They are going to engineer a series of fights with, in particular, the public-sector unions. Yesterday’s promises of a pay freeze and cutting ‘Whitehall’ by a third are just the opening salvos:
Labour ministers… suspect that the more severe Tory squeeze will backfire. Trade unions reacted angrily, warning of industrial action.
The Tories are banking on being able to win the battle for public opinion on this: as the private sector will have shed a lot of jobs and made a lot of cutbacks, they think people will be happy for the public sector to also bear some of the pain. And strikes in particular will disrupt the running of public services – blame for which may be likelier to fall on the unions, ‘sticking up for their vested interests’, than on the government, ‘making the tough decisions to share the burden’.
If so, this would only increase the electorate’s tolerance for more cuts. The Tories will try to turn Unison’s Dave Prentis into an Arthur Scargill-type bogeyman.
At the same time, there would be enormous pressure on a Labour party heavily reliant on union funding to back the unions on this. That would then allow the Tories to brand Labour as being in the pockets of its paymasters, in denial about the cuts that are needed, siding with the producer interest against the taxpayer, and so on.
The Tories also intend to reform party funding rules in a way that will savage Labour’s finances – but, in doing so, they will end up reducing Labour’s dependence on the unions. If they are devious, they’ll wait a couple of years, so that the unions can exert maximum sway over Labour during the worst of the cuts battle, and then they’ll cut the party off in time for it to go ‘what? who? where?’ in the lead-up to the following election.
If the Tories win, they will quickly become resented in a way that Tony Blair didn’t until after Iraq. But they will do everything in their power to make it hard for Labour to capitalise on this
Under this Thatcher strategy, Labour and the unions would have to get a lot smarter in the fights they pick and the ways they fight them.