Pension strike: MPs battle it out as rhetoric hots up

John Hess
Political editor, East Midlands

image copyrightbbc
image captionWorkers strike in June 2011 against planned government cuts to the public sector and pensions

It was always inevitable. With the prospect of the biggest public sector strike in generations, the political rhetoric is getting hot. Really hot.

I felt the heat when interviewing the Prime Minister.

He was visiting the Toyota factory near Derby hoping for an upbeat message on job creation.

Instead, David Cameron had to change gear and answer questions on the threatened strike.

Blame game

The headlines are increasingly dominated by Wednesday's stoppage... and who's to blame.

The unions are unhappy over big changes to public sector pensions. The government insists an ageing population makes increased contributions from staff a must.

Labour accuse the Tories of union bashing. The coalition question the low turn-out in union ballots that are the legal cover for the walk-outs.

David Cameron told me, in no uncertain terms, where he believes the blame lies.

"That responsibility lies clearly with the trade union leaders, who've decided on this action while negotiations are still going on.

"I think it is irresponsible and wrong. People should know who to blame."

The TUC were furious, claiming those remarks would only enflame the situation.

That's given the cue to MPs in the TV studios.

Take Heather Wheeler for example. She's the MP for South Derbyshire and accompanied the Prime Minister as he toured the Toyota production line.

She was certainly revved up when debating the strike with Labour's Chris Williamson on BBC TV's Politics Show in the East Midlands.

"This strike is completely the wrong thing to do," she told him.

"There has to be complete realism about what the country can afford. Low paid public sector workers will not lose out from the pension proposals. I just wish Labour MPs would dial that up to union bosses."

Before becoming an MP, she was the leader of her local council in South Derbyshire.

That local government background is something she shares with Chris Williamson, who used to run Derby City Council.

They both fully appreciate the impact of Wednesday's strike on vital local council services.

"The government's attitude in this dispute is totally shameful," he said.

The Derby North Labour MP was particularly critical of David Cameron.

"It's absolutely shameful that public sector workers have been singled out for such harsh treatment. There's no justification for it.

"He's even managed to force normally moderate union members into taking action," he added.

Trench warfare

What struck me was how attitudes have hardened in a matter of days.

Before the PM's union blast on that visit to Toyota, I had interviewed Nottingham East Labour MP, Chris Leslie, and Erewash Tory Jessica Lee about the issue.

image copyrightPA
image captionAll parties appreciate the impact of Wednesday's strike on vital council services

There was almost a hint of consensus: pensions needed reform. The public sector needed to embrace that change. It was important for both sides to continue to negotiate.

Now the political battle lines seem to be heading for trench warfare.

The party arguments have got tribal again and the rhetoric leaves little room for the middle ground…let alone agreement.

But in any dispute, it takes two to tango.

In this political game of poker, who will blink first?