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Published on July 2nd, 2011 | by Seamus Macleod
Image © StrikersMuch has been made of the death-grip Ed Miliband seems to have on his party line regarding Thursday's public sector strikes. Mr. Miliband tenaciously - or perhaps obstinately - clung to his characterisation of the strikes as premature and of the coalition government's position as "reckless and provocative." His failure to support protesting teachers and other public sector workers has been described as "a disgrace" by Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Mr. Miliband was booed at a union rally while his shadow cabinet colleague John Denham received similar treatment on Question Time and this discontent has been reflected online. His reticence should be no surprise to anyone who remembers the key demographic who kept Labour in power throughout the last decade, his election to leader of his party, or indeed this week's PMQs. Despite the fact that none of Thursday's striking unions are affiliated with the Labour Party, Mr. Miliband knows that he cannot hope to lead his party to electoral victory or even remain a credible voice in the debate over the cuts if he is seen as being "in the pockets of the unions." He is aware that, whilst public sector workers are being asked to shoulder a large part of the burden of deficit reduction, large swathes of the British public perceive public sector pensions to be a luxury. Public support is crucial if the strikes are to sway the government and it remains finely balanced and conditional. If Mr. Miliband is going to achieve anything by supporting strike action it will have to be at a later stage in the negotiations. For the moment he remains paralysed by the potential political potholes. Why then have a number of unions failed to show the same political prescience as the beleaguered Labour leader? The simple answer is the weakness previously shown by David Cameron in the face of public resistance. Sentencing reform, NHS reform, and even the privatisation of Britain's forests have been swiftly abandoned in the name of political expediency. Earlier in the year the New Statesman gleefully compiled a list of Mr. Cameron's u-turns to date and Mr. Cameron has been reduced to trying to reclaim this criticism as a badge of honour. Unfortunately for Thursday's striking unions, there is little equivalence here. The NHS is considered a sacred British institution and the penalty for privatising it would have been fierce. Likewise, Ken Clarke's disasterous interview with Victoria Derbyshire caused almost universal outcry. Opponents of the privatisation of Britain's forests were able to draw on patriotic notions of our "green and pleasant land" being sold to the highest bidder. Striking public sector workers have no such recourse. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, today's public sector workers are, on average, better off than their age and educational equivalents in the private sector. In these bitter economic times the British public are more susceptible to Tory claims of unfairness than ever before. If there is to be a u-turn on this Tory policy the battle will be longer and harder than those past.

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Miliband Refuses to be Martyr

StrikersMuch has been made of the death-grip Ed Miliband seems to have on his party line regarding Thursday’s public sector strikes. Mr. Miliband tenaciously – or perhaps obstinately – clung to his characterisation of the strikes as premature and of the coalition government’s position as “reckless and provocative.” His failure to support protesting teachers and other public sector workers has been described as “a disgrace” by Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Mr. Miliband was booed at a union rally while his shadow cabinet colleague John Denham received similar treatment on Question Time and this discontent has been reflected online.

His reticence should be no surprise to anyone who remembers the key demographic who kept Labour in power throughout the last decade, his election to leader of his party, or indeed this week’s PMQs. Despite the fact that none of Thursday’s striking unions are affiliated with the Labour Party, Mr. Miliband knows that he cannot hope to lead his party to electoral victory or even remain a credible voice in the debate over the cuts if he is seen as being “in the pockets of the unions.” He is aware that, whilst public sector workers are being asked to shoulder a large part of the burden of deficit reduction, large swathes of the British public perceive public sector pensions to be a luxury. Public support is crucial if the strikes are to sway the government and it remains finely balanced and conditional. If Mr. Miliband is going to achieve anything by supporting strike action it will have to be at a later stage in the negotiations. For the moment he remains paralysed by the potential political potholes.

Why then have a number of unions failed to show the same political prescience as the beleaguered Labour leader? The simple answer is the weakness previously shown by David Cameron in the face of public resistance. Sentencing reform, NHS reform, and even the privatisation of Britain’s forests have been swiftly abandoned in the name of political expediency. Earlier in the year the New Statesman gleefully compiled a list of Mr. Cameron’s u-turns to date and Mr. Cameron has been reduced to trying to reclaim this criticism as a badge of honour. Unfortunately for Thursday’s striking unions, there is little equivalence here. The NHS is considered a sacred British institution and the penalty for privatising it would have been fierce. Likewise, Ken Clarke’s disasterous interview with Victoria Derbyshire caused almost universal outcry. Opponents of the privatisation of Britain’s forests were able to draw on patriotic notions of our “green and pleasant land” being sold to the highest bidder. Striking public sector workers have no such recourse. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, today’s public sector workers are, on average, better off than their age and educational equivalents in the private sector. In these bitter economic times the British public are more susceptible to Tory claims of unfairness than ever before. If there is to be a u-turn on this Tory policy the battle will be longer and harder than those past.

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