As ever the broadcast and print media maintain an unremitting focus on threats of industrial action, trotting out tired references to a coming ‘Winter of Discontent’. While the threat of industrial action, including strikes, must be a component of a trade union response to cuts of the magnitude proposed by the ConDem government, the strategy adopted by Britain’s unions earlier today is much more nuanced – and rightly so.
The government and much of the media are keen to portray trade unions as vested interests and deficit deniers. To successfully combat the cuts to come the TUC and its affiliated unions have to be seen as acting in the national interest as well as in the defence of the interest of their members.
A recent poll suggested that 60 per cent of the public believed that the cuts were needed. However, support for cuts in principle is not the same as support for cuts in practice. Indeed, where the public is asked to consider where cuts should fall, there is an overwhelming concern that individuals, their families and their communities do not suffer.
So far the government has been successful in portraying their economic approach as a scaling back of the public sector to allow room for the private sector to grow. The reality could not be further from the rhetoric. Just ask the tens of thousands of construction workers whose jobs have been lost following the government’s decision to axe the Building Schools for the Future Programme. Cutting public sector expenditure means cutting procurement from the private sector. There is a very real likelihood that the government’s economic programme will wreak devastation on both the public and private sector.
To succeed in this campaign, trade unions must place themselves at the centre of a national movement and as a unifying force in local communities up and down the country – on the side of service users and well as service providers.
It will take time for the public to feel the full force of the cuts that have been made and the deeper cuts promised. The TUC and unions will be working hard to ensure that we are positioned to oppose these cuts and secure a progressive consensus to protect our public services and rebuild our economy.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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