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Thursday was a catastrophe for the Labour leadership

Thursday’s strike by teachers and front-line public sector staff was a triumph for the trade union movement. I joined the demonstration through central London, and it was as inspirational as the game-changing initial student protest in November. These were young workers (I would estimate the majority were under 35); and the mood was both cheerful and determined. This strike was no desperate throw of the die. The workers involved know this is just the start, but they think they can win.

It was a strike that enjoyed broad popular support and sympathy. Before the strike, a YouGov poll for theSun had 40% supporting the action, with 49% against – already suggesting it was all to play for. Another poll for ITV’s London Tonight had 53% in support; and a staggering 77% expressed their support in a Channel 4 poll. Despite all the fuss about inconvenienced parents, hundreds of mothers posted their support on Mumsnet – not famed as a bastion of socialism, if we’re going to be honest. Given there are no prominent voices in politics or the media making the case for the strike, these are remarkable findings.

And the strike also succeeded in forcing the media to scrutinise the pensions issue, helping to demolish the Government’s argument that public sector pensions are unaffordable. Millions of people are now aware that public sector pensions are set to shrink as a percentage of GDP; and that this isn’t really about pensions at all, but an effective pay cut, with the money saved being used to pay off the deficit. Attempts to play ‘divide-and-rule’ by playing off public sector and private sector workers have failed. By cynically highlighting the scandal of private sector workers lacking any pension provision at all, the Government has been exposed for making “race-to-the-bottom” arguments.

If the strike was a victory for the labour movement, it was a disaster for the Tories. Industrial action has forced a government on to the back-foot. This is the first time this has happened for a very long time indeed. Francis Maude was ripped to shreds by Evan Davis and PCS leader – and rising star – Mark Serwotka on the Today programme. To avoid further humiliation, he simply pulled out of Channel 4 News at the last minute. Other workers will now feel emboldened. The Tories face a nightmare scenario: growing strike action that enjoys broad public support over an argument they have lost.

But if it was a disaster for the Tories, it was a catastrophe for the Labour leadership. No-one was expecting Ed Miliband to yell ‘Everybody out!’ and man a picket line (as much as people like me would want a Labour leader who did exactly that). But he chose to strongly condemn the strikes. Senior Labour figures – such as Tessa Jowell – took to the airwaves and did the Tories’ job by attacking striking workers in strong language. It’s not just the left of the party who are angry: I have spoken to activists on the right and left who are equally furious.

Instead of shredding the Tories over pensions – and leaving it to Evan Davis to do it instead – the Labour leadership put itself on a collision course with the labour movement. It has pleased no-one and alienated many. Some of Ed Miliband’s advisers – as right-wing as they are incompetent – will believe that squeals of anger from activists will help win over public support. ‘You can’t call him Red Ed now, eh!’ they will say.

But they are stupid, stupid people if they think that. The right-wing media will never drop their hostility towards Ed Miliband: they will simply believe that attacking strikes is a crude attempt at positioning, and they will be right. The Blairite ultras don’t want Ed Miliband, and that won’t change. And now Ed Miliband has alienated the mainstream of the Labour Party. He lacks any meaningful support base. The anger and frustration many activists feel towards him will not go away for a long time to come. As LabourList’s Mark Ferguson put it: “By attempting clumsy triangulation, but without conviction, Miliband has kept no-one happy.”

Some will be tempted to call for him to resign. I’m not one of them. The problem isn’t Ed Miliband, but the sorts of people who dominate the top of the Labour party. They are desperately out-of-touch, and almost religiously committed to New Labour dogma. If Ed goes, they will still be there, and will probably be strengthened.

If there are any lessons to be drawn from this debacle, it is that party activists and trade unionists must mobilise and force the Labour leadership to actually oppose the Tories. At the moment they are failing to do so, and a Government that is both deeply unpopular and lacking a democratic mandate is getting away with murder.

I’ve set up a petition for Labour party members to show that, despite the failures of our leadership, we are on the side of our public sector workers. But it will take a lot more than petitions to turn this around. Yesterday was not just the beginning of a whole new phase of popular resistance to the Government – it was the start of a struggle for the heart and soul of the Labour party. We cannot afford to lose either.

This blog first appeared at Labour List

One Comment

  1. Alec says:

    “Thursday was a catastrophe for the Labour leadership”

    Err – except that it wasn’t.

    The trouble with politicos, on all sides, is that they rarely if ever try to cross the lines and look at the issues from other people’s view points.

    Out here in the real world, there is a reasonable level of public sympathy for certain elements of the public sector pensions issue, but not that much.

    The unions have been absolutely dreadful at getting across a saleable message [defending our members – useless; the relative cost of public sector pensions is falling, if we need to make savings, why is the taxpayer subsidising the pensions of high earners to the tune of £13b
    a year, giving tax relief to people who have already got a £70,000 pension? – excellent]

    This strike was premature, with no deal on the table and no clearly defined set of demands as an end point. What was the desired tactical end of Thursday?

    As a non Labour left leaning voter, I’m very much with Ed M on this and think his approach will prove far more valuable to Labour than a wholehearted ‘solidarity and man the barricades’ approach at this time (although the moment for that may yet come).

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