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Strikes are not sufficient – we need to win the public argument

Ed Miliband is reported as saying “the most important thing for the unions is to get the public to understand what their argument is. I don’t think the argument has yet been got across on public sector pensions as to some of the injustices contained in what the government is doing. I think strikes must always be the very last resort”. I doubt if many people would disagree with this position. The real problem remains however as to how exactly the arguments can be got across to the public when the media, and particularly the tabloids, are determined not to give a fair hearing to potential strikers, but will seize the opportunity to demonise the unions (and the Labour Party too) as wreckers or worse. So how should this play out with the strike this week?

The trouble here is how to get across, against all the hostile background noise, the rather nuanced message that – yes, we all agree that pension reform is necessary, but the way the Government is choosing to do this is very unfair. The Turner Commission proposed giving at least 15 years notice of changes, whereas the Government is giving only 7 years notice of a 2-year pension age increase. Under the Government proposals a woman born just before April 1953 will get her state pension at age 62, whereas one born on 6 April 1953 will only receive hers at age 65.

The Coalition Agreement stated explicitly that “the state pension age will not start to rise to 66 sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women”, yet just a few weeks after this Agreement the Government unilaterally announced that actually women’s state pension age would start rising from 2016; suddenly their state pension has been denied to them for up to 2 extra years, making many feel (as they have said) like the Government has gone into their bank account and taken away thousands of pounds. And to cap it all, many of these women are ill, with shortened life expectancy.

Of course these matters should be resolved by negotiation and hard argument. But how does one get across these complex arguments not only in the face of a media that is blocking explanation and encouraging hostility, but when a Government unilaterally and arbitrarily imposes (as the Danny Alexander intervention clearly showed a week ago), in the middle of negotiations, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis a set of proposals that is manifestly unfair and loaded against the most vulnerable? It is much better to avoid a strike, but what do you do when one side that holds all the power is determined to enforce its will irrespective of consultation and counter-argument?

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