Leader: The strikes are an expression of fear and insecurity

As the self-defeating nature of the coalition's policies becomes clearer, sympathy for the plight of

Barring any unexpected concessions from the government, two million workers will walk out on 30 November in the biggest strike since the Winter of Discontent at the end of the 1970s. Twenty-six trade unions will take part, including, for the first time in its history, the National Association of Head Teachers. The proximate cause of the strike is the government's public-sector pensions reforms but the planned "day of action" is also intended as a wider protest against the coalition's austerity programme, principally its decision to impose the biggest cuts in public services since 1945. Stripped of the right to call a general strike by Margaret Thatcher, the unions have picked a battle that allows for maximum co-ordination across the public sector.

Ministers have presented unions with an improved pensions offer but the majority of workers will still pay more, work longer and receive less. Employees will be forced to contribute an average of 3.2 per cent more to their pension funds, while the decision to uprate benefits in line with the Consumer Prices Index, rather than the more generous Retail Prices Index, has already reduced the value of some pensions by 15 per cent. Were the current system genuinely "unaffordable", there would be an indisputable case for reform. But all available evidence suggests that this is not the case. The Hutton report, commissioned by the government and used by ministers to justify the reforms, states that payments will "fall gradually to around 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product in 2059-2060, after peaking at 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2010-2011".

Supporters of the reforms frequently note that two-thirds of private-sector employees do not even have a company pension, compared to just 12 per cent of public-sector workers. This is an argument for improving provision in the private sector, not for driving it down in the public sector. Indeed, many pensionless private-sector workers depend on their partner's public-sector pension to ensure a basic standard of living in old age.

Francis Maude, who along with the Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander is leading the pension negotiations for the government, has responded to the prospect of industrial action by threatening to tighten Britain's anti-strike laws, already some of the most restrictive in the western world. He has hinted that a minimum turnout threshold of 40 per cent could be introduced for strike ballots. This would have prevented action by some of the biggest unions, including Unison (turnout: 29 per cent) and Unite (turnout: 31 per cent). In the case of Unison, this still means that no fewer than 245,358 workers voted in favour of strike action. Richard Balfe, David Cameron's union emissary, once spoke glowingly of the unions as "great, voluntary organisations". However one chooses to define "the big society", it is clear that the trade unions, with a combined membership of 6.5 million, are part of it. This makes the coalition's failure to negotiate with them in good faith all the more surprising.The government's decision to embark on the most punitive austerity programme of any major economy meant that a collision was inevitable. As the self-defeating nature of the coalition's policies becomes clearer, sympathy for the plight of public-sector workers will grow.

A year ago, George Osborne promised the House of Commons that private-sector job creation would "far outweigh" the job losses in the public sector. Yet the figures tell a different story. In the last quarter, 111,000 public-sector jobs were lost, while just 41,000 private-sector jobs were created. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has warned that 610,000 public-sector jobs will be lost by 2016 - 200,000 more than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility - and has urged the government to call a halt to its job cuts.

In times of economic crisis, the state must fulfil its historic role as the employer of last resort, especially when the incumbent government has no coherent strategy for growth.

At the root of the current downturn is a collapse in consumer demand precipitated by the alarmism of coalition ministers and their hyperbolic claim that Britain was on "the brink of bankruptcy". Increasing VAT to 20 per cent before the recovery was secure merely exacerbated people's unease and reluctance to spend.

Confronted by a floundering government and let down by an enfeebled Labour Party, many workers feel they have little alternative but to withdraw their labour on 30 November. The strikes are not an expression of a return to 1980s-style militancy. They are a sign of our times of fear and insecurity.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.