Opinion: Cable’s GMB speech encapsulated coalition tensions

The Business Secretary Vince Cable’s speech to the GMB annual conference last Monday received significant attention. Some media coverage would have us believe that the senior Lib Dem had brazenly threatened trades unions with serious curbs on their strike powers. In fact, Cable had qualified his brief hint of this possibility with the admission that present circumstances merited no government action.

Within the context of unions’ criticism of government cuts to jobs and services, Cable’s introduction to the table of the possibility of changes to strike law may have been a strategic manoeuvre intended to dissuade industrial action planned for 30th June in schools and the civil service. He may well have hoped that the prospect of reform would infuse new caution into union leaders.

Yet without this context, and perhaps to the wider public, the relevant sound-bite appeared an aggressive threat to the right to strike, which can only play to the unions’ rhetorical advantage. Considering the Office for Budget Responsibility’s optimistic expectation of just 1.7% economic growth in 2011 and Cable’s own reference to the arresting fact that strike action has over this difficult past year been at its lowest since the early 1930s, the unions have surely until now been exercising restraint. As long ago as last November it was being predicted that a wave of student demonstrations would spark off wider protest.

Cable was wrong to talk quite so tough on the unions. However strongly the government and those who support its economic strategy of immediate reduction of the budget deficit feel that walkouts would damage recovery, it is not acceptable to talk of the curtailment of rights and to patronise politically engaged public workers, who have every right to defend their own besieged interests.

Look at it from the unions’ perspective. The general secretary of the PCS, Mark Serwotka, used Cable’s own words to make the case that it is not the unions but the government and the bankers who “are inflicting the greatest damage to our economic and social fabric by cutting public sector jobs, axing vital services and attacking communities”. Curbing strike powers would politicise what should be treated as a social and economic problem. At the same time the unions should not use strikes to make a political point.

All this is not to say that Cable was necessarily expounding his own position, but strong divergences in the coalition government which he was obliged to accommodate. While Cable is clearly eager to proceed on a basis of cooperation, some Conservative influences more openly advocate government action. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has urged a change in the law so that a majority of ordinary union members would have to support strike action for it to go ahead, rather than just those who choose to complete a ballot. Such difficult compromise between the coalition partners can surely not be stretched much further.

Dominic Mantle is a student and Lib Dem supporter.

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13 Comments

  • @Chris Squire
    It’s all about context really. If you make a statement to Unions that if they use the only effective weapon available to them you will consider changing the law to take that weapon away, then you will cause ill feeling. Take away the last sentance and it would go down well at a Tory conference.

    In a similar way you do not go into “negotiations” saying the deal on the table is the best there will be for generations. In effect if the deal cannot get any better than you have pre-judges the outcome of the negotiations.

    Strike action is very rare, the Government have a role in keeping it that way, but not by legislation.

  • Andrew Suffield 19th Jun '11 - 9:24pm

    If you make a statement to Unions that if they use the only effective weapon available to them you will consider changing the law to take that weapon away

    Nobody – not even the Tories – has even suggested that.

    In fact, the only people even talking about it are Labour.

  • Norman Fraser 19th Jun '11 - 10:00pm

    So Vince’s point was “use your legal rights and we’ll screw you”. Not clever and not Liberal Democrat either.

  • @Andrew Suffield
    Sorry, but it was exactly what he insinuated. Think of the context of Boris’ ideas. If he didn’t want it to be taken that way he could easily have clarified, he chose not to.

    Personally I believe there is rarely the need for strike action and almost never an excuse for concerted action accross sectors. However, the idiots that do want to avoid any change will use his comments to their benefit.

  • @steve way
    “the idiots that do want to avoid any change”

    I thought it was the Tories who were the nasty party – didn’t we used to pride ourselves on being a party of compassion?

    In the cold light of day change may well be due but to brand people who are doing a good job for the country, have seen colleagues lose jobs, have taken a two year pay freeze at a time of rising inflation and see changes to the services they take pride in delivering as ‘idiots’ for being worried about their futures explains much about the reasons why so many are disillusioned and turning their backs on the party.

    Change may well be necessary but remember two things – the degree of that change is supposed to be still open to negotiation and if/when it does happen many people will be hard hit by it – a little bit less of the callous name calling wouldn’t go amiss.

  • @muxloe
    “I thought it was the Tories who were the nasty party”

    Sorry but please re-read my comment, the comment it was responding to and my previous ones on this subject..

    I did not say people were idiots for being worried about their future, I certainly did not call those working hard within the public sector idiots, I did not call all union leaders idiots. I support sensible trade unions and always will. But there is a minority of idiots within the Union movement who will fight any change (not just those that are not required). This is an indefensible position, increasing life expectency alone means that pensions schemes needs to be amended. The public sector is not immune to this.

    It is not callous name calling to point out the obvious, unless of course you believe that no change is a sensible option?

    I supported the Miners in 1984 but thought Scargill was an idiot for not having a legitimate ballot. I believe those that try to avoid any change at this time are equally so. Over the years I have supported and contributed to print workers, fire fighters, ambulance drivers and more. Do take one comment out of context and judge.

    If you had bothered to read my earlier comment you would have seen I had criticised the Government for going into negotiations with a closed position with implied threats…

  • @steve way

    I did read them and thought you made some eloquent points. As you yourself imply with reference to VC’s speech the use of certain language needs to be carefully chosen. Perhaps your turn of phrase, or my ineterpretation of it, was unfortunate but my point remains that within the party and on these message boards there is too much casual dismissal of the public sector and a callous attitude of ‘like it or lump it’ that does the party no favours.

    My position as has been already articulated is that change may be necessary but personally I see room for compromise.

  • @muxloe
    I totally agree that there can be no like it or lump it in a negotiation (or it isn’t one!). My comments referred to those on both sides who fail to see this…

  • Peter Chivall 20th Jun '11 - 10:52pm

    Whatever happened to the Party’s policies on workplace democracy and worker participation in management? They might not solve the Pensions problem and their application to public sector employment would be different to that in the private sector. It’s so long since I heard any of our MPs or Policy Committee members even mention them I have to assume they’ve been abandoned in our rush to a neo-Thatcherite ‘Liberalism’ (which no Liberal from the Grimond era would recognise). I couldn’t be at the SLF conference last weekend due to illness but I wanted to ask Vince why he didn’t offer movement to the German model of business governance as part of a fairer and more efficient economic model.

  • what a ham fisted attempt to play good cop bad cop with george osborne and the tories. i have every sympathy with the teachers and nurses walking out on june the 30th

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