Striking while the iron is cool

Staff picket the entrance to Stirling Castle

Allow me to begin with what will be dismissed by many as a ludicrous proposition: there are some in the government who are privately disappointed that today's protests are not much bigger.

Yes, of course I know that the last thing ministers say they want is disruption and strikes that cause widespread inconvenience and make the job of deficit reduction even harder.

But if there is a surprise at the action today, it is that we haven't seen more of it. And as I shall explain, I think for some in Downing Street, that is a bit of a worry.

When the budget cuts were announced back in 2010 there was an acceptance that austerity, once it started to bite, would be greeted by widespread public anger. Government unpopularity at this point in the cycle was a given and the big question was how the British population would make their fury felt.

For a moment last summer, people wondered whether the English riots were the start of it. But it quickly became clear the looting and disorder had very little to do with cuts or welfare reform.

Then the focus shifted to the Occupy movement - was that going to be the rallying point for broad-based public anger? It would appear not.

The small-scale rallies and demos which pop up on the front page of local papers don't seem to be part of an identifiable protest movement. Today's national strikes over pensions and the police march over conditions of service seem to reflect the narrow self-interest of public workers rather than the vanguard of a more general outcry.

Those out on strike include...

Strikers at Stirling Castle
  • Job centre, border and tax office staff
  • Health visitors, pharmacists and paramedics
  • Lecturers and other staff in colleges and new universities

At first sight this might suggest to some that the government has "got away with it". Britain feels more resigned than furious at the impact of austerity. Although the coalition took a kicking in last week's local elections, if the nation really wanted to scream their opposition to cuts and reforms, why did two-thirds of the electorate in England not even bother to vote?

And this must worry David Cameron and some of his closest advisors. Why? Because we have a prime minister whose central mission is the idea of building an active citizenry.

He wants to see armies of armchair auditors checking on public spending and creating a fuss if they don't like what they see; he wants grassroots activism to shape planning and development; he wants real power to flow from the Whitehall elites to the ordinary Joes and Josephines in parishes and wards; he wants a Big Society where citizens get involved in their local communities.

Instead, some of his advisors privately despair at a population that appears to count the cost of democracy rather than understanding its value.

My guess is that they imagined the pain of the cuts would wake people up to their democratic rights. While disagreeing with those who oppose their policies, of course, I suspect they thought this period in our politics might also represent an opportunity to rouse a populace that has come to regard itself as consumer rather than citizen.

David Cameron may pat himself on the back for so successfully making the case that deep public sector cuts are a necessity. But there may also be part of him that is disappointed the argument was so easily won.

Mark Easton, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    If anything makes me support privatisation it is this type of selfish strike action.

    If you don't think it's fair - FIND ANOTHER JOB! Plenty of people happy to do your job (and probably better) under the new terms.

    No group should be allowed to hold the country to ransom like this - anyone inciting strike action should be imprisoned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    As a concerned citizen watching this country being successively governed down the pan.

    Why do we have 43 police forces in England and Wales with 43 expensive/overly paid chief police superintendents with each their own entourage?

    It doesn't require any reduction in ordinary front line police constables or the reduction in their pensions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Bankers, pensions and governments are the theme. We like Europe, the States etc are in this mess because of bankers greed!

    We do those who go on strike think the money will come from? A money tree at the end of the garden?

    Successive governments have ignored problems - the last one left a note saying 'no money in the kitty' so where does labour and the unions think the money will come from

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    So the big society isn't working because we've not all taken to the streets rioting and striking?

