This week pubic sector workers across the UK went on strike and, despite the best efforts of the Daily Mail to persuade us otherwise, the world didn’t come to an end. There were no scuffles on the picket lines and a march through London organised by the TUC resulted in just thirty arrests, rather less, I imagine, than on an average Saturday during the football season.
What happened instead was that, as Brendan Barber of the TUC put it at a rally in Exeter, people came together to protest quietly and peacefully about ‘The living standards of low and medium paid public sector workers being hammered in the name of reducing the deficit. Meanwhile those who caused the crisis go scot free.’
An event further from an orgy of militant anarchism it would be hard to imagine, participants in the London march even picked up their own litter. As the late great Gil Scot Heron might have put it the revolution won’t tidy up after itself.
Let’s knock two myths propagated by the right wing media and the coalition on the head before we go any further. The public sector workers who took to the streets on Thursday weren’t doing so to defend ‘gold plated pensions’; because for the most part they don’t have the sort of gold plated salaries that would produce such pensions. As for the wider public not supporting their cause, I’d say there is more concern and anger over the way private sector employers failed to invest in their pension funds when times were good and then pulled the rug from under the feet of their staff when they turned bad.
There is much in this strike to support, not least since it turns on the issue of fairness which is at the root of how the British see the world, and yet Labour leader Ed Milliband has chosen to stay on the sidelines.
In a speech to the conference of the Local Government Association (LGA) given on the day of the strikes Milliband said that he ‘understood the anger of workers who feel they are being singled out by a reckless and provocative government’, but the he believed that taking strike action was a ‘mistake’ and that it would not help public sector workers to ‘win the argument’ over pensions.
The responses from the unions were swift and angry; Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers said with the sort of irony that could chill the most riotous of classrooms that it would have been ‘nice if Ed Milliband had felt he could have supported what we’re doing.’ Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said that the Labour leader’s response was a ‘disgrace’ and that he ‘should be ashamed of himself’; before adding ‘I’m glad we’re (meaning the ATL) not affiliated to Labour.’
Later in his Birmingham speech Ed Milliband condemned the government for declaring their final position while negotiations were still ongoing and described their attitude towards public sector workers as ‘high handed and arrogant.’
Too little, too late; as a sad sounding John McDonnell MP put it the public sector unions had ‘expected more’ from the Labour leader; once again Ed Milliband had failed to deliver. It probably didn’t help that he made the point that he didn’t support the strikes five times in a weirdly robotic TV interview that brought back unwelcome memories of Gordon Brown’s odder moments in front of the cameras.
Trades unions, by their very nature, are able to organise large scale campaigns that capture the attention of the media and the public alike, on this occasion they are linked to a much wider movement than seems at first apparent. Thursday’s strikes were about more than how much public sector workers get paid in retirement, they were about the sort of society we want to live in. Do we want a society where people work together for the common good or one where the market drives us into endless and divisive competition?
All across the country individuals and communities are taking action to defend services they see being threatened with destruction by a government that is making cuts in line with the dictates of a flawed ideology rather than sensible economics. These may attract less attention than Mark Serwotka leading 100.00 civil servants out on strike, but they still share a common cause.
What is needed is an organisation capable of drawing these disparate strands together into a single coherent campaign. That could and should be the job of the Labour Party.
So why isn’t it? In part it is because the Labour Party as reinvented by Tony Blair and his followers feels awkward around the unions, they’re happy to take their money but don’t want their political input. The largest share of the blame though rests with Milliband himself, as has been the way with weak leaders since the dawn of political time he lets the headlines of tomorrow’s newspapers dictate his policies.
Real leaders do exactly what the name suggests; they lead the way. Sometimes that means walking head first into a storm of criticism and fighting battles that are hard and often thankless, what it doesn’t mean is sitting on the fence while your aides find a way of triangulating things to get the Mail to say something nice about you.
In an interview given to the New Statesman PCS leader Mark Serwotka said of this dispute and, I suspect the struggles of the unions in general ‘if you fight in life, you’re not guaranteed to win. But if you never fight, you lose every time.’ That sounds like advice Ed Milliband should take to heart, he should either gird his loins for a fight to defend the things so many people believe to be under threat from a government composed of individuals who are too rich to care; or step aside and let someone else take on the job.