Maybe it is part of my makeup that means I spend so much time sitting on the fence with various issues that I permanently have skelfs in my backside... But yesterday's union protests left me enormously conflicted on many levels.
I suppose a lot of it goes back to a childhood where strikes were always in the news... at first over significant issues like equal work for equal pay, but building through the 70s, culminating in the winter of discontent, with the unions over-reaching themselves and effectively disempowering themselves and the labour party for a generation... Ushering in the Maggot Scratcher with her militant anti-union stance. Her wholesale dismantling of the industrial base of our society may have been inevitable to a certain extent because of the global marketplace, but the main problem was her laissez-faire approach to filling the employment gap. But nature abhors a vacuum and into the economic space stepped the financial, service and public sectors, with the financial sector effectively propping the others up. The construction sector effeectively became a sub-set of the service sector, meeting the needs of wider society for accommodation and/or investment in homes and offices. After the rise of New Labour, which still had a broad commitment to the public sector, but was no more socialist in its economics than Maggie herself, this unsustainable relationship of public,financial and service sectors flourished, until the perfect economic storm hit, with the largely American generated sub-prime mortgages, followed by the almost inevitable Eurozone crisis which was always waiting to happen, due to Germans never having read any Homer, and letting the basketcase that is the Greek economy into the Euro like some latterday Trojan Horse. Whilst neither of these may have been of Britain's making, our financial sector was ridiculously exposed, and since "the City" was our main national form of income, we were royally screwed.
Without the financial sector being bullishly (if not foolishly) confident, the service (construction) and public sectors were always going to be unsustainable in their inflated form. What I'm saying about Britain in general was even more the case with Northern Ireland, with its even more disproportionately large public sector caused by lack of private sector investment due to years of businesses being blown up and potential young entrepreneurs leaving this place in their droves (I suppose it is also applicable to the Republic of Ireland to a certain extent, although their buy-in to the financial boom was against the background of never having a large industrial base to begin with).
Now, me giving anyone a potted history of the recent economic history of our country is a bit rich given that I can barely balance my own chequebook, but it serves as the background for the following comments, and my current sense of internal conflict.
I am inherently socialist in my outlook. I believe that society is judged by how well it looks after the poor and the marginalised, and that the best way for that to happen is not by a patchy charitable sector, but an efficient public sector, available to all, and in the case of health and education, free at the point of need. This should be funded by progressive taxation, where people pay in proportion to their wealth, and, in the case of education, might include an additional levy on those who have benefitted from the economic uplift that third level education can provide. That way rich people will then pay more but they will also still retain more. The rich will still be richer, just not disproportionately so.
However, that is not the world we live in. Our taxation system is the most Byzantine in the world, where, yes the poorest are removed from income tax altogether, but those just above the taxation threshold pay a disproportionate amount. This is exacerbated by the taxes that everyone pays via VAT, fuel duty etc. Whilst the economic conservatives may believe that this is fair in that everyone is then paying in proportion to what they consume (usually the same people who believed that the poll tax was fair because everyone paid the same), it disproportionately affects the poor, for whom the purchase of essentials includes a high level of indirect taxation. And don't get me started on the "well if the poor didn't drink, smoke and gamble so much" brigade...
We have a government (and a general population) who aren't really prepared to pay for the public sector. I recently came across this piece from America on what not to do if you hate taxes. The details may differ this side of the Atlantic, but the principle is the same, indeed there are probably many more than 102 things, given our more developed welfare state. But without wholesale taxation reform and a "can't pay/won't pay government and society in general, the public sector was bound to be squeezed in the current economic downturn. The public sector IS disproportionately large here (or rather the private, or to be even more specific, manufacturing sector is disproportionately small) and there are parts of it that are outrageously bureaucratic, over-staffed, unproductive and risk-averse. However, let us remember that those who work in the public sector did not create the economic mess we are in (just as they didn't create the economic boom that went before). As the many FB status updates put it "Remember when Teachers, Civil Servants, Policemen, Ambulance staff, Nurses, Midwives, Doctors and Fireman crashed the stock market, wiped out banks, took billions in bonuses and paid no tax? No, me neither."
The fact that a bunch of millionaires sitting in Downing Street decide that because their mates in the City have banjaxed the economy means that public services, supporting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, need to be cut sticks in my craw. The public sector DOES need reform, and by that I mean cuts, not just a shuffling of expenditure, but it should be done with an eye on the needs of those it serves.
But that also applies to those working in the public sector. And this is where I was at odds with yesterday's strike. To call the biggest public sector strike since the winter of discontent over the issue of public sector pensions is to fall straight into a trap of the Tories' making, painting public sector unions as being self-serving. The pensions situation is serious, particularly for the low paid (although as someone who is likely to be living on birdseed in my deferred retirement I look on many public sector pension schemes with unalloyed envy) but to be seen to inconvenience many, including hospital patients and children preparing for exams, is a collossal own-goal. It allows the ConDem coalition, to paint the protesters as modern day Red Robbos... wanting a day of work (unpaid) and a gold-plated pension... Nothing could be further from the truth. But that is the way the govenment and predominently conservative press have been portraying it. According to them this one day stoppage not only affected patients, schoolchildren and parents working in the private sector who needed to make alternative childminding arrangements, but will also have had a huge impact on economic productivity and potentially frighten off foreign investors. They didn't suggest that the whole country having a day off to wave flags at William and Kate's wedding would have disastrous effects on the economy... but of course only Union Jack flag waving is good for the country, not Unison flag-waving.
The coverage was entirely predictable and, to a certain extent, deserved. Had the protest been about wider issues regarding how the government are responding to this crisis I may have been in support, but not purely on the issue of pensions. And again, had the union leaders been more creative in their approach I might have been impressed... One facebook friend suggested a Day of Voluntary Action... that might have disarmed the Tories and their media machine... but that would have required too much imagination. And creative imagination is something that seems to be in short supply in both government and union leadership...
ps I had no sooner posted this than my attention was drawn to a piece on Jeremy Clarkson's very humorous suggestion (!) that strikers be shot. That settles it... if clarkson is opposed to the strikers I'm definitely on their side... althought the fact that he focuses on their "gilt edged pensions" somewhat makes my point about the public relations disaster this strike has been.


Popular posts from this blog

A Woman of no Distinction

A Psalm for Sunday: Praise to the Lord who Listens...

I am the True Vine