LONDON (Reuters) - Trade unions are aiming to mobilise as big a coalition as possible, using protests and social media to convince the government to back down on steep spending cuts, Britain’s trade union chief said.
Trade Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber said student protests against tuition fee hikes last month — which sparked the worst political rioting in almost two decades — were the first sign of the likely response to austerity.
“I don’t think I’d call it a game changer but they were a huge demonstration of anger,” he told Reuters. “It was the first kind of battleground where it really came to life. They were the first group to really see in a direct way what the cuts mean.”
The Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition is aiming to push through some of the steepest spending cuts in living memory to reduce the budget deficit. So far, few measures have taken effect but they will begin to soon.
Barber — seen as a relative moderate compared to leaders such as transport union chief Bob Crow — said the mainstream union leadership had been disappointed by the violence which marred the student protests.
But he also criticised controversial police “kettling” tactics in which protesters are surrounded and held behind riot police lines for hours on end.
He said the stewarding at a planned union demonstration on March 26 would be much heavier than at the student protests, where members are being encouraged to bring their families.
“We are really trying to work very hard to make sure it doesn’t turn violent,” he said — although he largely dismissed the idea of informing police directly of potential troublemakers.
“If members are coming with their families, they will not want to be in the position of being kettled because of a police response to violence ... but it may still be that there are violent elements who try to attach themselves.”
Barber said unions aimed to focus on winning the political argument that the cuts were too steep and would damage growth and society and on putting political pressure on government backbench members of parliament.
He said the model was in some ways based around resistance to the poll tax introduced in England by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990, which sparked riots but he says was ultimately abolished because of pressure on MPs.
“They were saying: this is a disaster, we can’t vote for this,” he said. “It forced a change of policy. It’s not just about bringing down the coalition. It’s about winning the battle of ideas.”
Industrial strikes over individual issues might be a part of that, he said — but he said the TUC’s focus was on the political battle rather than a widespread campaign of unrest.
Barber was speaking on the sidelines of the Netroots event at the TUC’s London headquarters aimed at bringing together activists to discuss using social media, lobbying and in some cases direct action.
The student protesters have used social networking sites such as Twitter as a coordinating tool, using it to stage protests at businesses they accuse of tax avoidance, and to out-manoeuvre the police.
“We are looking to mobilise as big a coalition as we can to increase pressure on the government,” Barber said. “But what we do not want is illegal activity or violent activity of any sort.
“We want it to be a positive campaign. If there are people here today with a different philosophy, then so be it — but it’s not what we stand for at all.”
Editing by Stefano Ambrogi and Myra MacDonald