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29 April 2023

The Tories know they can’t beat the unions – they just want someone else to blame

Anti-strike bills won’t change the fact the country needs nurses and teachers a damn sight more than it needs these particular politicians.

By Jonn Elledge

On 3 March 1985 the National Union of Mineworkers voted to return to work. The miners’ strike, a protest at a programme of planned pit closures, was three days shy of its first anniversary. Stories about the devastating impact the events of 1984-5 had on the communities they affected have been a central feature of political memoirs and the British film industry ever since: think of British politics in the 1980s, and there’s a fair chance you’ll think of the miners’ strike.

That seems to apply doubly to those Tories who are still desperate to relive the glories of the Thatcher years, which even forty years later frequently seems to be all of them. Breaking the power of the miners was, both chronologically and ideologically, the central act of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and the stories we tell about it suggest that the key to her victory was a combination of heartless implacability and the sheer force of the state. The lesson many Tories seem to have taken from the fight against Arthur Scargill is that all you need to defeat a truculent union is to stand firm. Don’t get dragged into negotiations; don’t start offering concessions. Just grit your teeth and wait them out. You are bigger and scarier than they are.

That, at least, would explain the anti-strike legislation that ministers have been trying to jam through the legislative process since the start of the year. The Sunak government has, as it happens, quietly opened negotiations with certain favoured unions (something it had spent months claiming it would never, ever do). At the same time, though, it’s moved to pass a law that would require public sector services to run to minimum levels even on strike days. Those who walk out anyway could face the sack.

The reason a government would want such a bill is entirely obvious: if strikes are making ministers look bad, why not simply ban the strikes? But the lack of detail of what a “minimum service” actually is, and the sweeping powers the bill offers ministers to amend the law once it has passed, united an unlikely alliance of John McDonnell and Jacob Rees-Mogg in criticism when it passed the Commons last January. This week, peers asked the government to look again.

There’s another problem with the idea of anti-strike legislation, that’s not so much legal as philosophical: it misunderstands the nature of union power. The miners’ strike was defeated through implacability and brute force, yes, but it also required preparation, such as the stockpiling of coal, and for the NUM to have been in a much weaker position than it had once been. An earlier wave of strikes, a decade beforehand when the industry was stronger and coal a more important part of Britain’s energy mix, had effectively brought down a Conservative government, when Edward Heath called an early election under the campaign slogan “Who governs Britain?” and promptly lost his majority. In the early 1970s, when the miners had the power to bring the country to a standstill by withdrawing their labour, they won; a decade later, it turned out they no longer had the power, so they lost.

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It is very far from obvious that nurses, teachers, rail workers and the others are in the sort of weak position that would mean sheer bloody mindedness on the part of the government would be enough to defeat them: that, of course, is both why the government has been forced to open negotiations, and why it is attempting to make strikes harder. But this doesn’t feel like a problem that can just be legislated away. Even if the bill passes staff may walk out anyway, or withdraw their labour in other ways by quitting or not joining these sectors in the first place. The government can pass as many anti-strike bills as it wants: that won’t be enough to change the fact that the country fundamentally needs nurses and teachers and railway workers a damn sight more than it needs these particular politicians.

Unless, of course, none of this is actually about defeating the unions and their pay demands at all. Today’s Tories may still love cosplaying as Margaret Thatcher – but they also love pointing to outside forces and claiming that the only reason they can’t deliver on their promises is because of them. Once upon a time the bogey man was Brussels; nowadays it’s activist judges, Remainers, anyone they can tar with the word “woke”.

So perhaps the government does not imagine it can defeat a new generation of industrial unrest at all. Perhaps, when the voters look around and ask why nothing is working any more, it just wants to offer someone else to blame.

[See also: The New Age of Tragedy]

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