The UK is now in a new and very sharp phase of what can only realistically be called class politics.
Pay offers are not keeping pace with inflation, meaning wage cuts. Public services are under huge stress: some are threatened with severe job cuts.
Inflation is at a 40-year high of 9 per cent, squeezing people on low and middle incomes. Energy costs are soaring while the energy companies record massive profits. The cost-of-living crisis caused by rising household energy bills is so extreme that, even if ministers are forced to accept Labour’s policy of a windfall tax on firms, it will inevitably face pressure for further measures.
So the government is now briefing that it wants new measures to curb the principal line of defence for many working people – the trade unions. The focus of the government briefings is a possible strike on the railways. The Tories are said to want a new law for minimum staffing levels, effectively making strikes illegal if those levels are not met.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has said that “potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history” is possible. Its members have now voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.
Railway workers face both job cuts and a below-inflation pay package. The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association union warns of “devastating consequences” from the former. In Scotland, ScotRail has slashed rail services in a dispute over real-terms pay cuts and Scotland’s employment minister has urged pay restraint on workers.
In addition to a potential rail strike, the postal workers’ Communication Workers Union and the teachers’ National Education Union are balloting members over action on pay. The higher education University and College Union has been involved in prolonged disputes including strikes over pensions and pay. The civil servants’ Public and Commercial Services Union is considering industrial action over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s threat to cut 90,000 jobs. The Trades Union Congress has called for a national demonstration next month over the squeeze on living standards. All of this is inevitable. People will naturally fight to protect their jobs and their incomes if they are able to.
We should understand that, just as the cost-of-living crisis explodes into arguments over energy bills, benefit levels and a windfall tax, it is also expressed very clearly in work. The situation is being exacerbated by government cuts to services and jobs. In truth, it is a new phase of austerity.
Viewed from this perspective, Labour should side with those workers who are forced to defend their living standards through strike action, just as it sides with households squeezed by energy bills and benefit cuts.
In this situation, alliances can fracture or bonds can be built. Labour will be pressed: do you support these workers’ right to take action over pay, jobs, pensions? Should the government agree to what these workers are asking for? Do you support their strike action? How would a Labour government pay to meet these needs?
And the Tories will want to divide different parts of the population – for example, public sector workers from private sector ones – whereas to speak for all, the left has to build its own narrative and overcome these cynical tactics. Those in Labour who favour performative confrontations with the unions are a threat to constructing that narrative and will need to be faced down.
The party’s task is to show everyone affected by the squeeze, including those striking over pay and jobs, that it has answers and that a Labour government would make a palpable difference.