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The government sounds confused and duplicitous…

December 5, 2011

Public sector union’s march, Belfast, 30 Nov

After watching Nick Clegg on The Andrew Marr Show, promising to tackle exorbitant executive pay, I have decided that the government is in trouble on the issue of public sector pensions and they know it.

Vince Cable was sabre rattling on this very issue last month, but the appearance of the Deputy PM talking it up again on a Sunday morning is interesting. Suddenly the Government wants to be seen as evenhanded – getting tough with the private sector, having spent the run-up to the strike being tough on the public sector.

This late attempt at balance is not a signal that the government is seeking to be fair in its economic policy. It’s a sign of disarray, particularly in getting its message out.

The Con-Dem’s have been frantically trying to pull together a coherent narrative on the issue of public sector cuts for months. They started by telling us we were all in it together and as a consequence the cosseted, fat-cats of the public sector would have to take a hit with everybody else. The hard-pushed tax payer, they said, couldn’t be expected to keep public servants in a life of relative luxury, especially when the private sector – the real wealth creator that will lead us out of recession – was struggling.

Behind this message is a much nastier inference that the public sector is a parasite, sucking the private sector dry or diverting much need funds from productive sections of the economy to the non-productive.

This wasn’t a very convincing story to begin with since the people who work in the public sector are themselves tax payers and well aware of their value to the economy. On the other hand, those not employed in the public sector are probably intimate with someone who is. Many will have relatives who work in the public sector. Many will rely on the services of nurses, teachers and/or civil servants. Either way, the government has a real fight on its hands if it wants to convince anybody that the public servants we meet day-to-day are fat-cats.

Indeed, isn’t is conceivable that members of the public consider nurses, teachers etc, as being more ‘productive’ and essential to their well-being than, say, financial traders and CEOs. At the very least, most people understand that educating children, looking after everyone’s health and administrating welfare are not wastes of time and money but fundamental to any modern, competitive economy. Saying otherwise just makes the government sound stupid. And harping on about perceived, modest advantages of enjoyed by public sector workers serves only to highlight the desperate conditions endured by many in the private sector and so risks fermenting rebellion everywhere. The government had to change tact…

If the old divide and rule strategy failed to create sufficient antagonism between public and private sectors, what about dividing older colleagues from their younger work mates with a few exclusive concessions? That failed also, leaving the government looking impotent and so the story changed again.

A national strike will be massively disruptive, the government said. It will cost the economy £500 million pounds. But this narrative was born legless because the government had been making the case for months before-hand that the public sector is inefficient and bloated and non-productive. By highlighting the costs of the strike the government was now acknowledging the public sector’s economic and broader social value – a value it previously didn’t want to admit because it wanted to cut it. Now the Con-Dems looked slippery.

And so, despite the lies, the phony concessions and the misinformation, the strike went ahead and the government immediately changed its tune yet again. This time it tried to present the strike as a dismal failure, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It said that the unions’ claim that 2 million workers came out on strike was inflated but it was the Prime Minister who ended up with statistical egg on his face when he asserted that 40% of England’s 21,700 state schools were open. In fact 68 per cent of UK state schools were shut entirely, and 14 per cent partially closed. In England, 62 per cent were shut, while the figure in Scotland was as high at 99 per cent.

My own experience of the strike was that this was one of the best turn-outs I’ve ever seen. In the past I’ve had to ask colleagues to join picket lines. This time I had colleagues coming to me to volunteer: so many, in fact, that the union had more than it needed on the day. I wonder how many other workers and people found a strange disconnect between government spin and their own experience of the day?

And I wonder whether that disconnect carried over into news coverage of the event. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, one journalist expressed surprise that so many parents he spoke to supported the strike despite the disruption to their children’s schooling. Still, in the interests of ‘balance’ the media presented both public supporters and opponents in equal measure, as if this was somehow representative of public opinion… but that’s doubtful.

BBC poll suggested that 61% of people believe public sector workers were justified in going on strike over pension changes. A poll for Sky News returned 72% support for the strikers and a Daily Mail on-line poll showed 84% support, which must have been embarrassing for such an anti-union paper. Granted, the Daily Mail poll result looks like a well organised campaign to infuriate the paper and its readers but still… 84% and its Right-wing subscribers couldn’t orchestrate a fightback?

