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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Politics of the pensions dispute

Last month I posted some reflections on the politics of the current pension dispute. After yesterday's historic strike I believe some update is warranted.


The ConDems got themselves in a guddle from the outset. Firstly, we were told the strike will ruin the economy costing £500m and then it was all a damp squib. Self evidently both cannot be correct. Of course it was only a damp squib if you view the world from the No.10 bunker or your normal social circle of bankers and hedge fund managers. For those in the real world it was an amazing day of protest for pensions justice, as the pictures alone show so clearly. The Autumn Statement the day before just added fuel to the fire.

For the SNP they started with a clear political strategy that deftly avoided the Scottish pensions tax for staff in the LGPS (Scotland) when it became clear there were no Barnett consequentials. They could have used some of the additional £675m efficiency savings to offset the consequentials from the NHS and other schemes. However, they made the political judgement that this money could be better used elsewhere, with the big added advantage of being able to blame Westminster. It will all be fine when we are independent. Treasury 'cash grab' was the soundbite, we actually used this first, but that's fine because that's exactly what it is.

So far so good until Labour MSPs decided to oppose business in Parliament on the Day of Action. The SNP then made a poor tactical decision to hold another debate on pensions (they had one only 10 days before) that meant crossing picket lines. John Swinney, I suspect unintentionally, gave the impression that he was boasting that he crossed a picket line. Then very awkward pictures for the First Minister at the Scottish Parliament picket line. This all went down badly and at the Glasgow rally, when that picture went up, he was loudly booed by most of the 2000+ people present. A rare experience for the normally politically astute FM.

Trade unions broadly welcome the Scottish Government's support for the campaign, but yesterday was about solidarity on the streets and picket lines, not posturing as part of a referendum strategy. A number of mainly West of Scotland SNP MSPs would understand that, but other colleagues clearly didn't.

As for Labour. Well at UK level they started by falling back into the New Labour trap of worrying about being associated with strikes. They just didn't get the scale of this strike and as a consequence sounded like Kenny Dalglish on a bad day - maybe yes, maybe no. In fairness, Ed Miliband redeemed himself somewhat at Prime Minister's Questions.

Scottish Labour generally played a blinder. Ian Gray's measured arguments in favour of showing solidarity went down well on the media and with those taking action. He was supported by many MSP's on picket lines and rallies. Yes, of course the Labour Leadership candidates had an interest in attracting votes, but they didn't make the judgement call. Most of them simply reflected the mood of the Party.

So, the scores at the end of the day. ConDem's nil - didn't even try. SNP 1, for getting the principle but let down by poor tactics. Scottish Labour, full marks for not only making the case, but for being out there showing solidarity when it matters.

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