The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day one

The government and the unions are scrapping over public opinion, and so it seems worth looking at the short-term and long-term trends on polling on the issues.

Today begins what has been variously compared to the ill-fated general strike of 1926, and a long hot ‘summer of hate’. The government and the unions are scrapping over public opinion, and so it seems worth looking at the short-term and long-term trends on polling on industrial relations.

On the short-term trends, UK Polling Report has done an excellent round-up, but the condensed version is that on most of the issues, the public are fairly evenly split.

On the question of whether the public pensions are too generous (38 per cent), about right (25 per cent) or too mean (11 per cent), the pro-pension reform side has a lead of +2, while on the question of whether to support the changes at all, the pro-reform side has a deficit of -5 (YouGov, 18 June).

In this polling, unlike election polling, leads of single figures may not mean much as this is not heading for a ‘snapshot moment’ when the battle for public opinion will be won or lost.

For the following polling questions, a + rating indicates a lead for the pro-reform/anti-union side, and a – rating indicates a lead for the anti-reform/pro-union side (check polling data for exact wording):

• Should the retirement age be raised in the public sector from 60 to 66?: +8 (ICM 19 June);

• Strikes are a legitimate way for unions to protest against the general direction of government policy: -27 (Populus 19 June);

• The Government should legislate so that strikes are not allowed in certain public services: +15 (Populus 19 June);

• Strike action is a sign of how little power the unions have in Britain today: -23 (Populus 19 June) (indicates that a plurality do think unions are weak);

• Are public sector workers right to go on strike to protect their pensions?: -12 (ComRes 19 June);

• Do public sector workers have a legitimate reason to go on strike over their pension plans?: -14 (ComRes 27 June);

• The public sector is too large and should be cut back?: +12 (ComRes 19 June);

• Public sector workers are facing an unfair decline in living standards due to the cuts -5 (ComRes 19 June);

• Are the public sector workers right to go on strike: 0 (Ipsos-Mori 19 June)

What is clear as you go through the various data tables is that a lot of the answers depend on the polling – the public have sympathy with public sector workers, but less sympathy, if not animosity, towards striking.

What is certainly true is that there is not a groundswell of anti-union public opinion that we saw in the late 70s/early 80s. Ipsos-Mori trend data shows that a large majority of people do not think that trade uniosn are too powerful:

Two notes of caution are needed when predicting what will happen as the dispute unfolds. Any long-running political dispute from a war down to an office feud, rarely ends up being about what it started off as.

The Miners’ strike of 1984-5, for example, may have started off as a dispute about the rate of downsizing of the industry – something that had been going on fairly continuously since 1945 – but ended up being about whether coalmining should largely exist at all as an industry or, arguably, the UK’s entire economic settlement. By the end of this dispute, we may well be arguing over something other than public sector pensions, if we are not already.

Also, while game theorists say that antagonists should avoid situations which can lead to a zero-sum game – if one party wins, the other must lose – this could end up being a minus-sum game – both sides lose.

The government may get their way, discredit the union movement, and pave the way for a raft of anti-union legislation. But all that can be acheived while simultaneously earning a reputation for bullying teachers and the public servants the population relies on. Even if the government ‘wins’ it may well ‘lose’ – and badly.

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14 Responses to “The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day one”

  1. Isobel waby

    The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day one: – @DanielElton assesses the polling data

  2. James Meadway

    The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day one: – @DanielElton assesses the polling data

  3. Michael

    The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day one I Left Foot Forward –

  4. Marilyn Freeman

    The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day one: – @DanielElton assesses the polling data

  5. trendoff

    The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day one: … and a long hot 'summer of hate'. The gover…

  6. Selohesra

    All these strikes will achieve is to reduce public sympathy for strikers from private sector workers whose own DC schemes were raided by Brown/Labour 14 years ago. Government will not & cannot back down. On the plus side they are forfeiting a days wages which will go toward reducing the deficit so I suppose that is generous of them – hopefully the union leaders will follow suit by donating days pay to charity.

