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11 January 2023

Rishi Sunak is trying to split Labour with anti-strike legislation

But the balance of power has shifted towards the opposition.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak is hoping to make strikes a wedge issue for Labour by introducing legislation that would extend minimum service levels to cover new areas, including the NHS, education and fire and rescue. Under the controversial proposals – which unions say will prolong disputes and worsen industrial relations – some public sector staff would be required to work during strike action.

Keir Starmer has said Labour will vote against the plans and repeal the legislation if the party takes power at the next election, because the law would allow some striking public service workers to be sacked.

The announcement comes as ambulance workers go back on strike, and three teaching unions – NASUWT, the National Education Union and NAHT – wind up a ballot on strikes that would close some schools and see teachers join walkouts over pay.

The balance of power is shifting towards the opposition, however, and it could be Labour that succeeds in creating a wedge issue, for the Tories on private schools. The shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson will today (11 January) push a binding vote in the Commons on ending tax breaks for private schools.

Labour says the cash saved by cancelling tax breaks could fund the recruitment of 6,500 teachers to drive up standards, and it wants to establish a Commons select committee to investigate taxation of schools and education standards. Phillipson has a good story to tell on teachers’ pay and expects the vote to be particularly difficult for Red Wall Tories who typically represent less affluent areas.

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House of Commons library data shows median pay rose by 19 per cent in real terms when the party was in power between 1997 and 2010. Meanwhile, a Labour analysis of official data shows the number of teachers leaving the profession today is outstripping the number of recruits, with 36,262 leaving classrooms in 2020-21, compared with only 34,394 starters, leaving a shortfall of 1,868.

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“Conservative MPs can either vote to deliver a brilliant state for education for every child,” Phillipson said, “or they vote against the interests of parents across this country who aspire for better for their children, especially those in the very regions their party pledged to ‘level up’.”

Sunak attended the elite Winchester College private school, and 65 per cent of his cabinet is privately educated (compared with 7 per cent of the population generally). He claims education is one of his guiding missions and wants all young people to study maths up to the age of 18, but he mentioned the word “education” just eight times during his time as a backbencher.

The Prime Minister also made the mistake of claiming Labour’s bid to end tax breaks was attacking the “hard-working aspiration” of children whose parents can afford to pay private school fees – a tin-eared and insulting claim to make, not least during a cost-of-living crisis.

[See also: I’m an ambulance worker – here’s why I’m striking]

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