14 Sep 2009

TUC’s dystopian vision of post-downturn Britain

Liverpool, 11am. Social unrest, industrial strife and four million unemployed. That’s the picture, according to the unions of Britain in a world of huge public spending cuts.

The location of this 141st Trades Union Congress in Liverpool is highly appropriate. And TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber has already this morning raised the spectre of “social costs of Tory recessions” leading to a re-run of the Toxteth riots.

The union movement is now much more concentrated in the public sector than in previous recessions. It is to be expected that they will fight tooth-and-nail against cuts.

It can already be seen down the M62 in places like Leeds. There, around 500 binmen have been on strike for a week, with rubbish beginning to pile up, and some senior figures involved in the dispute telling me it could last a month. The dispute is about £5,000 pay cuts that the council argue is mandated by equal pay legislation.

There is a backdrop of the LibDem-Conservative council plan to privatise the waste collection service, but everyone is aware of the coming cuts agenda. This former housing hotspot has seen council revenues from planning fees slump. The council leader told me directly that he would prefer across-the-board paycuts to job losses, if it came to that.

In Liverpool, Brendan Barber has just spoken. He does say that the Conservatives are on the wrong side of history and “totally out of step with the thinking in every major country”. However, he also acknowledges that there is a need for deficit reduction strategies to be enacted when the recovery comes.

His priorities clearly differ from that of the likes of he Institute of Directors. Any cuts should fall on the tax breaks for the pensions of the wealthy, and on unpopular grand projets, such as ID cards.

It is an approach consistent, though not identical to that outlined by Lord Mandelson. The Conservatives have spectacularly won the battle to shift the argument towards the need for cuts. The really tough part is when and what to cut. Let the electoral battle commence.