The ConDems are clearly up for a fight. They see, in Wednesday’s public sector strike, the opportunity to indulge hyperbole and inject a large rush of class warfare into the mix. With relish, they have challenged the unions, over the legitimacy of the mandate for the ballot and are threatening to take the deal off the table and clip their wings for good measure.
Instinctively my knee is jerking. How dare they talk about mandates and legitimacy, when the Conservatives secured only a 36% share of the vote amongst those who actually voted and the Lib Dems a paltry 23%. No one questioned their authority to form a government for the whole of the UK, even if we Scots feel somewhat democratically disenfranchised by being governed by two parties whom only 36% of all the people who bothered to vote at all, chose. What is sauce for the goose surely, is sauce for the gander.
And how atypical of them to threaten – as their mentor Margaret Thatcher did before them – to chip away further at workers’ rights. I’ve done my history: I know why the Labour movement was formed, I know how hard-earned such protections are and I also know how people get treated – especially in the private sector – when they do not have the benefit of union representation and collective bargaining arrangements. For some employers, rules and laws are there to be nodded at in passing and little more. Trade unions serve a useful function – more of us should belong to one, not fewer, particularly in an era of austerity when more corners are likely to be cut to save a pound or two here and there.
Warning that his government might take the pensions’ deal off the table, as Danny Alexander, the Treasury’s hard man (titter), has done is no way to run a government, unless the bluster is masking some hitherto unseen sincerity to sit down and look sensibly at what can be done. If the unions were minded to call his bluff, that is what they should offer. But they will not. For both sides are now entrenched, polishing their armour and mustering their troops and their weapons.
The UK Government’s activity this weekend is entirely deliberate, of course. It is designed to appeal to those whom Wednesday’s mass walk-out will inconvenience and to blur people’s senses of what is right and wrong here. Polarising the debate between public sector workers and the rest of us serves the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats’ purpose well. We’re all in this together remember? It might be a laughable, derisory notion – ConDems on our side anyone? – but when you’re having to re-arrange your working day or leave your kids at home with a key and an emergency phone number because of an unsympathetic employer or make alternative care arrangements for an elderly relative and realise that the burden of doing all this falls on you, who actually pays these people’s wages, then you can see how such tactics start to gain traction.
Which is exactly where I’ve been for much of the last couple of weeks. I’ve had to re-arrange a very important event, one which involved some of the most marginalised people in society, who could only dream of the riches of a public sector pay packet and pension to boot. I’m having to make alternative childcare arrangements, imposing on others’ goodwill. Another important meeting – in the diary for some time now – is having to be re-scheduled, with some difficulty, because few of us involved felt comfortable about having to cross a picket line in order for it to go ahead. It’s all taking up time that should be being spent doing other things. And I’m doing it all through gritted teeth.
It sticks in my craw somewhat to know that my day and time is being inconvenienced – like so many Scottish people’s – because our public sector workers have a problem with the UK Government. Why take it out on us? These subtleties of the consequences of devolution are somewhat lost on the unions who preach and practise solidarity. But they do need to start getting their head around them. We don’t like the Tories either and most of us will enjoy the vicarious proxy thrill of seeing workers stick it to them. But still, a doubt lingers and niggles over whether this is the right way to go about making their point, especially when many of us have been putting up with pay freezes for a lot longer than the likes of teachers.
For my part, I’m doing my best to subdue such treacherous thoughts and focus on the main point of the strike. And as happens with increasing frequency these days, my me-first tendencies are pricked by the wisdom and thoughtfulness of my pater. Few know public sector pensions the way he does and for months now, he has been banging on about the unfairness inherent in the UK Government’s proposals, standing up to COSLA colleagues – from across the parties – who want to chip away at workers’ entitlements. His arguments are similar to the ones made by Dave Watson.
Not only is it NHS schemes that are in surplus, but local government pension schemes in Scotland are similarly so, having made up the black hole caused when Gordon Brown, then Chancellor, whacked them, and private schemes, with corporation tax. Workers as well as employers contribute to these funds and through properly prudent management, in Scotland at least, there is no shortage to meet immediate or indeed, medium term demands. The UK Government’s proposals are entirely motivated by its need to generate additional Treasury income from somewhere to fund its disastrous economic plan A which is predicated on closing the deficit gap by any means possible. To suggest the changes are required to future proof pension provision is disingenuous and downright dishonest.
So much as I will be grumbling my way through Wednesday, I will in fact be supporting our public sector workers on their pickets. They have a right to strike and that right should be upheld by us all. They have a just cause and in times like these, solidarity is key. And frankly, doing anything else would put me firmly on the side of the Tories. And I ain’t having that.
But do you agree? Have your say and vote in today’s poll.