Public sector strike: in numbers

Yesterday's strike ended with a war of words between ministers and the unions. Here are some facts.

How important and how wide scale was yesterday's public sector strike? It is hard to tell from listening to politicians and the unions, who each spun a very different narrative about what the TUC claimed was the biggest show of industrial discontent in 30 years. David Cameron dismissed the action as a "damp squib", telling MPs that Britain was hardly disrupted at all, with key services like airports running smoothly. On the other side of it, the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, hailed "huge turnouts". Here is a summary of the numbers.

General turnout

The unions claim that around 2 million people were on strike yesterday, but ministers dispute this, putting the number closer to 1.2 million.

Education

The biggest impact was undoubtedly on schools. Cameron erroneously claimed yesterday that 40 per cent of schools were open (which he was quickly called up on), but in fact, 68 per cent of UK state schools shut entirely, and 14 per cent partially closed. In England, 62 per cent were shut, while the figure in Scotland was as high at 99 per cent.

Health

There has been some serious disagreement flying around on turnout from staff in hospitals, ambulance services and NHS Direct in England. The Department of Health claimed that only 79,000 employees didn't turn up for work. This would constitute 14.5 per cent of the workforce, les than the 20 per cent turnout predicted by the NHS. However, unions accused them of "fiddling the figures", claiming that 400,000 NHS staff went on strike, a number that would have been higher had some staff not gone to work to ensure care for emergency patients.

What we are certain of, is that 6950 operations were cancelled (that's 23 per cent of a total of 30,000 non-urgent NHS operations). 54,000 appointments were cancelled. Ambulance services were affected in several areas of the country, particularly the south-east, with 42 per cent of the London Ambulance Service striking.

Civil service/local government

Some 146,000 civil servants took part in the strike, representing more than a quarter of the civil service. According to the BBC, 850,500 council workers were on strike across the UK. The Local Government Association said that 670,000 employees in England and Wales were not at work, equating to 32 per cent.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.