    Would you have written this piece if we where all out on strike?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    @ 76 RBLondon
    Forgive my ignorance, but isn't the private sector wages in essence paid by the taxpayer? Do their wages not come from the money spent on goods and services bought and paid for by the taxpayer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    83 Should someone be inviting you to participate personally? You have a computer, use it. Council meetings are on their website, call them, they will tell you. Most councils are political or even independents have associations, join one that best suits your views. Join a charity, community association. Most local politics is potholes and pavements, not grand ideologies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    "Meanwhile the Posh Boys' millionnaire chums got tax cuts"

    from 50% to 45% you only pay 20%, the tax cut made things fairer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    I'm just sick of the ConDem lies and the gullible saps who believe them. My pension was 'renegotiated' in 2007 to average-salary and is perfectly 'affordable and sustainable'; further changes are just salary cuts under another name - during an extended pay freeze. Meanwhile the Posh Boys' millionnaire chums got INCREASED tax relief on pensions, tax cuts, huge bonuses and 11% salary rises .

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Are not the public sector buyers of goods and services too?
    I only have a basic understanding of economics but I thought the bottom line was defined by the consumer's spending power.
    Aren't all salaries a drain on all employers but given in exchange for service rendered?
    Your bitter rant makes no sense!

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    to all those clowns who think working in the public sector is an easy option wake up and smell the coffee before they lose their jobs due to the austerity programme ran by this government and then find out they need public sector workers to address their benefit needs
    re the pension changes who would be happy if contracts they had signed up to were torn up and revised at a worse rate

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    When the the serfs get annoyed, their Lordships dinnae like it!
    And its a good job I care or some of these people might die from something nasty...
    Anyhow, should some of these angry City types be trying to get is out of the mess they got us in? Or will they miss out on some Pims down at the wine bar?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    76 RBLondon

    I work for a university.

    We create everything from engineers to paramedics.

    Last year we brought in £30m in overseas earnings and £40m in intellectual property earnings. You need to add to that all the yuan etc students from overseas spend in the local economy on accomodation etc

    Out of interest, what 'private sector' job do you do that is contributing to the disunited kingdom?

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    68 The going rate for a private MRI of a particular body part is 400 quid.
    We recently paid for my mother to have one, since the pain in her knee was causing problems caring for my father. The local NHS made her wait 9 weeks for the appointment (and then cancelled it), we gave up on it. lucky we could afford the choice.
    Private - GP, scan, consultant, operation - 18 days total , 2800 quid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I don't recall the private sector speaking up when the public sector wages were lagging behind them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    @76 RBLondon

    1. You obviously can't read - I'm paid from the money I bring into the Exchequer. Last year that was over £10m. I am also a taxpayer.
    2. See above.
    3. This isn't about not getting what I want, it's about something being stolen from me. There's a massive difference.
    4. First I'm overpaid, now my lack of pay is justified. You really aren't very sure what you're saying at all, are you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    75 - You're right, public sector workers do pay tax but only Labour politicians think this is self-supporting. Some do difficult jobs, but for every frontline copper or nurse there are five desk jockeys risking nothing. PS workers were relatively poorly paid, but with a solid pension. Now they're well paid...with a pension way beyond the average taxpayer who is footing the bulk of the bill. Fair??

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    70 Taking a general point and selectively quoting it out of context as you have is poor form.
    Public (and private)sector pensions have been a slow motion car crash for decades - unaddressed by successive governments of both hues. It was known in the 80s, 90s and 00s yet little was done. People have been living longer for a long time now, the notion it suddenly became a problem in 2008 is fascile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    @69 - I work in the environmental sector. The 2011 ENDS survey demonstrates that while I am in the median salary bracket, I am above the median as regards qualifications & experience. Were I in the private sector, I'd be doing a bit better, judged on my peers who are. It's not something that really bothers me - the pension makes up for it. Until it is hacked to bits to pay for bankers bonuses...

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    just read this

    "Dom Scriven, in Liverpool, emails: Public Sector workers pay as much tax as everybody else and then their contributions are deducted from their pay, thus paying for public services twofold."

    amazing... is our educational system really that bad?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Changing terms and conditions of a worker already employed is tantamount to breach of contract,surely? New starters have to accept it as it is at that time,but to move the goalposts later is wrong.
    And as for those who think they could do a Prison OFFICERS's (not guard or warder) job,or that of a police officer,just think about it.
    Oh sorry, you can't as you haven't a clue just like the government


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