Sunday, 13 November 2011

In the future everybody will be allowed to strike for fifteen minutes.

There are times when you open your morning paper and feel obliged to check the date on the off chance that you have somehow passed through a wormhole and emerged on April 1st without noticing.

I had one such moment yesterday when I read that Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude had suggested that public sector workers angry over pension reform plans imposed by the government hold a ‘token’ fifteen minute strike on November 30th. This was, he said in an interview given to the Financial Times, something the government would be ‘willing to accommodate’ and that he ‘couldn’t imagine’ any public sector employer docking worker’s who took part a day’s pay as a result.

Gawd bless you Mr Maude sir; you’re a gent and no mistake. I’ll just give my forelock a good hard tug before writing the rest of this article in honour of your boundless generosity. Then again maybe I won’t.

This offer delivered from somewhere in the leftfield had attached to it the threat that if public sector workers followed the instructions of their union and took part in a full day’s industrial action then the government would see this as making further tightening of trades union laws inevitable. As one BBC commentator put it, if the government was offering the public sector unions a carrot then it was attached to ‘a pretty hefty stick.’

Speaking to the BBC TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said that if Francis Maude had ‘genuinely wanted this idea to be taken seriously I would have expected him to have raised it directly with the unions rather than play it as a PR gambit in an interview.’ He went on to say that real progress in the dispute over public sector pensions would only be achieved via the government making ‘acceptable offers’ as part of the negotiation process.

A spokesperson for UNISON, the union representing many of the workers due to take part in the strike, questioned whether the government was in a position to guarantee that nine thousand public sector employers wouldn’t dock the pay of staff who took part. He described the offer as a ‘load of PR gimmicks to make people think unions are being unreasonable’ and went on to say that UNISON members had ‘voted a certain way and how that strike goes ahead is not a matter for Francis Maude to decide.’

I don’t know which surprises me more that the offer was made in the first place or that the response to it has been so restrained. The line taken by UNISON, the TUC and most of the media is that this is just another piece of out of touch eccentricity from a government composed of people so wealthy they really do think the world smells of fresh paint and that it is entirely normal to be met by an honour guard of footmen and chambermaids whenever you pop down to your little place in the country.

I don’t think it is anything of the sort; I think it is a concerted, cynical and potentially disastrous attack on democracy. The only question relates to how many of the people complicit in it know and agree with what is being done and how many are too stupid to understand what is happening.

Last week a commons select committee attacked the proposed introduction of individual voter registration saying that it could damage democracy and lead to the legitimacy of future election results being called into question. Turning the right of working people to withdraw their labour into something granted from above and only to be exercised within confines so strict as to make doing so irrelevant is no less dangerous.

This week the Greek people saw their, admittedly unpopular and ineffectual but none the less democratically elected, government replaced by one led by a grey technocrat in order to appease the market, a god more cruelly capricious than any their ancestors once thought inhabited Mount Olympus; in a short while Italy will follow the same sad course. Across Europe democracy is under threat in a way it hasn’t been since the end of the war because the clever manipulators of capital see it as a barrier to their turning the debt crisis into an opportunity to make money.

Here in the UK we are told that the government’s heroic deficit reduction plans will keep the wolf of financial chaos from our door and that our political system is somehow immune to the troubles that have afflicted the rest of Europe over the decades. That, to me, sounds dangerously complacent; far from saving the economy the policies driven ahead so recklessly by George Osborne risk turning a recession into a depression, if people are being stealthily discouraged from even registering to vote and tricked out of the right to withdraw their labour then our democracy will slowly atrophy.

Democracy isn’t a perfect system; but it is demonstrably the best one on offer, not least because it allows the people to make things awkward for those who set themselves up as their rulers. If things turn out how Francis Maude and his kind think they should in the future everyone will be ‘allowed’ to strike for fifteen minutes, but whether that is the same as being free is open to question.

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