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.