This week the Trades Union Congress (TUC) held its annual conference in Manchester, for the first time in decades it seemed more like a living breathing political event than a historical curiosity.
In his keynote speech General Secretary Brendan Barber savaged the massive budget cuts planned in the spending review due to be unveiled this autumn saying they ‘will not only decimate the services we rely on but do untold damage to our economic prospects.’
As a result a post cuts Britain would, he said be ‘a darker, brutish; more frightening place.’ Unashamedly apocalyptic stuff that captured the very real fears of union members in the public sector and beyond that jobs and services are about to be slashed to the bone.
RMT leader Bob Crow was, as ever less modulated and more straightforwardly passionate in his call for union members to engage in ‘civil disobedience’ such as strike action timed to disrupt the party conferences and even sit down protests on the motorways. Needless to say the audience lapped it up, for the first time in years the trade union movement had rediscovered its roar.
Concerns were also expressed at their conference by Derek Barnett of the Police Superintendents Association that ‘in an environment of cuts across the wider public sector, we face a period where disaffection, social and industrial tensions may well rise.’ He called for police budgets to be protected from the harshest cuts to allow them to respond effectively to any rise in public disorder.
It should come as a surprise to nobody that the media responded to this with varying shades of alarm. All week we were treated to lurid tales of a return to the industrial unrest of the seventies and eighties designed to make our flesh crawl and, from the right field at least, to accept the line that only a return to the policies followed by Mrs Thatcher could save us from disaster.
I’m afraid I don’t buy it and I don’t think anyone else should either. Moral panic may sell papers but it does little or nothing to address the real dangers we face this autumn.
It is based, in part, on a faulty understanding of the way the unions operate in the modern world. Bob Crow’s threats of civil disobedience and something close to a general strike play well to the membership, they put a little fire into bellies and steel into the collective backbone for the fight ahead. That fight though, as Brendan Barber and many other union leaders know only too well will have to be fought using the tactics of the twenty first century not those of the 1970’s.
That means making a reasoned case for protecting growth for the long term over cutting the deficit now and not worrying about the long term consequences for individuals and communities. The trouble is that said case must be made to a government that is signally lacking in reason. A point amply demonstrated by Chancellor George Osborne’s conviction that £4 billion can be cut from the welfare budget without worrying about the consequences because the only people likely to be harmed are those who make a ‘lifestyle choice’ to live on benefits. His language and attitudes alike seem frozen somewhere in 1986.
The awful truth is that as it faces its worst economic crisis since the war Britain is led by a government that seems determined to do to the country’s economy what Godzilla regularly did to the Tokyo skyline at the prompting of an outmoded ideology. This development skilfully combines tragedy with pure farce because the driving force behind it comes from Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club rather than the TUC, the RMT and the outer fringes of socialism.