They may not have been the largest crowd assembled in the streets of the capital, or the loudest demonstration in British history, but Thursday’s strike here by four public sector unions protesting government moves to cut state employees’ pensions was certainly the best behaved protest for its size. Which is fitting since three of the striking unions, the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the University and College Union, represented much of the nation’s teachers. Support among union members was strong enough to shut down half the schools in England and Wales—the government admitted some 11,000 state schools had been affected by the strike—as well as airports, welfare offices, the driving license agency and museums staffed by the Public and Commercial Services Union, whose 200,000 members also walked out for the one-day strike. After marching to Trafalgar Square the strikers helped clean up their litter.
But the protestors still got poor marks for behavior from Ed Miliband, who like St. Peter thrice denied the strikers his support. After twice issuing statements refusing to support the strike on the grounds that negotiations between the unions and the government were still going on, the Labour Party leader put out a statement on his blog saying “I understand their anger about the way the government has acted. But this does not alter my view that today’s strikes are a mistake. It is a mistake to resort to disruption at a time when negotiations are still going on. And it is a mistake not just because of the inconvenience caused but also because I firmly believe it will not help to win the argument with the public.”
Miliband, who was only elected Labour leader thanks to strong union backing, also denounced the strike in a speech to the Local Government association, saying the strike was wrong “because of the effect on the people who rely upon these services.” However it is worth noting that none of the unions out on Thursday are formally affiliated with the Labour Party. So while many on the left were furious at Labour’s failure to back the strikers—when shadow business secretary John Denham called the strike a mistake on a BBC panel show he was booed by the audience—Miliband’s stand may have been a calculated gesture of independence.
But public sympathy appears to be with the strikers, despite the inconvenience. The government didn’t help its case when two of its ministers, arguing that public sector pensions had simply become unaffordable, seemed unaware of an official report showing that pension costs are actually projected to decline over the next few years thanks to changes made by New Labour. So far Miliband’s strategy seems to be to ride the waves of public discontent passively, like a surfer sitting on his board. But if the big public sector unions, who though supportive of Thursday’s action have so far remained on the sidelines, manage to coordinate their opposition and Miliband is still sitting on his board when that wave breaks then Labour will truly be washed-up.