Union leaders say that two million people were involved in today’s strikes. Tens of thousands of people marched through London’s West End and numbers grew as union members left their picket lines to join the main rally that ended on the Embankment, in sight of the Houses of Parliament. Their message to the ministers at Westminster was typified by Len McCluskey, Unite General Secretary: ‘Get your sleazy hands off our pensions.’
While marches, speeches and placards conveyed the concerns of millions of workers up and down the country, David Cameron engaged in heated exchanges with opposition leader Ed Miliband at PMQs. Here, Cameron downplayed the strike as a ‘damp squib’, despite the throngs out on the streets. And indeed those throngs filling London’s Embankment at SERTUC’s main stage, listening to the headline acts such as ex-mayor Ken Livingstone, PCS General Secretary Mark Sewotka and Len McCluskey, responded to the Prime Minister’s comments with a defiant roar. But what is more remarkable is that this is probably the most efficacious dialogue that the government and union leaders and members have exchanged since talks resulted in concessions at the beginning of November.
Cameron iterated in PMQs that ‘meetings took place yesterday, will take place tomorrow and Friday’ but one can’t help but think that while policy makers were and will be in attendance, they weren’t and won’t be present. Union leaders and now Ed Miliband have described the November 2nd concessions as the government’s final offer – a claim that Cameron could only respond by recounting Lord Hutton’s belief that the pension reform is ‘a very generous offer’. For all intents and purposes the negotiations are over: neither side of the debate are willing to budge a further inch. And there is a broad recognition of this predicament epitomised by the unions’ call for a strike (and undoubtedly further strikes), and for the government’s vilification of those union members out today.
The debate will no longer be found around the negotiating table but in the newspaper headlines and on the rolling news channels – the battle is now for public approval. The government have tried their utmost to present the union members on strike as “irresponsible, inappropriate and untimely… it is just plain wrong” (Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister) or that they “want scenes of industrial strife on our TV screens. They want to make economic recovery harder” (Michael Gove, Education Secretary), and that “they (the strikes) will do nothing but harm” (David Cameron). But it is the unions that have put their members on the front lines to face such derision; it is they who have encouraged their members to leave ambulances driverless, caused schools to close which in turn has necessitated that parents take a day off work – it is they who have thrown their sheep to the slaughter.
Today, neither of our major political parties did themselves any favours. In the face of the most wide-spread strikes the nation has seen in a generation, with over 2 million public-sector workers walking out, neither the Conservatives nor the Labour party managed to score points. This should have been a day when Cameron’s ConDems fought a rearguard action and attempted to fend off stinging and penetrative attacks from an emboldened and well-armed Labour party. In the end, it descended into a contest of who could avoid doing themselves the worse injury.
It has been clear for some time that Cameron is a combative politician; he relishes the thought of a fight and with Ed Miliband as adversary, he has often had the better of their exchanges. Nonetheless, his replies today in PMQs betrayed the ill-judged bravura of an old-school slugger jumped up on steroids. He referred to the day’s protests as “a damp squib” (a comment that will live long with him, judging by the frequency of its repetition through the day), and the Labour leader as “irresponsible, left-wing and weak”. Both comments cannot but have raised the heckles of all 2 million workers on strike today, and surely a whole lot of private-sector employees besides. A pity then that Miliband stuck resolutely to his Rope-a-dope act: he lacks both the left hook and the straight right that would justify it. Having refused either to condemn or to support the planned strikes in recent weeks, he refused to budge from that painful perch today, stymied by his paymasters in the unions on one side, and political dread of strike-action on the other: in the most recent equivalent industrial action in the 1970s, public support for strikers waned quickly – Miliband does not want to be caught on the wrong side of the debate if the dispute is prolonged. From the depths of this quandary, the best he could manage today was a backfiring quip, in which he attempted to evoke sympathy for “the lowest-paid workers who earn in a week what the chancellor spends on his annual skiing holiday”: it seems unlikely he was attempting to refer to the six-figure earners he thereby invoked.
By maintaining his straddle so resolutely, Miliband has endeared himself to no-one, and annoyed a lot of people in the process. Cameron’s blithe lack of concern – his apparent inability to take the concerns of everyday people seriously – will have disgusted and repulsed just as many.
Opinion polls have shown in recent weeks a slow but steady increase in support of the strike amongst the wider public. Whatever the comparative merits of even the proposed reformed plan in comparison to the private-sector pensions, there seems to be a widespread feeling amongst a majority of the public that a deal once promised cannot be reneged upon, and that it is private-sector workers who deserve more, and not their public-sector counter-parts who should be getting less. Public opinion is famously fickle, however, and a prolonged winter of strikes might well see that support erode very quickly. What seems unlikely, however, is that the public’s faith in politicians and political processes will be restored any time soon. For them, only deeper cynicism looks to be on the cards.
Photos by Theo Bones and Aeron O’Connor