Covid, the cost of living, war in Ukraine, the list of woes may seem endless at the moment. Unfortunately, there’s another one to add which could prove the tipping point for Boris and the Conservatives – industrial strife. Pretty much since the 1980s the UK’s record on strike action and industrial unrest has been well below the European average – no longer the “sick man” of Europe of the 1970s. Trade Union reforms of the Thatcher and Major era created a benign period for business to flourish under Blair and Brown until the financial crash came along. But even Cameron felt no need to change anything significant and so it remained, until now.
A turning point has arrived with the spike in prices caused by once in a lifetime events like an energy crisis caused by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, coupled with a labour shortage and a cost of living crisis. Prices have shot up in ways not seen since the likes of the late 70s and early 80s. Britain is not well.
All of this is hugely important as we try to decipher what this means for the Government, the main Opposition parties and the future of the country. Could this prove to be a fatal blow for an enfeebled Government already on the ropes for “partygate,” or does it rekindle nightmares for the Labour party leadership desperate to move on from the Corbyn era and the threat of militant trade union behaviour reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s? How industrial relations play out in the next few months will be hugely critical for the fortunes of the major political parties and could determine the fate of the next General Election.
For the Conservative Party
Timing and preparedness were all key to the Conservative party successes over trade unions in the 1980s. It was becoming clear to the Thatcher administration that a looming battle was shaping up with the National Union of Miners (NUM) months before the crisis erupted. That gave the Conservative Government the time needed to stock pile coal and to test the loyalty of other mining trade unions to the general dispute.
Compare that to this industrial confrontation and the Government doesn’t seem so well prepared. While it has talked tough on new legislation to introduce agency workers to stand in for strikers none of this has been tested out and lacks essential detail at this stage. Plus it remains to be seen just how much bandwidth & political will the Government has to win this dispute while supporting Ukraine’s defence of it’s nation and still trying to pull the country out of the lasting impacts of the pandemic. And that’s without counting the distorting effect of Brexit on trade. A tall order for any Government let alone one where its current leadership is being questioned. The signs don’t look good for the Government as it hunkers down for a long and damaging dispute.
For the Labour Party
For Labour the risks are all too obvious. Despite the best endeavours of the Labour leadership under Neil Kinnock to avoid being dragged into the Miners’ strike of the 1980s, Labour was damaged badly. And the parallels with this dispute are clear. The RMT Union is a powerful backer of certain Labour MPs; and as this dispute escalates the Labour leadership will inevitably come under greater pressure to become involved, despite the call from Sir Keir this week for his front bench shadow cabinet not to join picket lines with striking rail workers this week
What happens next?
It’s pretty clear the rail dispute isn’t showing any signs of clearing up soon. Both sides are digging in for a long and bitter dispute which will only become more significant as time goes on. The cost to the country will be enormous.
The larger threat, however, is the risk of escalation. Several other unions have indicated they will also ballot members so the strike could end up extending to professions such as nurses, doctors, teachers & criminal barristers from the summer onwards. The scene could therefore be set for a national strike across multiple sectors.
With the cost of living set to rise further as inflation escalates, the pressure of other trade unions to come out on strike only intensifies and with it the prospect of wider and more damaging industrial strife.
The risks for both the Government and Opposition parties in tackling the dispute are huge. One of them will emerge with a better answer and the keys to No10 could eventually follow.
Cavendish Advocacy will continue to monitor closely and advise its clients as the disputes develop over the summer. Sign up here to be kept up to date on the latest insights.