It’s the only question that matters up here at the TUC conference. And weirdly, no one is quite sure. For all the headlines about taking to the streets, mass protests, winters of discontent and so on there is still huge uncertainty.
This may sound contrarian given some of the bald statements of intent emanating not only from the usual firebrands such as Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka but also some relative moderates. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said this morning that “when the call is there, we will move to co-ordinate industrial action to defend all we hold dear”. Brendan Barber of the TUC meanwhile said that the TUC stood ready to co-ordinate “democratic decisions for industrial action”.
So far so clear. And yet. Most union officials realise that striking without public support could be a huge mistake.
As Dave Ward of the often militant CWU said, “it is not just about putting our heads down and running at them”. Jim McAuslan, head of pilots union Balpa, said the movement would be giving the coalition an “open goal” if it takes action without winning over wider public opinion. (“We will not do it simply by vindicating the rich,” he said). And Les Bayliss, who is positioning himself as the more moderate of the candidates to be next gen sec of Unite, has also warned against strikes before the public is ready.
“It’s one thing to talk about action, it’s another to actually do it,” says one official. Another tells me: “Serwotka loves nothing better than calling for a ballot, it’s meat and drink to him. That doesn’t mean he’s right.”
There are demonstrations, one in late October (to co-incide with the spending review) and a mass rally next March. There will doubtless be strikes over specific pay and cuts issues by some unions in some workforces.
But a general strike seems unlikely at this point, for all the tum-thumping oratory by Crow and others.
That could change if the public mood swings behind the unions. The theory is that this would be as the cuts start to bite, at some point next year, affecting people’s day to day lives. Only then could talk of replicating the poll tax rebellion 20 years ago (the idea of the public rising up spontaneously against a perceived injustice) sound realistic.
Serwotka himself has said this week: “While individual action may be necessary, it is clear the most effective opposition would be the biggest popular movement we have seen for many years.” That is a subtle but important distinction.
Expect to see numerous targeted protests about cuts which will involve not only union members but also the users of public services, I’m told by one union source. This will build on the success of protests against the Building Schools for the Future cancellations, which involved not just unions but also hundreds of “real people” – parents and teachers. Tory and Lib Dem MPs are going to see protests not only at the Commons but also at their constituency offices and doorsteps.