David Singleton: Unions face a comms challenge

For some months now, union leaders have been plotting the mother of all PR campaigns against the Government's spending cuts.

David Singleton
David Singleton

This week, at the TUC conference, some details of the comms offensive were finalised.

There will be a Westminster rally on the eve of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October, a national demonstration in March, and a co-ordinated campaign of industrial action after that.

If unions play their cards right, this will be a story of widespread opposition to savage government cuts. If they get it wrong, then the story is more likely to be one of reckless union militancy.

As with all modern lobbying offensives, the success of this campaign will largely rest on the alliances that are formed with other interested parties. The unions will need to partner with credible community and interest groups that are also under threat, but can't be painted as the 'usual suspects'. Such groups bring with them goodwill, lobbying muscle and a vast capability to spread messages using the internet and word of mouth.

To reach out in this way, the unions will also need to adopt the language of middle Britain. The impending campaign against the cuts to public services will have more traction if it focuses on the concerns of services users, as well as staff facing redundancy.

Some of the more thoughtful union PR chiefs are already on the case. As reported on page 3, Unite's campaign entitled 'Don't Break Britain: Cuts Kill Communities' is one such example of how unions intend to reach out beyond the Labour movement and build a coalition against the cuts. Union-sponsored fringe events at the coming party conferences should provide further clues about the alliances that are being formed.

Downing Street comms chiefs have their own strategy. For now, coalition spokespeople have been briefed to sound reasonable and accommodating. Ministers insist they are seeking a 'genuine partnership' with the 'absolutely legitimate' unions.

Yet behind the pleasantries, David Cameron and George Osborne have clearly signalled tough action in the Spending Review. The Institute of Fiscal Studies says 1.3 million public and private sector workers are about to lose their jobs. Soon the gloves will be off and one hell of a PR battle awaits.

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