Scots parties clash over strikes

Picket line
Image caption Public sector workers are attending a picket line outside Holyrood, as MSPs debate pension reforms inside it

In the chill of the Royal Mile this morning, I caught up with Labour's Iain Gray and Patrick Harvie of the Greens as, separately and then together, they joined picket lines and supported union events.

Shortly after I arrived at Holyrood, First Minister Alex Salmond was to be seen chatting politely and earnestly with the parliamentary picket line before entering the building.

Later today, the SNP will be taking part in a debate on the cause of the strike; anger over changes to public sector pensions.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will also participate. Labour and the Greens will be absent.

It will be, inevitably, a faintly surreal debate in the absence of the principal opposition party. But then strategic divisions are intrinsic to strikes and industrial disputes; frequently involving unintended consequences.

Each of the parties at Holyrood has a powerful motivation for their tactics. They are, to some extent, creatures of circumstance and the prevailing political environment rather than purely principle.

The pensions changes are variously characterised or caricatured.

One side says they are designed to impoverish already struggling workers with higher contributions, lower returns and a longer wait.

The other version is that they are a modest reform to a generous system, calculated to help the public finances - and that there are safeguards for the lowest paid.

Either way, it is all but inconceivable that the Holyrood manifestations of the parties who form the Westminster coalition, the Tories and Lib Dems, could protest against a fundamental plank of the UK government's economic agenda. Too divisive and damaging.

The Greens consistently ally themselves with an anti-establishment, left-tilting approach to the economy. Their support for the strike is no surprise.

Indeed, Patrick Harvie produced the deftest justification for boycotting Holyrood when he said one should not be "on the right side of the argument but the wrong side of the picket line".

For the SNP, there might be an instinctive temptation to join a protest against a Tory-led UK government initiative.

To be clear, Nationalist ministers and MSPs have condemned the pensions changes as too abrupt and too brutal when public sector workers are already facing pay restraint.

But ministers stand ready to implement the new set-up in Scotland in those sectors for which they have responsibility, protesting that, otherwise, the Treasury would strip millions of pounds from Scotland's public spending budget.

Their hands, they say, are tied.

Similarly, their tactics are somewhat proscribed.

They are not the administration implementing the change in the first instance.

But they are a governing party, a party in power. Governments do not customarily strike.

'Shoulder to shoulder'

All of which has led to a stand-off between the two classic rivals in Scottish politics, the SNP and Labour.

The Labour rhetoric has been redolent of historic conflict, perhaps partly a visceral return to the party's roots, to days when Labour's predominant role in Scotland was apparently unquestioned.

Labour MSPs have talked of "standing shoulder to shoulder" with the working class, again perhaps a gut return to the party's proletarian comfort zone.

But party leaders insist there is a pragmatic reason for the stance they have adopted in Scotland - by contrast with Ed Miliband at Westminster who is offering sympathy and urging talks but declining either to condemn or support the strike.

Labour says the unions wanted the party at Westminster to continue confronting the core originators of the pensions' plan, the UK government.

In Scotland, they say the unions urged political parties to join the picket line.

In response, Nationalists say that is "hypocrisy".

They suggest Labour MSPs are motivated by a desire to retain support from union members who will play a key role in the party's Scottish leadership contest.

Parties - and individuals - always have a choice.

But sometimes that choice is constrained by events and circumstances.

Update at 16:21

Never were the words more pertinent.

As Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick opened formal proceedings at Holyrood this afternoon, she appealed, as ever, to "those members wishing to take part" to signal their interest.

On this occasion, the appeal provoked only a partial response.

The Labour benches were completely empty. The Greens were absent. Both parties had decided they preferred the picket line to parliament.

Were they missed? Self-evidently, they were. They would have added other perspectives, other arguments, other evidence.

But it was not entirely flat in their absence.

For one thing, the nationalists are by far the largest party. Their numbers helped to counter any impression of vacuity, at least numerically.

For another, the exchanges between SNP ministers and those parties who form the UK coalition were acerbic and argumentative.

Gavin Brown, for the Tories, insisted the lowest paid would be protected under the proposals, that pensions for those on lower earnings would rise - albeit they might have to work longer.

For the Lib Dems, Willie Rennie argued pensions reform was inevitable and was, in practice, endorsed by all parties, whether inside Holyrood or on the pavement outside.

He stressed that the offer had been improved.

Mr Rennie also reminded John Swinney, the finance secretary, that he had chosen to apply the higher contributions to those staff under his responsibility.

Mr Swinney dissented volubly. There had been, in practice, no choice.

The Treasury had signalled it would act as if the imposition had been made.

In short, the Scottish government would have missed out on £100m annually if it failed to levy the increase.