When is a climb-down not a climb-down?

Perhaps compromise on cuts was the plan all along.

Every TUC Congress gets the right wing media fired up. Headline writers always go back to the 70s and 80s for their inspiration and over-hype confrontation with the government, usually based on the forecast of another "winter of discontent". Maybe if the TUC moved its Congress to the spring or summer the cliché might die... Maybe pigs might fly! 

This year's Congress is the first to be held under a Tory government for 13 years and union leaders know that to grab headlines before next month's unprecedented Comprehensive Spending Review, they need to ratchet up the rhetoric above and beyond the ever-reasonable Brendan Barber. In the arms race that is the Sunday press conference circus, which happens at every Congress, it is often Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka who fire the most quotable chaff. In today's Evening Standard, Matthew d'Ancona fires some back. He advises ministers to keep the public on their side if they are to win their confrontation with the unions.

While the public accepts the need to tackle the deficit through greater efficiency and reduced public sector spending, the government have no mandate for a showdown with the unions. Likewise, union leaders -- even Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka -- will always seek to negotiate after balloting members on strike action because no strike ever ends in "victory", only ever in compromise.

Protests are very different to strikes and public service users are likely to join public sector workers in opposing cuts that disproportionately affect those least able to cope. Ministers will need to compromise if they are to achieve deficit reduction because of their weak mandate from the last election. Not only did the Tories fail to win a majority but all parties avoided spelling out the implication of spending cuts.

Unions will have more influence if they pick specific cuts to oppose rather than reject the process entirely. Rather than a show-down, we are more likely to see a series of climb-downs because not every service cut will be as unpopular as others.

Matthew d'Ancona claims that ministers have been "war gaming" the cuts. At the moment, we are in the period where the debate is still being framed. Last week's announcement by George Osborne that £4bn will be cut from benefits might have been to shift the news agenda from the phone-hacking story engulfing Andy Coulson but it was accompanied by a message that benefits as a "life style choice" would no longer be tolerated. The government is doing all it can to convince the public that service cuts can be avoided if welfare cuts are accepted. For the right, there is an implicit political calculation that those with the least social capital -- benefit recipients -- are least likely to campaign against cuts while organised and motivated public sector unions and service users groups will be far harder to beat. Public opinion is also easy to mobilize against those seen as "benefit scroungers".

When Margaret Thatcher and Michael Portillo had to drop the Poll Tax, Plan B was to raise VAT by 2.5%. This time, that is part of Plan A. So George Osborne has given himself wiggle room by cutting faster and deeper not just in case his economic forecasts fall short but in case some of the planned cuts need to be cancelled because of the strength of opposition.

So when is a climb-down not a climb-down? Well, when it was all part of the plan that you "war gamed" all along.

Richard Darlington is Head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.