How not to manage a general strike

The 30 November strike could be a huge own goal unless unions ensure they appeal to as many workers

Ahead of the November 30 strike, it's important to understand why low-paid workers might be resentful towards public sector employees, and to think about strategies of how to win them over. And let's consign the word "scab" to the dustbin.

While previous disputes have pitted traditional "class" enemies against one another, such traditional distinctions are not so easy to draw nowadays. We're faced with a situation in which the public sector "class" have been portrayed as living the life of Riley with decent wages, working conditions, holidays and the so-called "gold-plated" pensions by successive governments' friends in the media, while the private sector has forced employees to up their pension contributions in order to maintain pitifully bleak pension outcomes, and while wages have failed to keep pace with prices.

It's simple to see why one group of workers might view the other with suspicion or resentment, even if it's not desirable to see a race to the bottom. But times are tough. Private sector wages don't go as far as they used to, and they are suffering thanks to corporate greed of employers and wider economic woes alike. Forcing public-sector workers to suffer as much as those who've been in the private sector won't solve anything, but it's not hard to see why some might see that as somehow deserved or overdue.

While unions are fighting for the pension rights and futures of public sector workers, there are hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers right across the country seeing their wages disappear in tax while they're struggling to cover their basic outgoings -- and that's if they're lucky enough to have a job in the first place. When those people read their newspaper in their brief lunchbreak and see the carefully constructed average figures for public-sector pensions, deliberately designed to make them seem as outrageous as possible, how do you convince them that it's important to maintain those standards?

How are unions going to win over those people, and tell them it's worth paying their taxes to ensure that teachers or civil servants get the pensions they deserve? It's not going to be a simple task, but it's worth doing. Low-paid workers are those who could be helped the most by being members of a union, or be lifted up by collective bargaining rights in the workplace; they are the most vulnerable to being kicked out at a moment's notice or treated badly by unscrupulous employers. They have the most to gain from the labour movement, yet they are the ones who may well view it with the most suspicion.

Even if you accept that it's vital for unions to be campaigning for the hard-fought rights of public sector workers at this time of ideological cutbacks, when the government is zealously tearing into the fabric of the state by using "the mess we inherited" as camouflage, it's important not to allow workers to be divided and conquered. It's happened so many times before, and it's bound to happen again.

November 30 could be a massive bear trap unless unions ensure they try and appeal to as many workers as possible. Let's have no talk of "scabs" -- those who cross picket lines may not do so joyfully but because they've got families to feed or because, in the case of public-sector workers, they feel their duty is with the public they serve. There must be respect for those choices at all times, for the word "scab" is the biggest gift of all to the enemies of the labour movement.

We'll be told there was a small turnout for the action. We'll be told that workers have gold-plated pensions. Unions will, as ever, be on the back foot when it comes to publicity and the government will have its slick media strategy prepared well in advance, ready to take on the Tories' old enemies. The only thing that will make it even harder to get the right message across will be scenes of intimidation of those who are faced with the awful choice of having to cross a picket line.

This is going to be a tough sell for unions, which isn't to say it's the wrong action at the wrong time. It's the right thing to do at the right time. But it's vital that the right messages come out of this, that unions are inclusive and for everyone. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being an own goal.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.