Thursday, 1 December 2011

Should Ed have backed the Strike?

#N30 was the largest and most successful labour action for decades.

Millions came out. There were some huge demonstrations. Opinion polls suggested that some two-thirds to three-quarters of the population APPROVED of the strike. A Daily Mail poll was taken down when it showed 84% support FOR the strike.
Meanwhile Jeremy Clarkson has scored a huge own goal by saying he would shoot the strikers ‘in front of their families’, the shop-owner dragged out by the BBC to confront the (pleasant and reasonable) teacher turned out to have made no pension provision AT ALL, and the Tory government is thrashing about in terror unsure whether to accuse the strike of wrecking the economy or of being a damp squib.

So a good day, but (as it so often goes) instead of pressing home its success, the Labour movement is today debating whether the Labour leadership was prominent enough in their support of the strike. Twitter and facebook are alive with it.

A Labour Party Failure?
To be fair, the messages from the Labour Party have been as mixed and as panicky as those from the Tory Party. News reports have had Ed as refusing to condemn the strike (those who are not against us are for us, as Jesus said), but neither has he supported the strike (those who are not for us are against us, as Jesus said).
Some Labour MPs came out and took part in the strike, and there were expressions of sympathy for the strikers’ CAUSE … but I am unaware of any unequivocal Labour Party declaration of support for the STRIKE itself.
Indeed, I am aware of calls from the Labour Party for the Unions to get back to negotiations which – let’s face it – are no longer negotiations but an ultimatum.

The danger of all this is that, by refusing to back the strikers, the Labour Party has alienated/rejected millions of potential voters. Those people going out of strike yesterday FAR outnumbered Labour Party membership.

Tip-toeing Round the Dangers
However – at the risk of annoying people – I am going to suggest three reasons why Ed and the Labour leadership were probably right to take the difficult line they did.

1. The Labour Party needs to represent everybody
If he hopes to become Prime Minister, Ed must become THE PEOPLE’S leader, not just the strikers’ leader. The Strike had its own leaders.
Whether we like it or not, many people were hugely angered by the strike, and Ed needs to demonstrate that he is as much capable of appreciating their point of view as that of the strikers.
Of course, he could have decided to go down the confrontation path, tell those opposed to the strike to go vote Tory, and thrown in his lot with the activists. But I suspect that in the long term that strategy would NOT get him elected.
The GREATEST success of yesterday’s strike was that it was peaceful. Any violence, and the middle class would have swung round en masse to support the government. And Ed was wise to tip-toe round the danger.

2. A Strike should not be used as a political weapon
I am aware that there were many factors involved in the failure of the Miners’ Strike. Nevertheless, one of them was the fact that that strike had a clear and explicit political motive; it was an attempt by a trade union to interfere with and affect the government of the country. And as such, it pushed the middle classes firmly onto the government’s side – however evil they thought Thatcher was, they could not stomach a situation where any union was able to dictate to the elected government.
Yesterday’s strike was a protest against government policy – but it was economic in its focus. It was a protest explicitly and solely about the terms and conditions of public sector pensions … and it needs to stay as such.
OF COURSE these things cannot be separated wholly from their political implications, and we can rejoice that #N30 has significantly dented the government’s authority. But – unless we wish to provoke the backlash – we need this to remain a side-effect, rather than the intention.

3. The international perspective
What terrified me most about yesterday was what effect it might have on the international money Market.
Because, I fear, we need to appreciate to what extent national governments nowadays are in thrall to the operations of ‘The Market’. At home, the government may well indeed be the sovereign authority but – in the global economy – our status and survival depend to a frightening extent upon the approval of ‘The Market’.
‘The Market’, of course, is no more than a bunch of people behaving in a certain way, and in the long term it may well be possible to regulate them in such as way as to break the Market’s power over us. But for the moment, ‘The Market’ is king, and it possesses (as we have seen with countries like Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy) the power to make or break a nation.
The Irish have escaped penalty because they have complied with the austerity measures required.
The British are getting low interest rates because the Tories are complying with tough austerity measures even though they haven’t been required to!
But when the Greek government suggested a referendum on the austerity measures – when the Italian government hesitated – when it looked as though public anger at the austerity measures in those countries might be going to succeed – both those governments fell. What happened in Greece and Italy, in fact, was that ‘The Market’ used interest rates to engineer a coup d’├ętat which overturned the democratic government there and replaced it with a ‘technocratic’ corporatist state.
So – hopefully – a debate about on whom the austerity measures might fall is probably acceptable to The Market, but we risk triggering an assault on the pound if it becomes clear that we as a nation are going to reject financial restraint. That, for the moment, is NOT an option.
(And remember that ‘the Market’ is not a government or a person, who can be reasoned with, but an amorphous set of transactions, driven by millions of individual speculators reacting in a self-interested way.)
So – while we can rejoice that the Day of Action on pensions was a success – we also need to be pleased also that it did not threaten to throw the government off course.

So, all in all, whilst Ed’s prevarication – his unerring ability to seize inaction out of opportunity – frequently drives me bonkers, on this occasion, on reflection, I think he has got it right.
Well done, Ed.

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