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21 June 2022

Tories won’t win if they play games with strikes

If the country endures a summer of disruption, the party in power will surely take most of the blame.

By Harry Lambert

The railways strikes have begun, bringing trains to a halt for the day (as they will also do on Thursday and Saturday). The RMT union’s workers are holding out for a nominal pay rise of at least 7 per cent, having only been offered 3 per cent. With inflation set to hit 11 per cent, even that would represent a real-terms pay cut. We may be set for a summer of strikes, with nurses and teachers next.

How will this play out politically? Brits broadly oppose the RMT strikes, by 49 to 35 per cent. More young voters (those 18 to 24) actually support them, by 49 to 32 per cent, but their opinions are, unfortunately, only passingly relevant since half of them never bother to vote. Those over 65 – eight in ten of whom vote – are strongly against them: 65 per cent oppose strikes, and only 22 per cent support them. And voters are clear that the Tories oppose the strikes, while they think, marginally, that Labour supports them, although there is greater confusion over the party’s position.

That does not look good for Labour, but I would not get lost in the electoral implications of these strikes, and I suspect it will be the party in power that suffers most if the country endures a summer of disruption.

You hear a great deal on the left about the inherent right-wing bias of the press, and this week they do appear to have a point. The Mail’s front page today makes a pointed reference to the “Labour MPs on rail picket lines” as “unions plunge [the] nation into paralysis”. But Labour’s electoral appeal is no longer affected by what the MPs in question – a few stray voices on the party’s left – do or think. As much as a few papers are eager to play up the divisions within Labour, voters actually think the party is fairly united. It’s the Conservative Party that they overwhelmingly think is divided, as tends to happen when two in five of a party’s MPs try to defenestrate their leader.

There are many things, in short, you can criticise today’s Labour Party for, from its inability to offer any sort of coherent and consistent narrative that explains its policies, to the way Keir Starmer struggles in any setting other than scolding Boris Johnson for his moral failures. I am not sure you can criticise them for failing to prevent, from the opposition benches, strikes by a union with which it has no affiliation.

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Labour’s position on the strikes is clear: they should not be happening, because the government should have worked to facilitate a deal between the RMT and Network Rail. The real story here is whether the Conservative government deliberately failed to make a deal to try to put Labour in a difficult position. It would seem incredible for most governments to play such games with the country, but this one has a taste for chaos by design.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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