Today’s strikes by public sector workers against changes to their pensions (which amount to a 3% pay cut) are important. It’s not just that strikers turned out in large numbers, and were well-supported; or that opinion polls show sustained and substantial support for the strikers; or that the Government’s intellectual case for pensions changes is in tatters, not least after a truly disastrous performance by Francis Maude on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, in which he showed himself desperately out of his depth when challenged on the detail of the Hutton Report and on the entirely false proposition that the cost of public sector pensions is unaffordable (there’s a transcript here). Add this to the half-million people who marched through London on 26 March, and the mounting wave of protests; there is a popular upsurge, a potentially vast grass-roots movement waiting to be led.
But it’s a movement that has no voice in mainstream politics. On a day when the people that Labour was created to defend took strike action to defend their hard-won pension rights, Labour spokesmen queued up at the microphones to condemn the actions. To the fury of union leaders, Ed Miliband chose to follow the same line as David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the Daily Mail – that the strikes were wrong. In a passage that hit heights of imbecility that should have the whole Labour party hanging their heads in shame, Miliband condemned the strikes with the sentence:
“The Labour Party I lead will always be the party of the mums and dads who know the value of a day’s education.”
Such sentiments were of course set aside for the Windsor family wedding in April. It’s abject nonsense – and this from a man who was once regarded as the Unions’ choice for Labour leader, or Red Ed in the words of the tabloids. But what we now have is Ramsay Ed, Cameron’s echo chamber, making speeches in which he does the Tory party’s dirty work by claiming that teachers and other public services are doing themselves a disservice by standing up for their rights, in language that directly mirrors that of Ramsay Macdonald at the time of the 1926 General Strike.
I think if I were a radical in the Labour Party right now, I’d want to find a quiet corner and weep. As a Green Party member I can point to the fact that my party leader (and, as it happens, my MP), Caroline Lucas, stood foursquare behind public sector pensioners today. But it’s not enough. The Green Party has one MP, leads one local authority and has a substantial presence in a handful more; the problem is way bigger than that. The people on strike today – and the vulnerable people they serve, and who have traditionally looked to the Labour Party to protect them – and, yes, we on the non-Labour left – need a Labour Party that is better. A Labour Party that is passionate, committed, fearless, forthright in protecting the poorest in society. How many of those did you manage today, Ramsay Ed?
The position we face in Britain is simply this. We have a Government which is pursuing a feral neo-liberal agenda in which the poorest and most vulnerable are forced to pay the price for the stupidity and greed of the financial sector, at huge human cost. And we have three political parties which continue to advocate that neo-liberal agenda and are utterly blind to the economic and human carnage it created, fighting over an ever-smaller scrap of political ground, while more and more people are left outside the parameters of mainstream political debate. In other words, we have a profound crisis of political legitimacy in Britain today. Ed Miliband today showed that Labour remains part of the problem, not the solution, and as long as it fails to stand up for the people it was founded to support that will remain the case.