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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.