Before the Conservatives were in power, they seemed to exude a mildly progressive air. Indeed, the abolition of ID Cards, opposition to the third runway at Heathrow and the whole ‘hug a hoody’ obsession of Cameron’s made the Tories seem…almost harmless. But now, after over half a year in power, the sons and daughters of Thatcher have stripped themselves of that facade and have gone for attacking the trade unions. It started with the contemplation of introducing minimum thresholds for strike ballots and went on to condemn the use of employment tribunals. What Osbourne’s comments today were meant to acheive is unclear – but for the 7 million union-members (many of whom, dare I say it, voted Tory in 2010) – these comments do not bode well.
I refer to George Osbourne’s comments that he is going to ‘fight the forces of stagnation’ – his phrase for trade unions. The Chancellor seems to be confusing the bodies which represent workers with the Tory-led government, whose fiscal policies economists are warning will lead to ‘stagflation’, ie. rising inflation but with no economic growth.
It was not workers defending their jobs that led to the contraction in the economy of 0.5% in the last quarter. There were relatively few strikes during this time. Nor can the weather be blamed – those producing the figures said growth would have been ‘flattish’ had there been no snow. Flattish of course meaning zero growth.
Youth unemployment is at the frightening high of 1 million. Inflation is rising, and will rise further when the rise in VAT truly kicks in. Councils are facing around 150,000 job losses this year alone, and in Cornwall it was announced that libraries are having hours and even days of opening times cut, Cadinham woods is likely to be sold off to whatever reckless developer wants it and council workers here have just accepted a vicious degradation of their conditions. When Unison say they are ‘not ruling out’ strike action in Cornwall, I say, along with many other Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance – we will fully support you if you do.
But even within the Labour party, the leadership, instead of defending workers against the cuts, are preaching against ‘irresponsible strikes’. But what about irresponsible spending reductions? Irresponsible lay-offs and wage-freezes? When faced with a choice between the dole queue and taking industrial action – surely even a Tory would choose the latter?
There is hope. Public opinion is changing. Two protests, one in Manchester and the other in London, against youth unemployment and the rise in tuition fees, are set to be huge tomorrow. Even the sloth-like TUC beurocracy has said today that ‘public service workers will not allow their pensions to be hammered’ and that this could ‘give rise to industrial action around specific disputes.’ By law, strikes are not allowed to be political. But as the biggest bodies representing civil society, I think they have a duty to be – after all, the decision to impose over £80bn in cuts when the economy is struggling is a political decision, aimed at shrinking the state.
Anti-union diatribes are no rarity on the Conservative front-bench, but Osbourne’s careless remarks today seem deliberately belligerant. What unions cannot do is nod their heads and make sweeping concessions before the fight-back has even begun.