The Government appeared to have lost the public relations battle last week when an all-night attempt to solve the firefighters' dispute broke up in disarray. But it seems to be winning the wider war with its insistence that any pay increase above 4 per cent should be linked to modernisation.
The internet polling company YouGov has been tracking public opinion and the polls reveal the damage that the talks fiasco eight days ago did to the Government.
Last weekend 77 per cent thought the Government was handling the dispute badly, well up on the 59 per cent who held that view in October. But Tony Blair's attempt to provide the stamp of firm government appears to be paying some dividends. In YouGov's latest poll published last night, only 69 per cent say the Government's handling has been bad.
Concern about the Government's role may also have lessened because the public is learning to live without a regular fire service. Only 30 per cent think the strike is resulting in more deaths, while 54 per cent do not feel in any greater personal danger
Whatever doubts the public has about the handling of the strike, when it comes to the issues the Government seems to be winning. Eighty-eight per cent nowbelieve firefighters should be trained to give medical treatment in emergencies,while 76 per cent say there should be joint control centres for all 999 calls. And 71 per cent believe the firefighters' overtime ban should be ended. More people agree than disagree with John Prescott's suggestion that the number of firefighters be reduced.
So it comes as little surprise to find firefighters are struggling to retain the broader sympathy of the public. Fifty-one per cent believe the firefighters are stubbornly pursuing their own interests and only 33 per cent think they have a justified pay claim. Most importantly, only 40 per cent say that they are broadly on the firefighters' side, with 56 per cent opposed. In October these figures were 55 per cent and 39 per cent respectively.
And while the latest strike does not seem to have eroded sympathy further, there is no sign that last week's confusion helped the firefighters. At present, 53 per cent still believe the firefighters should get a 16 per cent rise, so long as it backed by modernisation.
The FBU would be well-advised to embrace that agenda more strongly if it wants to keep public support.
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University
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