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23 December 2022

What Rishi Sunak doesn’t get about strikes

A pledge to ban strikes and thus make pay bargaining harder is a pledge to ensure recruitment and conditions keep getting worse.

By Jonn Elledge

Today, on the last working day before Christmas, the Royal College of Nursing announced another strike, scheduled for the 18 and 19 of January. Meanwhile, thousands of postal workers have walked out, bringing Royal Mail to a halt at its busiest time of year.

The postal service’s bosses could take some comfort from the fact that they are at least not alone in miserably failing to do their job at the time when it’s needed the most. Today is also one of the year’s biggest travel days, but thanks to the first of eight days of action by the Public and Commercial Services Union, whose members include passport control staff, there have been warnings of long delays at airports, including the three busiest, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, as well as at certain ports. On the upside, the RMT is not on strike today, so – providing you’re not travelling by East Midlands Railway, the domain of Unite, which is on strike today – rail travel should be relatively smooth. Relatively.

There is some good news. The GMB union has called off a second day of strike action planned for the ambulance service next Wednesday, meaning that any delays in getting emergency medical care will be just the standard issue “NHS in crisis” ones. But it isn’t a great sign when multiple news websites are running industrial action liveblogs or issuing wall planner-style graphics to help readers to track which bit of the state is on strike on any given day. As with so many comments about this government, the phrase “new winter of discontent” has rapidly gone from being a joke to a cliché.

Some people, it must be said, seem a little hazy on who to blame for all of this. On Wednesday the Daily Mail reported on the ambulance strikes with its usual mellow thoughtfulness, with the front-page headline: “HOW WILL THEY LIVE WITH THEMSELVES IF PEOPLE DIE TODAY?” Whether the question was aimed at the unions, the bosses or Rishi Sunak’s government was surprisingly unclear, but I can’t help but think that if the papers had asked such things of Tory ministers a bit more often we wouldn’t be in this mess.

It might at least have focused ministerial minds on something that, polling suggests, the public already knows: blame for the unrest lies with them, not the union bosses that a lifetime fantasising about emulating Margaret Thatcher has left the Tories determined to crush. Sunak seems as keen on this as his predecessor – a woman who literally used to dress as her idol – and has repeatedly claimed to be working on tough anti-strike laws, even refusing to rule out banning them altogether.

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As seems to happen rather a lot, though, the Prime Minister has misunderstood something fairly fundamental. It may be possible, in a literal, technical sense, to bar certain key workers from striking. It’d look faintly pathetic, since Britain’s unions are hardly the force they were 40 years ago, and banning strikes makes it seem suspiciously like Sunak thinks it should be literally illegal to make him look bad; but it may be possible, nonetheless.

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Even if the government could remove the right to strike, though, it cannot remove the right to simply choose not to work somewhere in the first place. Low wages and poor working conditions already make recruiting and retaining skilled staff difficult – this is, indeed, one reason why many of the strikes are happening. A pledge to ban such strikes, and thus make pay bargaining harder for the workforce, amounts to a pledge to ensure things keep getting worse. In the absolute best case scenario, such a ban might simply make unexpected wildcat strikes – the sort that cannot be mitigated through forward planning – more likely. If you think this week is chaotic, imagine how it would be if none of those unions had told their bosses they were planning to walk out.

Of course, every senior Tory wants their own fight with the unions. Such a showdown essentially made Thatcher, a hero to them if not to us. But as Sunak stirs up this mess, he’s forgetting two things. Firstly, the last Conservative prime minister before Thatcher didn’t come off quite so well from his own battle with the unions: Ted Heath’s government was destroyed by industrial action in the winter of 1973-74, and his reputation has never recovered. Secondly, the reason the right lionise Thatcher is because she looked like a woman who could solve a problem. Sunak looks a lot like a man determined to create one.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is fighting a losing battle against the nurses]

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