these are the cuts of choice and they are to finish off what Thatcher started, to break up the NHS, to take schools out of LEA control and to reduce the public sector to a rump.
They are £30 billion more than necessary with more cuts added every day, the latest being £2.5 billion more off the benefits bill. These cuts will close down the north of England and reduce it to a wasteland and in all of this we have the LibDems slashing and cutting with all the zeal of the new convert.
After years of them preaching their sanctimonious bile of being to the left of Labour, being true progressives. they end up being the Tories patsys.
I watched the Union Leaders being interviewed on Sky and the BBC today, I found it so enpowering to listen to them, finally knowing we have people on our side. I thought they were all so calm and articulate, the exact opposite of what the press would want to see.