John Lennon once infamously said of Ringo Starr that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles. In a similar vein, you could probably say of Ed Miliband that he wasn’t even the best Labour leader in his own family. His decision not to support the strike that is happening today is a reflection of that.
750,000 public sector workers are striking today. Their rationale is rather simple. It is claimed repeatedly by David Cameron that public sector pensions must be reformed because the present system is “unaffordable”. In actual fact the amount we will be paying less for public sector pensions, as a percentage of GDP, will decrease even without any reforms.
These pensions are not gold-plated. The recent Hutton Report on pensions (the above graph is from p. 23 of that report) had this to say:
The Commission firmly rejected the claim that current public service pensions are ‘gold plated.’ The average pension paid to pensioner members is around £7,800 per year, while the median payment is around £5,600.
In the civil service pension scheme, for instance, most workers receive a pension of less than £6000 per year.
(from False Economy)
It’s hard to disagree with Dave Prentis when he describes these pension pots as “a cushion against poverty in retirement”.
What the pension reforms effectively mean is that employees will contribute more for their pension and receive less out. That, as False Economy argues in the blog I linked to above, is essentially a pay cut. Or, as another blogger puts it, as a tax to pay off the deficit.
It’s true that these pensions are better than those received by the vast majority of private sector workers. Apart from, obviously the very rich. As the TUC briefing makes clear (p. 3):
In 2007/8 tax relief cost £37.6 billion – almost ten times the net cost of unfunded public sector pensions. This tax relief is heavily skewed towards the well off. 60 per cent goes to higher rate tax payers and a quarter of tax relief — nearly £10 billion a year – goes to the one per cent of the population who earn more than £150,000.
None of this seems like an argument to further hit public sector workers, who are already facing a pay freeze for two years in times of high inflation and what could amount for some to a 10% cut in pay.
So it’s easy to see why some public sector workers have decided to take the most extreme action possible to try and protect their already-eroding living standards.
And what was Ed Miliband’s response?
The Labour Party I lead will always be the party of the parent trying to get their children to school, the mother and father who know the value of a day’s education.
On behalf of those people I urge unions and ministers to get back around the negotiating table and sort this out…
The public deserve better. All sides need to get round the table and back to negotiations.
And he tweeted today:
These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are going on. People have been let down by both sides – the Govt has acted recklessly.—
Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) June 30, 2011
For a start, it’s only a one-day strike. It’s not like the teachers have padlocked the school gates, starting singing The Internationale and taken to the streets until the government falls. If closing schools for one day affects children’s education so adversely, why was the decision taken to close schools for the royal wedding? Or close scores of them so that they could be used as polling stations on May 5th? To criticize a one-day strike because it’s hugely detrimental to children’s education seems disingenuous, to say the least.
I know that’s what many of the small socialist groups giving out leaflets on the march today, as well as people like Laurie Penny, want them to do.
But this strike isn’t about a revolution. It’s ordinary working people who have taken a democratic decision to strike in order to defend their pension. It certainly isn’t the start of an insurrection.
You can extend it to a march of people who wish to reverse the government’s economic policy. In which case, what about the parents who work at courtrooms that may be closed, who rely on Sure Start centres that may be cut, the parents that work at businesses like Thorntons and Habitat who are now feeling the pinch of the current economic climate? How is Labour going to stand up for them?
Ed Miliband’s decision not to support the strike doesn’t even make sense from a political point of view. I can only assume he’s done it because he doesn’t want to be seen as “Red Ed”, in thrall to the unions, but this seems to be mistaken. A majority of people have consistently said they are in favour of workers striking to protect terms and conditions. So Ed has ignored polls, alienated the unions who fund Labour, disappointed a lot of members and Labour’s core supporters, all for what? To stop a few bad headlines in the Daily Mail. There’s only one response for that:
And don’t even get me started on this God-awful performance.
I do think that Ed Miliband’s words say something about the existential crisis that Labour is in at the moment.
It’s becoming very difficult to answer the question of who exactly Labour is for, and what its core values are. There are those that Owen Jones calls the Blairite ultras, and Con Home calls the thoughtful leftwingers, who are essentially Blairites and believe Labour should support the cuts in their entirety. On the other extreme, there are some members of the no-cuts brigade, with every shade in between. All have different opinions on why Labour lost 4 million votes between 1997 and 2010, and all have different opinions on how Labour best wins them back.
At the moment it feels like he’s trying to please all sections of the party whilst appeasing the right-wing tabloids, and ending up pleasing nobody.
This blog will have much more to say about the direction of Labour. At the moment though, I get the feeling that this incident will have done Ed Miliband more harm than good.