So I was on the streets of London Thursday, after joining my wife, my son and three of his friends, whose school was closed for the day, as well as other friends and teachers from my son’s school (who even had a banner!) on a march from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Methodist Central Hall, via the Strand and Whitehall. It was a lovely sunny day, and the children looked wonderful, blowing whistles, plastered with National Union of Teachers (NUT) stickers, wearing T-shirts provided by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and also waving flags from the University and College Union (UCU) and Lewisham People Before Profit. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers were on strike, from the three unions above, plus the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), whose members were on a national strike for the first time since 1979, and the march and rally in London was attended by at least 30,00 people.
This was something of a family affair for me, as my wife is a UCU member, some of our very good friends are teachers, and, of course, we know other university lecturers and have, over the last seven years that my son has been at primary and junior school, got to know all his teachers. However, I would have been there in solidarity even if the strike had not involved anyone I knew, for two reasons: firstly, because the argument about pensions is actually part of an ideological struggle between the government and the unions, in which the government, to be blunt, is not to be trusted; and secondly, because yesterday’s strike actions were part of a wider desire for protests against the government — for their arrogance, their incompetence, and the savage reach of their entire programme for wrecking the state and privatising whatever hasn’t already been privatised under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, as I have been explaining since October in my series of articles under the heading, Battle for Britain: Fighting the Coalition Government’s Vile Ideology.
On that point alone, I approve of regular protests against the government — whether, like the huge TUC march and rally on March 26, it takes place on a weekend, so most people don’t actually have to go on strike, or whether it involves strike action, as I believe that more privatization is actually the last thing we need. This government, which doesn’t even have a mandate for its actions (having lied on the election trail and being a Frankenstein’s monster of Tory and Lib Dem body parts) is the opposite of our requirements — to pursue the banks and the corporations for unpaid tax or for tax evasion, and to work out how to have a government that governs, rather than one that seeks, perpetually, to hand all the power to unaccountable private sector opportunists, whose only interest is profit.
As for the specific issue of public sector pensions, I’m a self-employed journalist, so it’s not of huge personal concern, but the behaviour of Tory ministers appals me, as do their attempts to lie about the facts and to frame their arguments in the context of a war between the private sector and the public sector.
As Michael White noted in the Guardian today, on Radio 4’s Today programme, economics expert Evan Davis “kebabbed” Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, who is handling — or mishandling — pensions negotiations with the unions. As White wrote, paraphrasing Davis, “Why all the pressure when the Hutton report on pensions confirmed that — largely thanks to Labour reforms of public sector pensions — the annual taxpayer bung of 1.9% of GDP (about £32bn) to fill the contributions gap had peaked and would fall to 1.4% by the time younger marchers retire in the 2050s?”
As White also noted, “Maude floundered,” as he really has no answer. What the Tories want, clearly, is for the public to despise giving this support, so that, in time, the entire public sector can be demolished and the private sector take over, at which point only the bosses and shareholders will have decent pensions, and everyone else will be on temporary contracts, without any rights.
Gutting universities of state funding was a start to this process, which, as well as leading to the closure of numerous institutions as students flee to other countries where state support for universities remains in place, and a decline in educational standards and social mobility in the UK, may also lead to teachers and staff, over time, having to accept less pay and less rights simply in order to keep their jobs. I fought against the proposal to triple tuition fees and to cut 100 percent of government funding from all arts, humanities and social science degrees, but that battle was lost in Parliament in December because Lib Dem MPs refused to abstain. However, I believe that it needs to be overturned, as was Thatcher’s Poll Tax, because it is such a reckless, ideological experiment, which could prove to be extraordinarily destructive, and as other sectors come under pressure — with the NHS being the most notable example, but with ramifications for the whole of the state, as I noted yesterday when I saw strikers walking past bearing a PCS Revenue and Customs banner — I will take part in protests.
Last May, after a pitiful election campaign in which no one spoke the truth, we should have had a national discussion about the way forward for the UK as a whole. Instead we have had nothing but arrogance, stupidity and ideology masquerading as necessity from a government that has no genuine vision (and little but silence or criticism of the strike from Labour in opposition). Yesterday was a polite protest, but that may not be the case in autumn, as the cuts continue to bite, and as the economy continues to suffer under a government that has no positive message for anyone except the rich and super-rich.