  7. Leon Wolfson

    Which in turn is going to massively slash the number of talented people willing to enter professions like teaching. The Government is desperately trying to get people to join with one-off payments, but since the people they’re aiming for can do math, this is of course failing miserably.

  8. Ed's Talking Balls

    I imagine the relative job security, decent starting salary, reasonable hours and unrivalled holiday will still attract teachers of sufficient calibre. Not to mention the desire to educate, which would attract such people to the profession in the first place.

  9. Leon Wolfson

    The job security which the coalition are slashing. The salary which has been frozen, and is in any case merely adequate, the hours are long when you consider the amount of paperwork and marking involved…

    Holiday is the only deacent perk of the job left.

    The “desire to educate” is something which can be filled, for the top people, by working in other countries systems, where English – as the language of business – is prized. I myself have just applied to teach (in English) at a university in The Netherlands, where they’re seeing English student applications soar.

    They’re offering a good 20% more in salary over and above the similar UK positions…although there are scarce few of *those* around these days, with the ongoing massive cuts to UK university permanent staff.

  10. Ed's Talking Balls

    Job security for teachers is still higher than in the vast majority of jobs and a salary freeze (admittedly, a real terms pay cut) is not a despicable act by any stretch of the imagination, given that teachers’ pay has risen in recent years and others have seen pay cuts before inflation is even taken into account. And yes, hours are not the cushy, mythical nine ’til three but are still not shocking. As for paperwork, I’d advocate less of the form-filling teachers (and many others public sector workers) are forced to do. I don’t think it’s the best use of their time and have had teachers say just that to me. I’m glad you recognise that holiday remains a fantastic perk. Elsewhere (perhaps The Guardian?) someone was, presumably with a straight face, seeming to suggest that teachers work through summer…

    You’re right, we could face a brain drain. We’ll see, I guess. I think it’s more likely to happen at your level (i.e. university) rather than for primary and secondary school teachers, though. But even with better salaries, it’s difficult to overestimate the significance of community ties. Even those with the most transferable skills tend not to up and leave at the drop of a hat. Like I said, we’ll see; you could well be right, though I certainly hope not.

  11. Leon Wolfson

    Ed? We’re already *critically* short of chemistry, physics, math and engineering teachers and short of biology and modern language ones at secondary level. That’s why there are training bursaries in those subjects.

    However, the stats I’ve seen say that they’re still not getting enough people in those subjects. The Government’s response has to been to say that they’re reviewing the future of bursaries and to remove golden hello’s.

    (And teacher training places overall are being cut!)

    They’re also favouring on-the-job training over university-based courses, ignoring the fact that most of the people in the subjects they need most tend towards the university-based courses, and those courses are mostly considered excellent.

    It’s happening at BOTH secondary and university level. (Primary teaching is a very different speciality, and doesn’t need the same kind of academic support…it looks to be fine)

    After seeing two industries I’ve worked in melt away to Canada, and doing the research into this…I’m quite sure I’m right.

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  13. Doug

    Leon, if you’re not originally from these islands, fine. If you are, it’s MATHS!

    Rant over, now the debate. ‘Ed’s talking balls’ is an apt name. You clearly know nothing about teaching and what the job involves – it’s extremely stressful and getting worse by the day with all the attacks teaching and the education system is under. Secondly, you seem to be peddling a variation of the pathetic ‘I haven’t got it, so why should they’ whine. These pensions have been fought for for decades by trade unions and most public sector pensions are nowhere near the golden nest eggs portrayed by the government and its pliant media parrots. Even the Hutton Report’s own figures proves they’re not ‘unaffordable’.

    The whole issue is about the cuts and how to make most of us pay for the economic crimes of others. Public sector staff are also facing redundancies, changing working practices and services reductions. The pensions issue needs to be seen in thsi overall context.

    It’s amazing how the government is suddenly concerned about the pensions of private sector workers. What’s it going to do – top them up with the money they steal from us? Hah, bloody hah.

    This race to the bottom attitude about pensions does no-one any good, except of course rich businessmen and politicians, whose sunset years will be very comfortable indeed.

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