Thursday’s strikes by public sector workers are due to go ahead after negotiations broke down yesterday. Civil servants and teachers will walk out in protest at the government’s proposal to reform their pensions. This one-day stoppage is being billed by public sector unions as a warm up for more widespread strikes in the autumn. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis has warned that Britain faces its biggest wave of industrial action since the general strike.
Whether the public sector unions have the power to cause such widespread disruption remains to be seen. They have been sabre-rattling for over a year now. We were promised a summer of discontent last year. This was followed by warnings of an autumn of discontent, a winter of discontent, a spring of discontent and now, well, here we are again.
If ballot turnout is anything to go by, support for the strikes is lukewarm. The PCS could only manage 61.1 percent of 32.4 percent. The teachers did a little better but still couldn’t get half of their members to vote. It could be that British workers have just got out of the habit of striking. According to the ONS, the number of days lost to labour disputes is at its lowest level since records began.
As Jane Dudman noted, there has been a change of mood among public sector managers over the last year.
The ironic thing is that in the past year the whole framework of the debate about public services and how they might be delivered in future has moved on incredibly fast.
Last week, the Guardian held a debate on rethinking public services, to discuss the challenge of new ways of running services. All the questions were about how this might be done. Not one single question or objection about whether it’s the right thing to do. That’s a quite remarkable shift in a short space of time among professionals who want to improve the services they deliver; imagine what the government could achieve if it took its managers with it, instead of alienating many of them.
I have noticed something similar, as have a number of friends and colleagues working in the public sector. If you’ll excuse the David Brentism, there is a feeling of we-are-where-we-are about all of this. Managers realise that public services can’t go on as they are for much longer. They can read the numbers and see the long-term forecasts. Most of them accept that far-reaching reform of the public sector will be necessary over the next few years. They may not like the way the government is going about it, they may think it is bonkers to cut so much during a recession and they may be incensed by the infantile pronouncements of some ministers but they recognise that the delivery of public services will need to be a lot cheaper by the end of this decade.
Admittedly, my data for this is anecdotal but the sense I get from talking to public servants is that, though the government’s plans are ham-fisted and lack coherence, much of what it is trying to do will have to be done sooner or later anyway. This has, to an extent, dissipated their anger. Some, like Mark Serwotka, still claim that no cuts or efficiency savings are necessary but for a growing number, the challenges facing the public sector don’t appear so clear-cut. This makes them less enthusiastic about taking industrial action against something many regard as, in some form, inevitable.
It remains to be seen whether the unions will be able to organise massive strike action in the autumn. The turnout on Thursday will give a clue about the strength of feeling. I may be proved wrong but I don’t sense much of an appetite for confrontation. The greatest danger to the government’s public sector reform programme may not be industrial action but its self-defeating assault on its own managers. As Jane Dudman says, by sacking many of them and pissing off the rest, the government has alienated the very people with the skills and knowledge to deliver the reforms.
Organisational change is extremely difficult to execute and the Coalition’s reform programme is the biggest public management challenge since the creation of the welfare state. Complex change programmes don’t need industrial action to make them fail; a simple lack of committed and capable managers will make failure a near certainty. There may not be a high turnout for srikes in the autumn but that doesn’t mean that the governent’s public sector reforms will be delivered smoothly. As any general knows, if you lose the support of your junior officers and NCOs, the battle is as good as lost.