Blair has conceded talks, but nothing on the substance of the pensions issue yet.
British rulers have a long history of tactical retreats when faced by unpromising odds. Even a government as ruthless as Margaret Thatcher’s was sometimes prepared to take a step back, make minor concessions, and then redouble its efforts to improve the odds for the next struggle.
At the beginning of 1981, Thatcher’s Tories provoked a confrontation with the powerful miners’ union by announcing the closure of 50 pits. South Wales miners struck immediately and picketed out four other areas.
The Tories panicked and postponed closures. They swallowed their pride and put in place their plans for the great strike three years later.
It was a similar manoeuvre to the decision in 1925 by Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin to give the miners a subsidy to avoid wage cuts. That bought time to prepare for the general strike ten months later.
And again in 1992 when there was a revolt across the unions (and a demonstration of 250,000) over further pit closures, the Major government announced a “review” — which reported months later and backed the closures. By then the anger had dissipated.
Such strategies rely on the trade union leaders grasping at any sign of concession rather than fighting when our side has the advantage. They also assume that the unions will not prepare for the next battle nearly as seriously as the ruling class will.
New Labour will now try to prevent united action over pensions by negotiations that will seek to emphasise the differences between workers.
This attempt to “salami” the great pensions robbery will succeed unless our side prepares now.
That means maintaining and developing the links between workers that have been created, seeking every means to build the pressure on the union leaders, fighting to shape the way the talks take place, seeking unity across unions and — crucially — strengthening the political backbone of the rank and file.