30 Jun 2011

The battle for hearts, minds…and pensions

An abandoned protest placardIt’s a triumph or a damp squib, depending on who you talk to.

The battle for hearts and minds on public sector pensions began in earnest today. Both sides can clutch at some straws of comfort from recent polls…but the overall evidence is that the public is evenly balanced or marginally hostile to the strikes (with the distinct possibility that the inconvenience of strikes could drive some public support down).

But the polls also suggest that the public is, by a smallish margin, sympathetic in principle to the grievances. The history of disputes suggests these numbers can become very fluid sometimes.

It’s most certainly not the biggest strike in generations…it’s the biggest one-day strike since March 2006 when local council workers came out against pension changes. That dispute ended in a negotiated settlement with local government workers paying an extra 1 per cent into their pension pots.

But that was then and this is the era of deficit reduction. The interest is greater, the police presence inflated because the government is asking for a 3 per cent hike in contributions (and much more on pension age, etc besides). The demands are greater, they come on top of a CPI change to pensions that cuts them anyway and in the middle of frozen wages for many in the public sector at a time of inflation.

But the focus is also so much bigger because lurking in the shadows are the big union players (Unite, the GMB and Unison). They’re not involved today but if their negotiations with the Government fail they could join in mass action in the autumn and disruption then could be much greater. The overall appearance of a government not in control might gain currency.

It’s also possible that those unions’  negotiations break down into much smaller units. Possible also that they come out on strike but not in blanket joint action but more focused action that reduces the number of days’ pay lost but maximises impact.

Public sector pension proesters march through London (Getty)So whether it was 100,000 CPS members on strike (the Government) or 200,000 (the CPS), whether 28 per cent of schools in England closed (the Government) or 45 per cent (the unions), this is important and both sides know it.

Just to pass on, the latest on whether there is “travel chaos” or not…the British Airports Authority says there are no significant delays, no flights disrupted. The queues are, I am told, pretty much normal, perhaps a bit longer.

BA says no flights cancelled at any UK airport and the Home Office says the UK Border Agency says only 18 per cent of its staff in airports and ports went on strike. They say shift changes tonight could mean some slight problems later but nothing serious.

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