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20 June 2022

Blaming Labour for the rail strikes could backfire on the government

It can refuse to intervene in the rail workers’ dispute – but if disruption spreads to the public sector No 10 will have to get involved.

By Freddie Hayward

Get ready for the largest railway strikes in a generation. Around 40,000 railway workers will go on strike from tomorrow, assuming that last-ditch negotiations fail. Network Rail has said services will be cut to around a fifth of their usual provision in the dispute with the RMT union over pay and conditions.

The government is refusing to get involved in the negotiations between the unions and train companies. Instead the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has two strategies to minimise the impact of the strikes on the economy. First, he hopes the rise of working from home will enable many people to keep working even if they can’t get to the office. Indeed, train passenger numbers are currently at around 80 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels. Second, the government is looking to introduce changes this week to repeal the ban on companies using temporary workers during strikes, with the Times reporting that the plans may come into effect by mid-July.

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

Both major parties are accusing the other of supporting the strikes. The Conservatives are keen to portray the disruption as “Labour’s rail strikes”, while Labour says responsibility lies firmly with the government. As well as the fight over where the blame lies, there’s a fledging dispute between Labour and the unions. Labour has so far withheld its full-throated support for the strikes, instead saying it regrets that the strikes are taking place. On the airwaves this morning, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said that the party was on the side of “both the public and the railway workers”. That isn’t satisfying the unions. Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, has urged Keir Starmer to “think about where the Labour Party is going”, adding that Starmer should “come out with some policies that show he’s on the side of working people”.

The underlying story here is that rampant inflation is eroding people’s pay amid the cost-of-living crisis. This is going to lead to calls for pay rises across the economy. Lynch said the RMT will continue its campaign until a settlement is reached as other sectors also consider strike action. Yesterday, the teachers’ union the NASUWT announced it would ballot members if a forthcoming pay deal did not meet its demands. Barristers, doctors and nurses are also currently debating whether they will go on strike. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Simon Clarke, confirmed this morning that public sector workers won’t receive a pay rise in line with inflation, presaging a summer of disruption. The government may think that a dispute with rail workers is comfortable terrain on which to distance itself from Labour. That strategy could prove unsustainable when it’s arguing that nurses should receive a real-terms pay cut while large sections of the economy are grinding to a halt.

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

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