Ignore the media scare-stories about strikes

Those who strike are not firebrands or ideologues, they are ordinary men and women who are fighting

As public sector workers prepare for strike action, the media narratives have already been prepared. Today's Daily Mail has a tale headlined "STRIKE LEADER'S HUGE PAY RISE" and it won't be the last. The pay and pensions of union leaders will come under scrutiny like never before as the usual suspects prepare to demonise organised workforces, and their right to protest against changes to their pay and conditions. Look at the union bosses and see their greed!

The phrase "gold-plated pensions" will be wheeled out time and time again, without ever daring to represent quite how un-precious public sector settlements really are for the vast majority of people. Strikers will be portrayed as betrayers of the children whose education they deny, in the case of teachers; as greedy, money-loving fatcats not living in the real world, pumped full of entitlement and "our money" thanks to years of racketeering from their New Labour chums, in the case of everyone else. It won't be true - of course it's not true - but that won't make any difference.

The stories are already as good as written. All the 1970s imagery, of binbags in the street and bodies left unburied, will be dragged up, whether it's relevant or not. There's no avoiding that, I am afraid. There was a time when newspapers had industrial correspondents who dealt with these matters in a reasonably even-handed way, but that is increasingly not the case. Now, the narratives do not come from the unions, or their members, but the politicians who fight them, and the corporate media in whose interests it is to demonise organised labour and workers' demands.

The anti-striker and anti-union stories will tap into a powerful, emotional sense that somehow this isn't fair. We are suffering in the private sector, so they must suffer too. Spread around the suffering. Make everyone hurt, so it's fair. We've got terrible pay and conditions, and we don't bother to do anything about it; so why should these people, who have bothered to do something about it, get better treatment? Our apathy deserves to be rewarded; we've been "good" employees and haven't made a fuss, yet we've been passed over. It's not fair.

Faced with an inevitable slew of stories about trade union leaders' salaries, opinion pieces about the selfishness of striking and articles about the righteousness of bashing the public sector, what kind of strategy could see the unions and their members win over public opinion? Is striking a trap that will play into the hands of the coalition government and give them the hate-figures they need to deflect attention from who is really causing economic problems? Are unions and their members making themselves the coalition's scapegoat?

It's a difficult decision, to take action when you know that you are going to be misrepresented; to battle against something which is described, again and again, as being the only possible option. But it all depends on how the motivation of strikers, and public-sector workers, is seen. Time and again, all they can do is to explain what has happened over the past few years - not just under this government - and why they are fighting: not to cause disruption, not out of political mischief-making, but because it is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

All I know, from a personal point of view, is that I've spoken to a lot of public-sector workers and activists recently as part of other stories I've been writing. Time and again, I have got the impression that these are not firebrands or ideologues pushing a political agenda that comes from the top or from their leaders; these are ordinary men and women who are fighting for their futures, fighting for their families, because they believe that there is no other way, because they feel that things have gone so far that they simply cannot do nothing, or accept the axe, or roll over and die. These are not the facemasked anarchists chucking bricks in protests; these are hardworking parents seeing a bleak future for their children, and wanting to do something now to make a change for the better, to stop something that will change the country forever.

They will not be depicted that way, and they know it. But they will fight anyway, and fight to get their message across.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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