By Ray Fleming

ONE million? One and a half million? Do I hear a two million bid? The auction to get the biggest figure for participation in Wednesday's public services strike continued yesterday. Ministers said one million. The Times called 1.5 million, based on “some employers and the Local Government Association” (but the LGA said 670 thousand of its employees had walked out with only 56 percent of councils counted). The TUC held to its original “more than two million” figure. Perhaps the best indicator of the substance of the strike was a FInancial Times headline -- “UK sees biggest strike for more than 30 years.” It certainly seemed that way when reports began to come in of marches and rallies in support of the strike from London (30'000), Manchester (20'000), Birmingham (15'000), Edinburgh and Newcastle (10'000).

It is, of course, very difficult to count mass gatherings accurately and these figures are probably subject to a plus or minus error of a few per cent. But they are sizeable enough to dismiss the generally unsubstantiated media stories about department stores and supermarkets packed with strikers taking advantage of their extra day off to do some pre-Christmas shopping.

The initiative is now principally with the government to recognise the force of the feeling against its proposals -- but also with the unions to recognise the exceptional economic circumstances and react accordingly.

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