Alex White condemned the proposed strike action on Wednesday as the work of the “noisy left” lacking any “common sense”. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never been called a “socialist-extremist” before but I think he is completely wrong. Here’s why.
David Cameron will achieve something this week that even Margaret Thatcher couldn’t. He has galvanised 33 Unions and 1.2 million workers into a united front. Over a million workers have made an active decision to vote for the strike. Something has changed. This is no ordinary industrial action. And that is why Labour’s response should be different. We should actively support the workers who have decided to withdraw their labour.
Labour’s dilemma has always been that as a party of government, it has not wanted to take sides between public sector employers and public sector unions. The last government was haunted by the memory of the Winter of Discontent.
Yet the majority of the people who returned their ballot papers were not involved in the industrial unrest of 1979. Many have put their cross next to ‘yes’ for strike action for the first time in their lives. Many of the professions involved have never gone on strike before. That is why this action is different. This is not the “noisy left” or even Alex White’s “working class core vote” leading the charge – this is as much a revolt of middle England as it is of anyone.
For 1.2 million people to return a ballot paper, consciously taking a decision to withdraw their labour and lose a day’s pay, demonstrates that there is a shift in thinking among a far wider cross-section of society. You cannot build an alliance of 1.2 million people without head teachers in Surrey, cleaners in Glamorgan and hospital workers in Liverpool sharing a view that the government’s proposals are unfair.
Labour has the opportunity to charecterise this issue in two ways. Firstly: it is a straight money grab – George Osborne’s 3% tax on public sector workers. Secondly, the application of these changes is manifestly unfair, with the poorest part time workers being hit hard.
This is not about long term sustainability of public sector pensions – the 3% rise is not going into the pension pot, it’s going straight to the Treasury. This is not a reform of public sector pension arrangements. It is a tax. Labour frontbenchers should be crying from the rooftops about Osborne’s unfair stealth tax on the poorest part time workers. And they could make that point if they visited picketing head teachers, physiotherapists and radiographers in Surrey, Kent and Kensington.
And when our shadow ministers visit picketing Middle Englanders in the Home Counties they should explain to those workers that Wednesday is Cameron’s chaos, brought about because he made unfair proposals and refused to seriously negotiate.
I am on strike on Wednesday. I will of course be explaining how the Labour Party believes these changes are unfair – but it would be a lot easier to get our message across and win the support of my colleagues if our Party took an unequivocal position of support for them.
Stephanie Peacock is a teacher and one of the West Midlands representatives on the National Policy Forum