Sunday, 19 June 2011

Ed Balls and public sector pensions

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls
BBC News informs us: 'Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has urged the unions not to fall into a government "trap" by striking over plans to reform public sector pensions.'

In his Sunday Mirror article today, he apparently claims that Tory and Lib Dem ministers want a fight and are saying "bring it on" to the unions. Balls also makes it clear he broadly supports reform of public sector pensions.

Let's rewind for a moment. When Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader last September it was a setback for the Blairites, indicating at least a small shift away from the notion that the most right-wing position available must always be the correct one.

When Ed Balls later replaced Alan Johnson as shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer it was another sign that the most Blairite elements were losing ground, if only to be replaced by the kind of people who regard Neil Kinnock as a political mentor.

In the last week or so there has been a small but unmistakeable lurch to the right, with the two Eds succumbing easily to pressure from the Labour Party's extreme right. Miliband's lazy rhetoric about welfare claimants - bracketing 'benefit fraudsters' as part of the same malaise as bankers raking in huge bonuses - has been swiftly followed by Balls distancing the Labour front bench from the trade unions.

Balls is adopting a rather strange line on this. He suggests Osborne will blame unions for any failures of economic recovery. Really? Maybe Osborne will do that, but it's hardly an argument likely to have much resonance. The unions today simply aren't powerful enough for union-blaming to connect with people. Why on earth would a few one-day strikes in the public sector have any discernible effect on the prospects for economic recovery?

David Harvey recently commented that a welcome feature of media and public discourse about the financial crash of 2008, and ensuing crisis, has been the absence of blaming it on 'union power'. This is, of course, because the unions have so transparently not been powerful in the last two decades or more. If the shadow chancellor trots out such silly and dishonest arguments as this, however, then any Tory attempts to blame unions for economic woes are likely to gain more currency.

In a post the other day I wrote: 'Labour is bitterly hostile to strike action which falls a long way short of a general strike. There will be massive pressure on the unions from leading Labour politicians to dampen any resistance. Labourism remains a powerful force in the working class. The relationship between Labour and the union bureaucracy is tight.'

Labour leaders are compromised on this particular issue. It was a report by John Hutton, a former Labout minister, that laid the basis for government policy. Whatever differences about the details, there has been a large degree of consenus about pensions between Tories, Lib Dems and Labour.

Three things aren't yet entirely clear. The first is what effect Labour's firmly right-wing political position on pensions will have on the more cautious union leaders. Dave Prentis of Unison is engaging in militant fighting talk, but it is still possible he will be pulled by pressure from Labour to tone it down. Taking the kind of action he envisages will put Unison, a major Labour Party donor, on a collision course with Milband and Balls.

The second thing to watch is the response from Labour's 'soft left'. At present they appear preoccupied with defending Labour's beleagured leader from attacks by Blairite supporters of David Miliband. While the unashamedly pro-cuts, hard-right elements should be resisted, 'rallying around Ed' is an untenable position and a dead-end cause which merely pulls Labour's left further to the right. In the two Eds you will find so very little worth championing.

Finally, it's unclear what course public opinion will take. I suspect there is widespread public sympathy for strikes, but co-existing with right-wing attitudes like thinking public sector workers have 'gold-plated pensions' or cuts to pensions are unavoidable. Labour leaders attacking the unions will obviously not help our cause, but whether it especially damages it remains to be seen.

It makes it abundantly clear there will be no political opposition to pension cuts from Labour's front bench. The political arguments will have to come from the anti-cuts movement, the Left and trade unions. We need to assert exactly the points which Balls should be making.

This means alerting people to the scale of what many teachers, lecturers, civil sevants and others will lose. It involves linking the pensions campaign to the broader defence of public services: any victory for unions on pensions will assist the whole struggle to defend the public sector and stop cuts. It requires us to point out that bank bailouts, tax cheats and the soaring wealth of the super-rich give the lie to the idea that there's simply no money.

It isn't just a battle of ideas either. It's about building a mass movement which embodies those ideas, and the alternatives to cuts, in co-ordinated and united action on the streets, in communities, and throughout the trade union movement.

The Tories are desperate to cause divisions: between Labour and the unions, between different unions, between workers and service users, between public and private sctors. Labour leaders are parroting Tory arguments. Some union leaders resent strike action on 30 June and are vulnerable to pressure from their right.

In response we need to combine a clear rejection of the ideological myths underpinning the attack on pensions with mass practical solidarity for those who, by taking strike action on 30 June, are on the front line of fighting cuts. 30 June is part of something much bigger.


1 comment:

  1. This needs some unpacking. When you keep using the term "the right" you're referring to the capitalists, their partisans, and those who defer to their interests. Let's be clear about the interests at stake, here - terms like "right" and "left" imply a solidarity on the basis of shared ideas, which ignores the way ideas are shaped by material interests

    Within the Labour Party there are those who are partisans of capital either naively or out of individual aspiration, and those who are forced to be deferential out of political weakness. Miliband and Balls are in the latter group and their pronouncements will reflect this political weakness.

    Clearly, in the trade union movement there is deference to varying degrees - but to heed Balls' point about blame is not to defer to the interests of capital. Since the government does not actually want a negotiated settlement - for that would involve concessions on their part on which they seem unwilling to give ground - there's some advantage in propaganda terms of sticking to the negotiations.

    *We* know the strategy being pursued is to make us pay for the crisis through cuts to the social wage and a squeeze on the actual wage - but the means to communicate this to people is centralised, and the explanations for events are cast in terms of the government having a scarcity of money. If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth - so the dodgy grounds for blaming the union movement don't matter, just as they didn't in the past when a wage squeeze led to widespread industrial action.

    Far more important than winning the argument on the terms of the dispute will be challenging the legitimacy of the coalition itself to impose large-scale changes - this means a concerted effort to pressure backbench LibDem and Tory MPs on the broader economic issues we face. The June 30 strike provides an opportunity to build momentum during the summer months