I’ve written several times over the past few days that a strike on public sector pensions is unavoidable,necessary and ultimately futile. I feel this intuitively but I haven’t been able to articulate to myself – let alone to others – why I feel this strongly.
I think my reaction is myopic, my vision of what’s going on blurred or distorted by my confused relationship with unionism. Let me explain..
My Dad’s a radical Liberal – born into a reasonably well off family – his father a Methodist minister. Growing up in various manses (the Methodist term for vicarage) and sidelined in Dorset when he had TB as a child, he did not grow up with a group of friends but he developed a sense of personal identity based on “public service”. Both as a local minister and as a Doctor he practiced what he preached At 58, after being retired out of the NHS on health grounds he became leader of the Dorset Liberals and shortly after the first Liberal Leader of Dorset County Council.
Growing up I spent much of my spare time canvassing and leaflet dropping for the Libs. My tendencies were left-wing like his – redistributive and radical. I went with my Dad to by-elections to help Liberals break the mould. I was a Liberal sub-agent in the Chesterfield by-election when Tony Benn was swept in and met for the first time the militant labour party fresh from the miner’s strike and the battles of Liverpool. I did not like what I saw, a violence that was self-defeating; an intolerance of anyone- however well-meaning -who came from a priviledged background.
I still do not like the militant end of the union movement but I have much greater understanding of unionism thanks to time spent with union officials like Bill Day, Brian Freake and Glyn Jenkins. Recently, working with Hilary Salt I have seen a continuation of a radical tradition in pensions that I had picked up on from Bryn Davies, Tony Lines and Barbara Castle. If unionism was in the hands of these people then we would have a fairer and more efficient pensions system which did not rely on market forces but on the means of production – those who have worked, are working and will work in Britain.
That is why I believe the Unions need to stand up and defend a system of welfare that should not have crumbled as it has.
But unionism will not win this fight. That is because unionism no longer speaks for the majority of this country. Union support outside the public sector is a spectre of what it was. Tied as it is to a middle of a road labour party that has lost its direction, dismissive as it has been to my Liberal party that is the party of the left in the south of England. The unions do not speak for me or for that large constituency of middle class pinkos like me who would gladly help their cause.
When I joined Eagle Star in 1995, I joined the union – ESSU (now Unite). I nearly got fired a few months later when an MFS official (who my union were affilated to) wrote to my MD demanding I be disciplined for criticising John Denham‘s romantic notion that Unions would distribute pensions in the workforce. The official and I are now on good terms but the reality is that people like me have no place in his union – the unions do not want people like me.
Which is why I see the problem as “ineluctable”. There is no way that the unions can reach out to the centre ground so there’s no way the Government are going to listen to the unions.
Because the unions only speak for those they define as their own – they do not speak for me – nor I for them.
- Public-sector workers warned: strike, and pensions will suffer (telegraph.co.uk)
- Public sector pensions shakeup will hit women hardest, unions claim (guardian.co.uk)
- Alexander’s warning raises union anger (independent.co.uk)
- You: Iain Duncan Smith rejects cross-party pressure on women’s pensions (guardian.co.uk)