Cameron’s attempts to paint the strike as a public relations failure and a ‘damp squib’ where left looking threadbare by Wednesday night.

His government is loosing the arguments and while the Tories can always depend upon lumpen-Toffs, lickspittles and liars to keep delivering the government’s dubious message up and down the country, this time it might not be enough to keep them ahead. That’s because there is another more powerful and persuasive narrative emerging from diverse sources.

There are new kids on the block that don’t look like the militant ‘folk devils’ Michael Gove tried to conjure for the public imagination last week. UK Uncut has highlighted the unfairness in the tax system and it’s a message that the public are open to, simply because it’s true. The Occupy movement is forcing the question of inequality and corporate greed onto the agenda and it is resonating with the public because you don’t need a degree in economics to see how fundamentally unfair the world is. And the leaders of the public sector unions are ill-cast as Michael Gove’s militants. They’ve been consistently articulate and reasonable advocates of their members’ cause.

The government’s message has been confused and duplicitous but it has nevertheless set the news agenda, although with sometimes cringeable results. The BBC’s Nick Robinson must wish he’d been less slavish in his devotion to government spin on the day of the strike when he manufactured an encounter between a striking teacher and a cafe owner. This was supposed to somehow illustrate the antagonism between public and private sectors. In the end it really was was a ‘damp squib’. Sure, there was no great meeting of minds but neither did sparks fly. In the end the whole episode was so awkward and so contrived looking that Robinson was left elaborating furiously to give it any substance.

Awkward and contrived: that just about sums up the government’s message.

Sometimes it’s easy to mistake the erratic and stupid behaviour of your adversary for some sort of  clever, yet indecipherable strategy. There is no cunning to this government right now. It’s simply all-over-the-place and vulnerable. The trade unions can win this one. Not only do they have right on their side but for the first time in a long while they have a narrative that is potentially more persuasive than that of their opponents.

For an alternative take on government spin, check out Academic Anonymous.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. CMK permalink
    December 5, 2011 11:17 pm

    A couple of dozen miles south, across the border, and things look so different. I’m green with envy that workers up North and in the UK public sector got to take part in such a well planned, organised strike and were blessed with a reasonably articulate cadre of union leaders. Union leaders, moreover, who appeared to really, sincerely and genuinely believe in the demands and the arguments they were making on behalf of union members. Good, also, to see that in the whirlwind of Tory propaganda, the essential rightness of the unions’ position on pensions resonated far more than the obnoxious levelling down rhetoric of ‘private sector pensions are s**t, therefore public sector pensions, too, must be s**t’. Hopefully levels of despair in Tory central office have been stoked that little bit higher by the strike.

    Alas, here in the benighted Republic we’ve exchanged clerical dominance for full spectrum neo-liberal ideological dominance for a priesthood of right-wing economists who stuff every TV and panel discussion and editorial page, such that even the union leaders sincerely believe that gutting their members’ pay and conditions are required to ‘restore competitiveness’.

    While I’m more of ‘close down the ports, airports, all out general strike’ man myself it was heartening to see that 32 years of uninterrupted Tory rule (Blair and Brown were fundamentally Tories) hasn’t extinguished the fighting spirit of at least some sections of the British workforce. There’s a long road back to a decent society, never mind socialism (my personal preference) but one has to start somewhere and this strike was as good a place as any.

    Great blog, by the way.

    • Rab permalink*
      December 6, 2011 8:38 pm

      Welcome CMK

      I feel ya! As they used to say on The Wire.

      Ireland, north and south is a bit of a political conundrum to me. Two competing sets of political allegiance: one that would take up arms in the name of a sovereign nation, the other would bring the north to a standstill to assert it’s claim to walk the ‘Queen’s thoroughfare’. Now both of them seem prostrate before the banks. So much of our insurrectionary heritage.

      Hope to hear from you again…

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  1. The Public Sector Day of Action and Government Spin « Academic Anonymous

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