As the day of public sector strikes over pension plans draws nearer one cannot help feeling that the parties are no nearer to negotiating a solution, and are instead concentrating their energy on negotiating with the general public to support their position.

The Sunday Press was full of positional comments by government and Union representatives. David Cameron has branded the strikes as “irresponsible”. Danny Alexander has urged the unions to reconsider, saying that the government’s proposals on pension reform are “good and generous”. The Sunday Times carried a piece outlining the generous pensions of leading Union protagonists such as Bob Crowe (pension contributions equal to 40% of his salary). But it also carried interviews with ordinary workers explaining in measured terms why they are striking – one teacher commented: “This isn’t a whim. This is a national comment and the only way we can make our feelings known”.

Meanwhile TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber has warned “This could be the beginning rather than the end…I don’t want this turned into a long battle, but they need to heed our warning”.

Amid the rhetoric, the one striking characteristic is that there seems to be no discussion about possible ways to resolve the dispute. This is largely a dispute about “values” – the Government valuing a reduction in public debt above all other priorities, and the Unions valuing the protection of existing benefits for their members.

Value disputes can normally only be resolved by reference to over-arching common values, which are bigger than the values which divide the parties. So, one way to make progress would be to re-frame the issue so that it captures shared values. For example, if the issue was framed as “How do we ensure that the next generation has appropriate levels of public services, and that the public sector remains a significant employer?”, then that would be a debate on which both sides could sit on the same side of the table.

Furthermore, if both sides were able to focus on the other side’s underlying needs in this discussion rather than constantly reinforcing their own position, then constructive progress might be possible, as there might be other ways of addressing those needs than simply having an arid debate about the level of pension contributions. In negotiating terms, both sides have a “reassurance” need. The Government needs to feel sure progress is being made towards deficit reduction. The Unions need to feel assured that their members’ interests are being protected.

How about some of these as possible suggestions for moderating the effect of the government’s proposals:

1. The Government rewards innovation and resource saving ideas from public sector employees by giving them extra pension credits

2. The Government rewards extra training taken on by public sector employees with extra pension credits, as long as such training leads to a genuine improvement in efficiencies

3. The Government provides an innovation fund for the development of entrepreneurial ideas for improving the balance of resources within the public sectors. The Government reinvests its upside from the development of such ideas back into public sector pensions.

4. Public spending savings from switching public sector responsibilities to the private sector are reinvested into public sector pensions.

5. The Government provides free professional financial advice to public sector employees to help them maximise the benefit of their pension

6. The Government offers to make pension payments early in return for capping its overall liability to those employees who choose to accept them.

In the absence of this kind of genuine negotiation we are just left with an attritional battle where there will be no winners. Even if the government forces the Unions to climb down, the lingering resentment will create further problems for the government down the road – and at the ballot box…