Disingenuous is a wonderful word. It's disdainful and dismissive, carrying with it overtones of dishonesty, insincerity and duplicity. And that makes it a precise description of most of the comments made by new Labour's great and good about any actions by the trade union movement. So we might as well use it when we talk about Tessa Jowell's latest contribution to discussion of the PCS strike which started this morning over attacks on members' redundancy rights. The union balloted for action in February, with the result that 63 per cent of those voting backed strike action with 81 per cent backing an overtime ban. Ms Jowell's response was to attempt to undermine the impact of the ballot and the strike by falling back on complaining about the number of PCS members who didn't vote. It's an old trick and one that has gained no credibility with advancing age. It attempts, by implication, to co-opt non-voting members to the ranks of No voters and is as dishonest as it is ineffective.
Attacking a perfectly legal ballot, conducted properly with a result honestly declared, should never be a tactic adopted by a Labour minister, but, there again, this is new Labour that we are talking about. And what response did Ms Jowell expect from civil servants anyway? Since 2004, when then chancellor Gordon Brown announced that 100,000 jobs in the service would either go or be relocated, civil servants have had the uncomfortable experience of feeling as if they had large targets painted on their foreheads, with job-cutting marksmen lurking around every corner just waiting to shoot them down. In the second quarter of 2005 there were 536,000 civil servants employed. By the end of the first quarter of 2009 that number had declined to 489,930 - these figures being full-time equivalents. That's a huge cut and the jobs butchery is still continuing. Which, given that the population has grown by nearly 400,000 a year during the same period, is a continuing diminution in the quality of service that civil servants can provide - or a huge increase in the workload of a diminishing number of public officials.
So to choose this time in which to hack away at their redundancy agreements is little more than brazen troublemaking by the government. Did Ms Jowell and her spineless lackeys really think that civil servants would tug at their forelocks and say: "Thank you very much, guvnor, we realise that we are a terrible burden and if you're going to get rid of us, we should make the process as cheap and easy as possible?" Not even all the legions of the new Labour lost, headed by Dark Lord Peter Mandelson, could possibly imagine that tens of thousands of dedicated government staff would tamely accept the butchery of their redundancy terms in a period where their jobs are at extreme risk. "Civil" does not mean polite to the extremes of idiocy and "servants" does not mean servile and obsequious flunkeys who will follow the master's will whatever the consequences.
It ill suits Labour, when claiming the role of defenders of public services against the mad cutters of the Tory Party, to be hacking back at the right of civil servants to adequate compensation if their jobs are cut. It certainly raises questions over its sincerity. And it casts more than a little doubt on Labour's stance of maintaining the economy in the face of a threatening depression. If that's the message that Labour's leadership wants to send to half a million civil servants in the run-up to a general election, it may not be the "longest suicide note in history" that the late Michael Foot was accused of writing in the 1983 general election manifesto. It's the shortest.