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.