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Don't let the ConDems off the hook

Seldom has a government looked in such disarray as the ConDems do in the countdown to what is effectively a mini-general strike in defence of public sector pensions. All that keeps them from crumbling is the weakness of the opposition ranged against them.

In past industrial confrontations, Tory governments have succeeded in mobilising state forces, middle-class volunteers (1926 general strike) and in dividing strikers (miners’ 1984-5).

Such is the contempt in which this Coalition is held that even normally-reliable parts of the state are in revolt while volunteers are in short supply. Middle-managers who were expected to take over immigration points at airports on November 30 – as they did in June – instead plan to join the walk-out.

They are undoubtedly acting in revenge for the way home secretary Theresa May recently scapegoated Brodie Clark, the head of the Border Agency, in a row over immigration checks. He quit his job after 30 years as a civil servant following his suspension by May.

In desperation, the government is offering volunteers £450 to break the strike at Heathrow and elsewhere and is bringing in the contractor Serco. Meanwhile, prime minister Cameron has made himself a laughing stock by suggesting mothers take their children to work because teachers are walking out next Wednesday.

Fortunately for the ConDems, November 30 is restricted to a one-day action against plans to cut pension entitlements for public sector workers while telling them they have to pay higher contributions for longer periods.

There are no plans for further co-ordinated strikes. Instead, the leaders of unions like Unison and the GMB are planning a guerrilla campaign of what are being called “smart strikes” at local level.

This is a recipe for grinding the struggle into the dust, leaving the government the option of imposing the changes over the winter or union leaders signing up to some rotten compromise deal such as protecting present staff at the expense of future generations.

Urging caution, naturally, is the Labour leadership under Ed Miliband. This week’s shadow cabinet declined to endorse the pensions’ strike. Instead, Michael Dugher, the shadow cabinet office minister, called for a settlement “fair to low-paid workers and taxpayers alike”.

Clearly, the last thing Labour wants is to return to power a) on the back of industrial action against the government b) when the economic and financial crisis is worsening by the day.

Miliband acknowledged once more yesterday that Labour would also cut the public spending deficit, and attacked the government’s policies – but only because they might leave his party with more to do if they were re-elected in 2015.

That’s alright then. Of course we can wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election to oust this reactionary, destructive government that is busily building on New Labour’s “achievements”. Then Miliband will sweep into Downing Street to build the “prosperous capitalism” he is promising us – and carry on cutting.

Put like that and it reads like the nonsense it is. The UK economy is going to hell in a handcart and is about to be hit by what one commentator is calling the “biggest mass default in history”.

Investors are pulling out of euro bonds, including Germany’s, because they sense that the single currency is on the verge of collapse, overwhelmed by the debts of member states. No one wants to be left holding euro-dominated bonds when the music stops. UK banks were warned this week to prepare for a disorderly break-up of the euro.

So the November 30 strike coincides with a government looking out of its depth as it faces a perfect storm blowing in from Europe and with the loyalty of parts of the state in question. You can be sure, however, that less public sides of the state are paying great attention to the building crisis and have contingency plans. The Coalition was thrown together to appease the financial markets. Who is to say that Labour itself won’t yet find itself part of a grand coalition to act in the “national interest”?

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
25 November 2011

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