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13 September 2010

How should Labour respond to calls for strike action?

A dilemma for the next Labour leader.

By George Eaton

I’ve just returned from holiday in France where, like most summers, the country has been convulsed by national strike action, this time over Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the legal retirement age from 60 to 62. Back at home, as the TUC conference gets underway in Manchester, talk of a “winter of discontent” is growing as unions discuss the possibility of coordinated strikes and civil disobedience to resist the coalition’s spending cuts.

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary (interviewed by my colleague Jon Bernstein in the current issue), sounded a more moderate tone on the Today programme this morning, noting that he had not called for “counterproductive” civil disobedience and emphasising the need to come up with a practical alternative to the coalition’s slash-and-burn economics.

Meanwhile, figures from the right of the union movement, such as Unite’s putative general secretary, Les Bayliss, are warning that strike action will deprive the public of vital services at a time when they need them most. He said: “Strikes will also change the victims – our members – into the villains of the piece. The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy.” But I’d be surprised if his more militant comrades are dissuaded.

There’s a big dilemma for the next Labour leader in all of this: should the party support strike action to protect jobs and prevent cuts? With all the candidates frequently expressing their pride at receiving union backing in the leadership contest, it’s unthinkable that they won’t be challenged to take a position. Harriet Harman has set the bar high, noting that the party is in a “militant” mood (a word surely blacklisted during the New Labour years) and, admirably, mounting a defence of the right to the strike.

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The balancing act for the next leader, one suspects, will be staying on the right side of public opinion. But if as one Liberal Democrat cabinet minister predicts, the coming cuts reduce Tory support to just 25 per cent (he expects Lib Dem support to hit 5 per cent), that shouldn’t be a problem.