There are few gifts greater than an enemy that believes its own lies. The UK has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe. Our trade union movement has been subjected to four consecutive decades of defeat, and our wages and living standards have eroded as a result. In order to go on strike, teachers, nurses, civil servants, postal workers, doctors, firefighters and rail workers must all beat turnout thresholds which, if they were applied to a Conservative party leadership election, would prevent a result from occurring. So high is the bar, and so low the general level of industrial militancy, that a wave of strikes of the sort we are now experiencing has become a once-in-a-decade event – the last episode being the pensions dispute of 2011-12.
Despite all of this, our ruling class earnestly insists that trade unionism is a problem to be solved. Thatcherism has penetrated the psychology of public life to such an extent that our rulers can’t conceive of working class struggle as a factor in politics. It is a thing of the past, to be book-ended with use of the phrases like “trade union barons” and “the 1970s”. Strikes are automatically illegitimate and therefore unpopular. That much was clear from business secretary Grant Shapps’ tone when he stood at the dispatch box for the second reading of the government’s new anti-strike legislation on Tuesday, confidently declaring that “the public has had enough of the most unwelcome and frankly dangerous disruption to their lives”.
Operating on this assumption, the government has chosen to pursue a policy of outright confrontation with the trade union movement. It has refused to engage in additional pay negotiations with workers in any sector, and has now embarked on an attempt to legislate for minimum staffing levels in key industries. From the perspective of ideological purity or orthodox economics, this approach makes some sense. As a political strategy, however, it is a series of blunders and unforced errors, and provides the left with some cause for cautious optimism.
A missed opportunity.
Faced with growing industrial unrest, the Conservatives’ best strategy was to divide the unions. They may not want to allow inflation-level pay rises across the economy – because they believe in a wage-price spiral, and want to protect profits against wages – but much more dangerous than rising wages in one sector is an emboldened trade union movement. The government’s obvious option was to cut a deal early with the most popular section of the workforce – NHS workers, and maybe the fire service – while leaving the rest out in the cold. Instead, it prioritised short term political needs (the need to blame someone for the NHS crisis this winter) over beating workers on pay. The result is that trade unions have been given the gift of unity, and that by striking together they may be able to force a broader retreat from the government.
In response, the government is escalating rather than reassessing its strategy. The strikes (minimum service levels) bill would affect six areas of the economy – the NHS, the fire service, schools, transport, borders and nuclear decommissioning. Unless unions were willing to risk fines and mass sackings, it would give employers powers to force a minimum level of service during strikes, drastically undermining the effectiveness of industrial action in those sectors. However, the bill was not a Conservative manifesto commitment in 2019, and this ought to give the Lords grounds to tie it up with amendments – especially if it can be framed as a human rights issue. The strength of opposition from Labour and other parties will be crucial here. While the bill is likely to pass in some form in the end, it should cost a lot of time and energy, and will be in the headlines enough to make it a major issue at the next election.
The Conservatives know all this. This is evidently a battle they want to have, and which they believe will win them votes by “exposing” Labour’s link to the trade union movement. “Labour opposes life-saving law to curb strikes”, ran the Daily Mail’s headline earlier this month. In a column for the Times, Conservative backbencher Laura Farris writes that Labour’s opposition to the bill showed its “true priorities”. Her main argument was the fact that other countries have minimum service levels. “If the Labour party wishes to continue opposing these measures”, she says, “then it is incumbent upon them to explain to the British people why they should suffer lower standards of basic protection than citizens of almost every comparable western democracy”.
A reason for hope?
On a basic communications level, the Conservatives have a problem. While Labour can brand the new legislation the “sack the nurses” bill, government spokespeople are left explaining at length the various parallels with other countries. And talking about other countries doesn’t end in a happy place. Sure, other countries in western Europe have minimum service levels in emergency services. But after 13 years of the Conservatives in power, they also have much less restrictive anti-union legislation overall, more collective bargaining in the economy, better workers’ rights, higher wages, better-funded public services, fewer food banks, and lower Covid-19 death rates. The legislation will shine an even brighter light on the NHS crisis, as opponents ask the obvious question: how can you set a minimum service level on strike days in hospitals that can’t a basic level of service on a normal day?
More importantly, the strikes are actually quite popular. The public backs industrial action by nurses (66% to 28%), ambulance workers (63% to 31%), firefighters (58% to 33%), and teachers (50% to 41%). Of the flagship disputes, only rail workers show a slight majority against (43% to 49%). The government’s plan is to treat strike disruption in the same way it has treated climate protesters, swatting them away with tabloid fury and authoritarian new laws. But these are mass disputes, led by unexpectedly formidable media performers. With more than a million workers involved, almost everyone will have friends and family on strike. Keir Starmer has spent a lot of energy trying to avoid strikes becoming an electoral dividing line, but this legislation has forced Labour to pick a side, even if it won’t support the actual disputes. Starmer and the government are about to discover that backing unions isn’t the electoral liability they thought it was.
The situation is one of confrontation, opportunity and danger. High inflation and a decade of real terms wage cuts means industrial unrest is inevitable and has public support. We have a ruling elite so strongly wedded to its own mythology that it can’t contemplate compromise. The Conservatives have, for certain, lost touch with the reality we’re living in. Time will tell whether we can roll them backwards, or whether they will use media supremacy and new legislation to construct a new, darker state of affairs. Those are the stakes of the next two years.