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21 June 2022

Rail strikes test Tory culture war on working from home

Exclusive New Statesman polling reveals older voters are most likely to oppose remote working, keeping the government stuck in the past.

By Anoosh Chakelian

With the biggest rail strike in 30 years being held across Britain, the government’s response has been to let the dispute play out – and try to blame the Labour Party.

In the past week the Conservative Party has been sending emails to its supporters describing the RMT union’s walkouts on 21, 23 and 25 June as “Labour’s strikes”.

For Labour’s part, it is neither condemning nor condoning the strikes – though there have been noises off from individual shadow ministers on the topic. While it was the instinct of the leader’s office to sound more robust on the rail strikes, I hear, this more conciliatory line has been carefully chosen given the prospect of nurses’ strikes, which would garner more public sympathy, in the near future.

Party insiders accept that disruptive industrial action often puts the leader of the traditional party of organised labour in a tricky position (this was the theme of one of Ed Miliband’s cringiest interviews, and the source of Keir Starmer appearing to scoff at Coventry), but believe the government will ultimately receive the blame for the rail disruption.

One might expect the government, then, to be seen to help lessen the impact – most obviously by promoting remote working. After all, Network Rail wishes to “modernise” working practices (a euphemism, in the eyes of rail workers, for poorer working conditions and redundancies), and the government would surely wish to align itself with this attitude to the ever-changing workplace. Yet with the former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry’s mockery of “woke-ing from home”, Jacob Rees-Mogg prowling civil servants’ desks to see if they’re in the office, and Boris Johnson’s characterisation of home working as a “mañana culture”, this government has positioned itself firmly on the side of the past.

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[See also: Blaming Labour for the rail strikes could backfire on the government]

New polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies* suggests it is unlikely that the government will end its culture war on working from home anytime soon. It shows that older voters are the most likely to oppose working from home.

While 60 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds say they support or strongly support people continuing to work from home after the pandemic, just 39 per cent of those aged 65 and over say the same. Just 11 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds oppose or strongly oppose this, while 28 per cent of 65-plus respondents do so. In general, the older the respondent, the more negative their attitude towards working from home. (The average is 53 per cent support, 16 per cent oppose, 25 per cent neither support nor oppose, the rest don’t know.)

One shadow cabinet member told me recently that they could make sense of pretty much every Tory policy and announcement by seeing it through the lens of appealing first and foremost to pensioners. The culture war on working from home seems to fit that measure, according to this latest polling. Yet such electioneering is stopping the government engaging with modern life, even when it would be to its political advantage to do so.

*A weighted sample of 2,000 eligible voters in Great Britain were surveyed on 15 June 2022.

[See also: Stop using children as leverage against strikes]

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