Most of the press haven’t been very interested in 30 June. The tabloids have only had brief factual reports of statements by government ministers and union leaders.
The more left-of-centre papers seemed unsure how to react until they were given the line by Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Shadow Education spokesman, Andy Burnham. Then the Guardian, Mirror and, to a lesser extent, the Independent warned editorially that striking unions would “fall into a trap”. Exactly what this trap was and how the consequences would be worse than accepting the proposals to work until we drop, have on average extra £100 per month taken out of our pay, and then get a much worse pension, wasn’t explained.
There is diversity in the press — whatever some on the left say — and its ability to speak freely about the government and powerful is real and worth defending. Strike action by workers, though, is one of those rare issues where the press is united.
The attitude of the leftish as well as the right-wing press to this strike is in line with Vince Cable — workers have the right to strike but they should never use it. I have not found a daily paper which supports the 30 June strikes. More to the point, that is practically always the case.
Occasionally the Mirror will get close (it did when the miners were under the most severe attack in 1984-5). But the worst offender is the middle-class Guardian.
There was some difference in the chosen arguments explaining why workers should never strike, reflecting the political loyalties and masters of particular papers. The right-wing press focused on the teachers, and insisted that it would set a bad example to pupils and upset parents for them ever to strike.
The Guardian and Mirror took their cue from the utterly empty and cowardly Miliband and pedalled the “falling into a trap” line.
The lack of serious detailed comment on the pension proposals or insight into the union-government talks, even in the Guardian and Observer, undermined whatever force that argument might have had. It was left to the Guardian’s readers (obviously quite a few teachers) to fill the letters page with well-directed missives asking what exactly the alternative to this “trap” was. Aside, of course, from simply accepting these draconian attacks on pensions?
The talks are a farce. Even the non-balloted GMB made that clear in articles by their chief negotiator Brian Strutton in a number of papers. Danny Alexander’s decision to announce the government’s proposals in public before the “negotiations” had even finished swiped the last tiny bit of that rug from under the feet of the so-called “sensible” union leaders.
A number of self-styled Labour modernist commentators lectured us in the Guardian, Independent and Mirror about the need to go beyond the “knee-jerk” response of striking and develop more nuanced, up-to-date and smart ways of winning our case. I read as much of this stuff as I could find and without exception it lacked any example of these smart new strategies.
The most interesting aspect of the press coverage was the conclusion drawn by a limited number of commentators with some expertise on pensions. It all pointed consistently in the same direction.
In the Observer (19 June) Toby Helm and Mark Townsend quoted an adviser to one of the City’s main pensions firms (John Wright) stating that: “The gap between public and private sector pensions is not a reason for cutting public service pensions, but for improving levels of pension provision in the private sector.”
Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of the Sunday Telegraph published an article in that paper with the impressively honest headline “There’s nothing unaffordable about public sector pensions”. He described the affordability argument as “a myth” and used the fact that he had clearly read the whole of the Hutton report to explain this. Deep inside the report is a graph showing the share of GDP spent on public sector pensions going back to 1999 and projected forward to 2060. It peaked two years ago (2009-10).
The Financial Times has been warning for some weeks now of the risk of millions of workers opting out of their schemes due to higher contribution and questioning the need for, and the sense of, these proposals.
As the industrial conflict heats up the right-wing press, tabloids in particular, will get more combative and nasty. There were early signs of that last week with a front page splash in the Daily Mail claiming that Christine Blower had received a 10% pay rise at a time when her members were getting a pay freeze and going on to provide the salary levels for Mark Serwotka and Mary Bousted. The story was potentially damaging and a reminder of one reason why there has been a tradition in the socialist movement of arguing for elected trade union leaders to receive a wage which reflects the earnings of their members.
But the “facts” in the story about Christine Blower didn’t fit the headline — her salary is linked to that of the head of a large secondary school and she receives the same increase as teachers (2.3% last September, 0% this year). By conflating some pension contributions and an incremental rise the Mail to 10%.
There will be a lot more of this stuff in the weeks and months ahead as we see the British press do what it does best — going to war against organised labour on behalf of the bosses. The job of the socialist press will be more important than ever.