A strike for Bonfire Night

Are public-service strikes ever an abuse of power?

The liberal-minded usually have no problems in spotting abuses of power. And the liberal-minded can usually see straight through the protestations of the abusers.

They can call out the City bankers who abuse the bonus system, regardless of the bankers' charming assurances about the "free market". They can deride the tabloids for their excesses, even when the tabloids loudly invoke "freedom of the press". They can dismiss those justifying misuses of police power, notwithstanding the often alarming claims for the need for "law and order" and "anti-terrorism".

In each of these cases, and in many more, the liberal can simply say: that is an abuse of power, and it matters not how you try to defend it.

However, there seems to be a blind spot for many liberals: unnecessary strikes by public-service unions.

When workers who provide public services go on strike, it is an exercise of power. Of that, there can be no doubt. The question then becomes: what kind of an exercise of power is it?

Any exercise of power can be an abuse of power in certain circumstances. Some may perhaps say that there are no such circumstances: striking public-service workers are beyond criticism. Their unions never abuse their power.

But surely this cannot be a serious proposition. Bosses abuse power; tabloids abuse power; police abuse power. There is no good reason why unions are not capable of abusing their power, too.

So, when is it an abuse of power for public-service workers to go on strike?

There are perhaps two elements.

First, there must be regard to the motivation of the strikers. They may use the language of "health and safety" and "long-term benefits", but it is possible that their motives are primarily selfish and financial. If so, such a motivation necessarily prioritises their personal interests above those whom they serve.

Second, there must be regard to the effects. The adverse impact of strikes by public-service workers is normally most keenly felt not by the strikers – or by their bosses. Nor is it felt by those with resources to circumvent the strike.

In particular, a strike by transport workers is hardly noticed by those with the luxury of being able to work from home or drive in to work. Instead, the effects hurt those who will not be paid if they do not turn up; those whose bosses will insist the day be taken as holiday; and those who may actually lose their jobs.

The direct and immediate consequence of any strike by public-service workers can arguably be worse for certain vulnerable and impoverished members of society than any George Osborne Budget.

But public-service unions seem to get away with it again and again. And they do so often with the silent complicity of the liberal-minded.

An abuse of power is an abuse of power; and selfish motives are selfish motives.

And so, as the London firefighters' union astonishingly threaten a strike on – of all days – Bonfire Night, the liberal must ask the questions: Is this an abuse of power and, if so, why is it being allowed to happen?

David Allen Green blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Angela Rayner - from teenage mum to the woman who could unify Labour

Corbyn-supporting Rayner mentioned Tony Blair in her speech. 

For those at the Labour party conference feeling pessimistic this September, Angela Rayner’s speech on education may be a rare moment of hope. 

Not only did the shadow education secretary capitalise on one of the few issues uniting the party – opposition to grammar schools – and chart a return to left-wing policies, but she did so while paying tribute to the New Labour legacy. 

Rayner grew up on a Stockport council estate, raised by a mother who could not read nor write. She was, she reminded conference, someone who left school a no-hoper. 

"I left school at 16 pregnant and with no qualifications. Some may argue I was not a great role model for young people. The direction of my life was already set.

"But something happened. Labour's Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children, the support we needed to grow and develop."

Rayner has shown complete loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn throughout the summer, taking two briefs in the depopulated shadow cabinet and speaking at his campaign events.

Nevertheless, as someone who practically benefited from Labour’s policies during its time in government, she is unapologetic about its legacy. She even mentioned the unmentionable, declaring: “Tony Blair talked about education, education, education. Theresa May wants segregation, segregation, segregation.”

As for Rayner's policies, a certain amount of realism underpins her rhetoric. She wants to bring back maintenance grants for low-income students, and the Educational Maintenance Allowance for those in further education. 

But she is not just offering a sop to the middle class. A new childcare taskforce will focus on early education, which she describes as “the most effective drivers of social mobility”. 

Rayner pledged to “put as much effort into expanding, technical, vocational education and meaningful apprenticeships, as we did with higher education”. She declared: "The snobbery about vocational education must end."

Tory critics have questioned the ability of a woman who left school at 16 to be an education secretary, Rayner acknowledged. “I may not have a degree - but I have a Masters in real life,” she said. It could have sounded trite, but her speech delivered the goods. Perhaps she will soon earn her PhD in political instincts too.