Thursday, 23 June 2011

Cuts, pensions and the wrong side of the argument

As you read this, union leaders are meeting and discussing, moving seemingly inexorably towards industrial action over the summer. And you know what? It’s entirely understandable. After all, as Dan Hodges points out, what on earth do we expect them to do? If organisations largely representing public sector workers did not take some retaliatory action, after the biggest public sector cuts for half a century, combined with a major assault on retirement age and pension rights, it would be incomprehensible. If I were a public sector worker, I’d be wondering why on earth I was paying my subs, honestly.

No, this is exactly the action we should expect unions to take. This – in contrast to the occasional and often unwise flirtations of some with international politics – is what they were created for. Standing up for their members, their jobs and employment rights, as they should. That said, the extent to which in this case (a) they are right, and (b) industrial action will take their cause forward, is a different question altogether.

From this reasoning we arrive at an initial conclusion. And that is that, no matter how unhelpful to the Labour Party it might be for unions to strike, it is ultimately futile to appeal, as Ed Balls did last week, for them not to. It now seems pretty much a political impossibility for there not to be some kind of major industrial action during the summer. Perhaps it is playing into the Tories’ hands, as he says, but it doesn’t matter. It’s going to happen.

In light of this, we now turn to the realpolitik of Labour’s reaction. The leadership is clearly heading for a very difficult turn in its relationship with the unions. There are no easy solutions: however, there are two things which, if they were to happen, could allow Labour to make it through the summer with the air of a potential party of government.

One is about the actions of union leaders: if unions are also serious about the goal of a Labour government, they can help by accepting, privately, the cold reality that it is not in the interests of the Labour Party to be directly involved. That the Labour leader will not this time be speaking at their rally (especially after the media car-crash that was the last one). That he will need to stand back and give a distinct message.

Why is this right and acceptable? Because, crucially, the responsibility of any organisation to its members is universal. In the same way that the Labour Party can understand and accept unions’ right to defend the interests of their members, unions can understand and accept Labour’s right to do the same. Its members’ interest is to get elected, so it can put in place its policies. It is a two-way street. Labour and the unions are two poles of the labour movement with overlapping, but clearly not identical, interests. There are times when the two should take the same position. And times when it is in the best interests of one – or both – that they should not.

Furthermore, the current strike debate is chiefly about two things: the cuts and pensions. The cuts debate has been discussed to death, but we have tried to ride them out with a middle-of-the-road position – “too far, too fast” – which so far seems to have worked poorly. Or, in the words of the great Nye Bevan, “you know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road? They get run over.”

On pensions, the arguments – at high level, at least – are even more simple. We either stick our heads in the sand and deny the impact of an ageing population on a pensions system designed a century ago, or we accept that the pensions system is living on borrowed time and that something has to give (nobody is suggesting that paying more tax would work, by the way: the sums required are simply too large). The economic reality is that some modest limiting of payout and/or increasing retirement age, while attempting to protect the vulnerable, are the only viable solutions available to Labour which will not bankrupt the system (the Tory solution will be similar but, needless to say, without the same protection of the vulnerable).

But, most importantly, Labour must not assume the position of the strikers, because the public will hate us for it. This means something unpalatable: that the Labour Party cannot be an official part of their action, however much local parties and individual members may exercise their legitimate choice to take part. And, much more importantly, unions need not to try and pressure the party leadership (who, lest we forget, receive 89% of their donations from them) to get a different result.

And the second thing which would help get us through? For Labour to be prepared, if necessary, to play a game of brinkmanship. For Ed Miliband to be prepared to say, I have come with you so far and no further, as and when pressure is applied. To put things on the line.

Because, nine months in, this summer shows every sign of being the defining moment in his leadership, like it or not. And it is not putting things too strongly to say the single issue of major industrial action sets him, like every other Labour leader before him, on a precipice. On one side, there is a rocky path to safety: on the other, an electoral abyss.

In short: a summer of discontent could well define his leadership; but it must not be defined for the worse.

What really matters for Labour in all of this – as distinct from the labour movement – is whether or not it ends up on the wrong side of the argument. We have largely ended up there on cuts: we need not to end up there on pensions. And, most importantly of all, we need not to be seen to be leading a wave of potentially crippling strikes. The precedents are poor: Kinnock was torn and politically hurt by national strikes: and Callaghan was destroyed by them.

On a very optimistic reading, we might just have got away with our involvement in the disastrous March 26th demo. But, even if we did, the British public are unlikely to indulge Labour’s manning the barricades a second time.

And particularly if we look like we are on the wrong side of the argument.

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