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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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