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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.