Delegates will arrive in Manchester for this year’s Local Government Service Group Conference #uNDC11 after a year of relentless onslaught from the Coalition Government.
No phoney war, no honeymoon settling in, no taking stock – this Government has promulgated an incessant attack on the public sector from day one. With an unparalleled programme of ‘reform’ legislation in such a concentrated timescale, an unprecedented cut in funding, and a complete disregard for due process.
All wrapped up in Cameron’s PR background with rolled-up-shirt sleeve tours of factory floors acting as party political broadcasts and the classic marketing ploy that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the accepted truth. And the bigger that lie the more of a truth it must be!
It may be the same old, same old Tory ideology underneath the stone but there is no denying the success – in the main - of the media strategy. Even a significant number of UNISON members believe the false economics of deficit reduction - which is the public ground anchor for this grandiose experiment in reshaping society to be an open picnic hamper for corporate pickings.
And with the Lib Dems out of their depth politically within government and, after their electoral mauling in May, completely tied to the Tory apron it seems unlikely the coalition will fracture from the inside. Layered on top of all this the Tory machine has cast the public sector as the cause of all ills and the public sector worker as the feckless, anonymous, outdated deviant holding back the new dawn of individual responsibility under market guidance. A new take on the Reds under the Bed, or the Pinks under the Sink.
So delegates can be forgiven for feeling punch-drunk and, with no seaside distractions as respite, we may have a very different conference mood this year. And perhaps a Conference Hall that’s fuller at any given moment.
Local Government will be debating the scale and scope of funding cuts, attacks to terms and conditions, the dismantling of state education through Academies and – of course – Pensions. It’s important to see all of these issues as intrinsically linked within the Tory plot.
They all share certain characteristics; rebalancing the economy and the mindset between public and private (rather than rebalancing away from the power and over reliance on the finance sector), redefining the relationship between the state and the individual, opening all services up to the market to save finance-led capitalism (until its next crisis). It’s the world portrayed in Rollerball but without the coliseum like spectator element.
All these issues deserve serious debate, which is not always the defining memory of Conference.
And yet Pensions is likely to be the dominant theme, the undercurrent tying the threads together throughout the week. The eve of conference announcements from Danny Alexander have seen to that. So let’s hope the debate is real and serious and mature.
This is not the time or the place for a few placards and everybody trying to talk the toughest or “outleft” the next person. It should not be dominated by whether UNISON should be part of the planned strikes on June 30th; or whether the word “early” means now, next week, next month.
We should all accept that as things stand it seems inevitable that we will have to mobilise for widespread industrial action in the autumn. So the real debate is how do we do that, to what end, and what is the ongoing strategy. And the first part has to be winning the arguments with our own members, something we haven’t been able to do convincingly over the Comprehensive Spending Review.
Anybody who thinks we can just turn the tap on and go back to the massive support the LGPS dispute enjoyed in 2006 needs to take a reality pill. The PCS ballot result is a checkpoint, because however you play the arguments just 20% of their membership voted to support the strike later this month. We will need to work hard to convince our members that we have a strategy which involves more than just striking, that striking has a purpose greater than its obvious gesture. Otherwise they will say no, or they will give up a day’s pay out of loyalty to the union – but they will not commit to a prolonged, concerted dispute.
To date UNISON’s internal communications has concentrated on explaining the technicalities of the Pensions proposals and simplifying that within a very good banner of “Pay More, Get Less, Work Longer”. But have the army of Pensions Champions and Contacts actually gone into the workplaces yet?
In the public domain we have focussed on highlighting that our pensions are not gold plated, that average pensions are low, that these proposals are unfair. All of which is true, all of which is important, all of which is reasonable. None of which is going to get us very far if that’s all we keep on saying.
History is littered with those who win the moral argument but end up burned at the stake.
There is no mention of the role of pension investment in the economy and as a vehicle for capital investment. That the combined might of the LGPS amounts to the UK’s largest investment source. That the NHSPS is so cash rich at present that it’s funding the Treasury by £2 billion in excess of what is paid out in benefits.
We have all these arguments, we have all the evidence from the excellent work done on capital stewardship over the last few years. We need to deploy them alongside reinforcing the unfairness of it all. If you want to win over the “squeezed middle” and parts of the business community you tell them how hitting our pensions affects THEM, not just how it affects us.
The whole angle of this at present is “why it’s not fair” – no mention of why it’s not even necessary in the LGPS and the NHSPS and what the wider impact will be. The whole world is unfair and if we keep to a single media approach we may get 5 pence dropped in a plastic cup by sympathetic (small ‘l’) liberals and others but those people will still walk on by with scarcely a second thought.
We already have the high ground in the arguments. So let’s take them on in the low ground and counter-attack the Treasury’s bankrupt grasp (or deliberate ignorance) of economics.
That then leaves the real reason for the pensions proposals completely exposed – which is to make it cheaper to privatise public services. And we know that the public in general don’t support privatisation.
All of which needs to be done quite quickly so as to root any Industrial Action in the Autumn within a framework of concerns that have some resonance with the public, and from which the public may provide some support for us. Because we will need that public support.
So hopefully we can have these debates at Conference outside of the usual bubble of unreality that descends on UNISON for a week. And maybe, in that sense, a rainy time in Manchester is not so unappealing after all.
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