Despite two years of propaganda from right-wing newspapers, think tanks and politicians of all parties that massive public funding cuts are necessary to save Britain from economic oblivion, it turns out that barely one in five voters support the speed and scale of the coalition’s cuts agenda.
According to a Populus poll for The Times, just 22 percent of people support the speed and depth of the coalition’s planned cuts. 37 percent support Labour’s election pledge to cut the deficit more slowly, while significantly another 37 percent say that protecting the vulnerable and keeping a lid on unemployment should be higher priorities than cutting the deficit – even though this anti-cuts line is barely getting a hearing in the mainstream media.
This latest survey will undoubtedly cause discomfort among Conservatives (though their overall share of the vote is holding up) and outright panic among many Lib Dems. It might also provoke a degree of embarrassment to the pro-cuts Times, whose Murdoch-inspired message is clearly not getting through.
But it should also give the trade unions meeting this week at the TUC Congress in Manchester the confidence to press on with plans for co-ordinated strike action.
There are those in the anti-cuts movement who fear that strikes will turn the public against the unions. Meanwhile over at Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal warns that the unions need to win the public round to the anti-cuts argument before turning to industrial action. He says that mass demonstrations and ‘other action’ will be more effective that strikes in fighting the cuts.
Both fear a rerun of the 1980s, when extended industrial action ended in defeat for both the miners and the printworkers and reporters of Wapping, and a changed industrial landscape that forced the unions into retreat.
But today’s poll shows why there’s no need to tiptoe around waiting for public opinion to fall in line. It already is.
Despite the lack of any meaningful opposition, and blanket coverage of the pro-cuts argument, the public is instinctively suspicious of the coalition’s cuts agenda, with a sizeable minority seemingly opposed to all cuts outright.
Clearly there is an argument to be had and won in public – the impact the cuts will have on the majority of people, the risks to Britain’s economic recovery, the increase in poverty while those who caused the recession rake in huge bonuses once more.
While the public is well aware of the role of doctors, nurses and teachers, the importance of the more prosaic arms of the public sector – legal aid, benefits office staff, Connexions services, to name but three – needs to be spelt out. The unions will need to make the case against cuts – but this they are doing. We are seeing a bigger public relations push from the union movement than ever before.
But we should not lose sight of the importance of strike action. Yes, it creates disruption. Yes, it is often unpopular. But it hits the employer – in this case, the government – where it hurts. Work doesn’t get done. Public transport stops. Offices are shut. Phone calls go unanswered. Agency staff must be hired and paid for.
Only the most obdurate employer, determined to break a trade union, can endure the disruption and expense of a properly planned, well supported strike. Thatcher did, of course, but the coalition does not have her landslide majority, obedient backbenchers and divided opposition to fight a long war of attrition.
And those who worry about the verdict on strikes in the court of public opinion should bear in mind that in the 1980s, trade unions were seen by many as being powerful baronetcies that brought the country to a halt throughout the 70s. Fair or not, the shadow of Red Robbo was a long one.
That is ancient history now. The picture today could not be more different. While the public is not exactly having a love-in with the unions, it is privatisation and financial deregulation – the Next Big Things of the Thatcher years – that are now in the dock.
Privatising public services will not win favour among commuters delayed by franchised trains. Cutting funding to schools and hospitals will bring back memories of the crumbling classrooms and NHS beds crises of the Major years. A recession cooked up in the casinos of the City will not willingly be paid for by the public.
And if economic data continues to get worse, the entire economic basis of the cuts agenda will evaporate.
In that context, while strike action will cause inconvenience and irritation, it is the impact of the government funding cuts that will cause real anger. People frustrated because they can’t access services during a one-day strike will realise that government cuts could deprive them of those services for far longer.
Strike action will have to be planned, organised and co-ordinated for maximum impact. It can only go ahead with members’ support. The unions’ media strategy will have to be carefully worked out to fight the anti-union hysteria that will inevitably fill much of Fleet Street. Strike funds will need to be topped up.
Most importantly of all, the anti-cuts movement will need to set out alternatives to the cuts agenda, both for better public services and for economic growth and prosperity. We are seeing the beginnings of this already.
But strikes – along with demonstrations and other tactics – are very much part of the strategy that will be needed to defeat the cuts. They are not the first and only option, but they are a valid and effective option nonetheless. To simply rule them out is to neuter the bear before it enters the pit.
The public mood is already turning against the cuts and towards the unions’ arguments. Now is not the time to go wobbly.