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.


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.


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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.