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The Unions can win, and Ed shouldn’t knock them

Ed Miliband yesterday repeated his opposition to strike action: “Strikes are a sign of failure…. on both sides and Thursday’s industrial action is a mistake.” He is, to be fair more critical of the Government who are “reckless and provocative“. However, he clearly hadn’t read Andy Newman‘s explanation here of the distinction between the funded local government pension scheme and the other unfunded schemes, which explains the difference between the differing stances of both unions and government in negotiations. Ed therefore makes the fatal mistake of blaming those taking action partly because “some of the public sector trade unions are continuing to seek a negotiated settlement rather than taking strike action.” Ed shouldn’t knock them and he will look pretty foolish if they win as they surely can.

Just listen to Tory commentator, Danny Finkelstein (£):

There is, I think, a broad assumption that the unions are on a hiding to nothing with the strikes they are about to launch and that the Government is on to a winner. I think things are much more finely balanced. I think the Government could easily be the big political loser.

True he says “the unions are in decline financially and politically and have been for decades“, “are rarely impressive in argument” and “the Government has little choice but to resist them (because) the current public sector pension regime is unaffordable and, having determined (rightly) upon reform, the Tories can’t (and mustn’t) back down.

Yet for all this, victory can’t be assumed. It is true that Margaret Thatcher defeated the unions. It is also true that this followed dozens of disputes in which the Government was defeated by the unions. That, in fact, was the more usual outcome. Sometimes this defeat involved giving in to union demands; on other occasions it meant simply losing public support while resisting the unions.

He compares the coming struggle over pensions with Heath’s ‘Who governs Britain?‘ election and Ken Clarke’s experience with the ambulance drivers’ strike over pay in 1989 when the public sided with the drivers.

What happened in these cases could easily happen now. The public start out angry at the strikes, but pretty soon begin to wonder why the Government can’t stop them. In theory, most voters think it is wrong and unaffordable for public sector workers to get a better pension deal than they have. But then they see that it isn’t just some anonymous “public sector worker” but real people — doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers — who are losing real money. Yes, these workers are behaving unreasonably by striking, but isn’t there a “root cause”? They’re being such a nuisance they must have a point. And voters begin to wonder how we got here and if there isn’t a way out….

It wouldn’t be hard for the Government to find itself, quite quickly and to everyone’s surprise, on the wrong side of the politics. Public sentiment can change pretty quickly…. (The government) have to fight the next few months as if they were engaged in a battle for political survival. Because, quite possibly, they are.

Wed like Ed to back the unions. If he can’t bring himself to do that, for fear perhaps of an outbreak of Blairite disdain, at least he should explain the workers’ case and concentrate his attack on the government for bringing about the conflict. If he doesn’t, he could find himself on the wrong side of public opinion.

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