One thing Boris Johnson understands: keep turning your meaty, unhearing back on your angry critics and… things turn up. Often, yes, unfortunately they are the wrong things. But sometimes they are very useful. The rail strikes – and then all the other industrial action likely to follow when public sector workers see the pay rises that strikers are being offered at a time of rising inflation – are, for Johnson, convenient. They will subject the Labour Party to its own summer of misery and political torture.
If Keir Starmer thinks life has been difficult so far, he should adopt the brace position. I know this because I watched Neil Kinnock during the 1984-85 National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) strike go through agony as he struggled on the prongs of Margaret Thatcher’s political assault. I watched his face pale. I heard his glorious command of the language falter and contract. And, of course, I reported his election defeat, which followed in 1987.
Well, our times are smaller. Starmer hasn’t had Kinnock’s immersion in socialist culture. Johnson is certainly no Thatcher. I sincerely hope that this summer’s industrial action is nothing like what happened with the NUM – not in violence, divisiveness (see the new BBC drama Sherwood) or its dramatic effect in reshaping politics. The law is very different now. Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, is tough and talks of class struggle but doesn’t have the revolutionary agenda of Arthur Scargill, the former president of the NUM.
But still, if ever there was an issue Johnson could weaponise to try to bring back voters – both middle-class southern commuting voters and Red-Wallers – who hate mealy-mouthing, it’s this. I am writing before the results of the by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton on 23 June, and the strike issue might have come a little late for Johnson there. But the Prime Minister is a ruthless divider, a “wedge” exploiter looking for the next issue to latch on to after Brexit.
Members of the shadow cabinet have been twisting and turning in their efforts to avoid Johnson “getting” them on Europe and it has been a dismal sight. But now it’s “Labour’s train strikes”. Next will come an attempt to persuade the electorate that because of wage pressure, it’s “Labour’s inflation”. Don’t believe me? Just you wait.
These disputes may of course be resolved and may not spread through the summer. But the instinct among workers not to be left behind, to catch up with other groups, will be strong. Private sector employers will try to hold the line against inflation-plus increases. But, despite increases in immigration from outside Europe, we have a very tight labour market and a shortage of skilled workers in an economy that has long been drunk on imported labour.
One lesser-noticed impact of Brexit is the turbo-charge of inflationary wage pressures across all sectors, from the service industry to agriculture. Try telling a pub landlord or a tulip grower to keep pay offers below inflation when they are desperate for those extra hands.
In the public sector pressures will be, well, even more public. I recently interviewed Christina McAnea, the very impressive new general secretary of Unison, whose 1.3 million members work in local government, schools, hospitals and care homes. McAnea told me her members would cover emergency and humanitarian needs but that she thought industrial action across those sectors was indeed likely. Following its recent national delegate conference, Unison is campaigning on social media with #getstrikeready.
It looks as if the strikes are only just getting going. Industrial action on the railways is infuriating and inconveniencing for millions of people. But inside hard-pressed hospitals and care homes it could be far worse. Every individual story of anguish and disappointment will be on the front pages. They will be read out with relish by a reviving Johnson in the House of Commons. Fresh from sorting out his positions on post-Brexit immigration and trans rights, poor Starmer will be faced with the plight of Agnes and her hip replacement, or Michael’s exams, in interview after interview.
There is no point in hand-wringing. We have a high-employment but low-wage society caused, as New Statesman readers have read time and again, by a low-growth, low-productivity economy. Long-term, the only way through this is to work as a country much more efficiently. But this isn’t an answer that will get opposition politicians through the next few weeks.
Labour needs to fight like fury to keep attention on the responsibility of ministers for what is happening; much of the public will agree, and that will increase as time goes on. A needed reform programme for the railways, for instance, requires goodwill and engagement on all sides.
Alongside that, the opposition needs to call out ministers’ gleeful exploitation of industrial action caused by many years of low pay and (a big difference from the events of 1984) held only after democratic ballots. This generation of Conservatives are not very agile or sophisticated and what is going on is pretty blatant.
But then it will get harder. If these strikes spread, Labour needs to start talking about the impact of Brexit on care homes, hospitals and other areas short of skilled European workers. They hate doing this because of fear of alienating their former voters in the Red Wall seats whom they hope to win back. The party has taken the view that Europe has vanished and that Brussels is an unlikely rumour. Tough. In the actual world, this is also about Brexit. A political debate too tongue-tied to acknowledge the truth is a fundamentally useless conversation.
Where groups of workers have real and substantive grievances, Labour needs to back them boldly and explicitly – as Andy Burnham has been doing, for instance, as mayor of Greater Manchester. Don’t allow ministers to walk backwards out of this story as if they were nothing to do with it.
Finally, and crucially, Labour needs to articulate an alternative vision of an economy able to pay higher wages and work more efficiently. As a country, we need hope. We need industrial modernisation and an offer of a different way forward. Labour is supposedly working on a new plan to announce at its party conference in September. It needs to get a move on.
A wave of public sector strikes lasting through much of the rest of the year is an issue big enough to turn the political tables and give Johnson his chance to win another general election and be the leader of this country for many years to come.
The Prime Minister thought the Ukraine war would have that effect, but the conflict is becoming too confusing and too much of a slog to help him personally. Worse, Labour agrees with him about Ukraine. Not enough “wedge”. Johnson has tried to use Brexit, but the country is bored of that. Rwanda was promising, but a complicated legal battle and the awful stories of individual migrants are not, perhaps, playing quite as well as he had hoped.
Johnson’s critics call him, in one of their lesser insults, a “chancer”. That’s right. He is a great seizer of chances, of things that come along next. The prospect of a wave of strikes across the rest of this year is there thanks to a long period of under-investment and shortages in the workforce – part of his own legacy. But, believe me, he sees a great chance coming, the latest “thing”, and that meaty back is swivelling. A snap election before Christmas? Don’t bet against it.
That thought takes us further back still. Whether or not Johnson used the words “Who governs Britain?”, it would be the message. It didn’t go well for Ted Heath in 1974. What Heath asked was: “Do you want parliament and the elected government to continue to fight strenuously against inflation?… It’s time for your voice to be heard – the voice of the moderate and reasonable people of Britain.” But the reasonable people didn’t want mayhem, and they could spot political spin. I wonder what they think now.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working