Thursday’s strike over Government proposals on public sector pensions will bring to a head simmering tensions on several fronts. Rising anger over the cuts, though the pensions dispute has nothing whatever to do with the budget deficit, will reinforce the resistance, thus far and no further, on an issue where the Government is seen to be acting manifestly unfairly. It will bring Tory taunts (e.g. at PMQ on Wednesday) to a crescendo about Labour supporting strikes. It will put on display Tory intransigence in arbitrarily imposing an unjust settlement and then goading the unions to strike against it. It will give the union-bashing media a field-day. And, most important of all, it will put to the test the Labour leadership and the unions in how to handle a virulent and revanchist counter coup determined to strip away working class and public sector advances of the last 60 years and shrink the State.
The coming power struggle pits the neoliberal capitalist class – big business and the banks with their friends in the media and their governing allies in the Tory party – against a weakened Labour party pushed on the back foot by a big election defeat and a trade union movement still hamstrung by Thatcher’s legal minefield. The former, temporarily checked by the enormity of the financial crash they engineered, have now come roaring back, loading the sacrifices necessary because of their own folly on to their victims. The latter, hung out to dry by the media and feeling let down by faltering Labour support, are nevertheless united in the rightness of their cause and dtermined to fight.
But this landscape conceals the underlying balance of power. Under a capitalist system the owners and controllers of capital lay down the terms and conditions for employment, for settlement of disputes, for pay and for redress (if any). The workforce have only three alternatives: to succumb, to fight or to try to negotiate. In fact they don’t even have that. A dominant class in the ascendancy, as now when their business-as-usual confidence has returned, will not relent, will not negotiate, and will accept only submission. That is what is now being played out.
The Labour Party’s role at this juncture is not to get hung up about whether to support the strike or not, but rather to hammer away mercilessly against the patent injustice of the Government’s stance. It’s very difficult for the unions to command a fair say in the media to justify their grievances. All the more reason for Labour, with its platform in the Commons and the television studios, to fillet relentlessly detail by detail the iniquitousness of the Coalition’s demands.